Tough challenges await AFC East champs

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Through all the trials and tribulations of what has been an up-and-down season at times, the New England Patriots are once again AFC East champions, and it wasn't even close.
The Patriots held on for a hard-fought, 23-16, win over Miami to wrap up their fourth consecutive division title. Though the Dolphins put up a pretty good fight Sunday, neither they nor the rest of the division have given the Patriots much resistance this year in the standings.
The Jets have been terrible, the Bills are inconsistent and the Dolphins are, well, the Dolphins, led by a rookie quarterback still getting his feet wet against NFL defenses.
The true test of just how good this New England team can be down the stretch will come in the next few weeks in games against San Francisco and Houston, particularly the Texans, who might wind up as the overall No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The key will be just how well this defense can get it all together by the end of the year. Sunday was encouraging, not just because of the final numbers, but because of the pressure generated despite the absence of Chandler Jones (injury) and Jermaine Cunningham (suspension). This is a positive sign moving forward. The Patriots have learned a lot of about what they have in their reserves and might depend on them even more down the stretch.
The secondary has been a work in progress all year, but a strong pass rush could mask some of those deficiencies. This is the Patriots' most glaring weakness. Offensively, they've got some issues with depth on their offensive line, but the offense still manages to produce regardless. If they can sort out their special teams woes, namely Stephen Gostkowski's sudden inability to make kicks, they've got as good a chance as anyone to represent the AFC in this year's Super Bowl.
As head coach Bill Belichick put it, Sunday was the first step -- the first goal on this journey. What we see from now until the end of the regular season could tell us how many more steps this team is prepared to take.

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