Watch out, AFC: Patriots are getting healthy for stretch run

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24017/" data-ylk="slk:Rob Gronkowski">Rob Gronkowski</a> is one of several <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/nwe" data-ylk="slk:Patriots">Patriots</a> returning to action for the playoff run, which should strike fear into their AFC counterparts. (Getty)
Rob Gronkowski is one of several Patriots returning to action for the playoff run, which should strike fear into their AFC counterparts. (Getty)

It’s that time of the season where fans and pundits wonder if the historic run of the New England Patriots is coming to an end.

The Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints are largely believed to be on an elite level of their own with the Patriots in the next class of NFL contenders.

It becomes an easy narrative to write New England off in the wake of the video game-esque numbers the top tier of teams is posting.

But the Patriots have been written off before. Eight Super Bowl appearances and five championships in, they’ve continued to prove that doing so is folly.

Tom Brady’s stable of weapons getting stronger

And now things are falling into place for the Patriots for the stretch run of the season, with key players getting healthy and playoff positioning lining up in their favor.

Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup Sunday after sitting since Week 8 to nurse various ailments.

Josh Gordon has steadily become a regular part of the offense since arriving via trade from the Browns early in the season. And he’s not making the headlines off the field that were a regular part of his tenure in Cleveland.

The Patriots have a true workhorse back in <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/31001/" data-ylk="slk:Sony Michel">Sony Michel</a>, a rarity in a Bill Belichick offense. (Getty)
The Patriots have a true workhorse back in Sony Michel, a rarity in a Bill Belichick offense. (Getty)

Sony Michel has bounced back from a midseason knee injury to look every bit the difference-making running back the Patriots used a first-round pick to acquire in April’s draft. He tallied 133 yards and a touchdown on the ground in Sunday’s win over the New York Jets and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry as New England’s workhorse back.

Rex Burkhead the latest to return from injury

The Patriots got more good news Monday when they activated running back Rex Burkhead, who has been on injured reserve since suffering a neck injury in Week 3.

Add the versatile Burkhead to a backfield that already includes Michel and pass-catching specialist James White, and Tom Brady’s stable of weapons is as strong as it’s been since he and Randy Moss set box scores on fire in 2007.

Patriots in position for first-round bye

With the Pittsburgh Steelers turning the ball over four times in Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos, the 8-3 Patriots are now positioned for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, which would earn a coveted first-round bye and home game in the divisional round.

As for the team lined up for the top seed? That would be the aforementioned Chiefs, who trail only the Saints with a whopping 36.7 points per game. The Patriots have the league’s seventh-highest scoring attack with 27.9 points per game, a big number, but one that looks paltry compared to the high-octane numbers of the league’s best offenses.

Chiefs-Patriots showdown looming?

But New England showed it could keep up when it counts in a 43-40 win against the Chiefs in Week 6.

The Patriots have a tough matchup coming up against the Minnesota Vikings and a critical Week 15 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which will provide a gauge of where New England stands heading into the playoffs. The remainder of their schedule is a second run through their lowly AFC East counterparts.

If they hold onto their No. 2 seed and end up with a matchup against the Chiefs in the AFC championship, then we may truly see if it’s time for a changing of the guard in the NFL.

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