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Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

Tom E. Curran
NBC Sports Boston

John Elway created a stir this week when he said his Broncos, after a 3-1 start, had "gotten a little bit soft." Elway, the Broncos GM, said that after five straight Denver losses – the last two by the combined score of 92-39

Denver's head coach Vance Joseph said Elway's remark bothered him. He talked to his players about it. On Sunday, the Broncos went out and did something about it. They lost by just three at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yay.

They're pretty much all soft in the AFC this year. Check out the AFC West. There's Denver. And the Raiders – who the Patriots handled with disturbing ease on Sunday, 33-8. The 6-4 Kansas City Chiefs, who, after starting the season 5-0, just lost on the road to the one-win Giants.

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The AFC East is soft. Miami was 4-2. It's lost four straight including a 40-0 loss to Baltimore. The Jets were 3-2. They're now 4-6 (which is a minor miracle given how ragged their roster is). The Bills were 5-2. Now they're 5-5, having lost by a combined 101-34 the past two weeks as coach Sean McDermott willingly stuck a butter knife in an electrical outlet and replaced Tyrod Taylor with a not-ready-for-preseason-Week-4 Nathan Peterman.

The AFC South is led by the Jaguars and Titans. Jacksonville -- which can play some defense -- isn't as bad as the rest. The Jags have won four straight and play cutthroat defense, but they had their hands full with the 0-10 Browns on Sunday. During the week, running back Leonard Fournette complained about having to play in the cold in Cleveland. At least he showed up Sunday and ran for 111. The Titans are awful when they leave Tennessee, which was further proven last Thursday when they lost 40-17 at Pittsburgh. Since October began, they've been outscored 122-43 in four road games. Their one road win in that span was a 12-9 decision over Cleveland. 

The big, bad AFC North contingent led by the Steelers at 8-2? Talented. But led by a forever-whining, passive-aggressive quarterback who openly and annually mulls retirement and two "me-first" skill guys in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Their greatest strength may be in executing elaborate post-touchdown skits. Vital.

Meanwhile, here are the boring-ass Patriots. Yeah, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and continuity in the program and coaching staff, but the gap between them and everyone else in the conference is that they don't worry about the cold or the road or the five-act plays after they score.

They stayed a week in Colorado Springs to get ready for the altitude. Two Patriots -- Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola -- had to be treated for dehydration in the second half. After five PLAYS, Raiders rookie Obi Melifonwu was asking out of the game, saying he couldn't breathe.

The Raiders -- a team that went 12-4 last year -- haven't improved a bit defensively all season. They are, under head coach Jack Del Rio, one of those "we do what we do" defenses the Patriots love to face because it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Brady is now 8-1 against Del Rio-led teams/defenses and the numbers against Del Rio's teams are absurd: 225 completions on 310 attempts for (73 percent) for 2,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It just feels like the AFC is a collection of teams, with an overwhelming majority of them in turn-it-on, turn-it-off mode. Their coaches are just kind of casting about, constantly open to suggestion and willing to give anything a shot because, hell, they better try something to get hot or they'll be passing out resumes at the Combine in four months.

The Patriots remaining schedule goes like this: Dolphins, Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Bills, Jets. Shake me awake on December 17 when the Steelers game comes. And we have a mountain of data explaining how that one will go, too.

I'm not weary of the team. It's historic and fascinating, like watching a hooded Mozart compose and a helmeted Van Gogh paint every week. But the exercise of trying to conjure scenarios where the Patriots play November football with the exquisite ineptitude of their opponents is not easy.

They are doing this without Julian Edelman or Dont'a Hightower. They played Sunday without Chris Hogan, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon and Matt Slater.

Offenses can't score against them. Defenses can't stop them. They create points on special teams. They manage the game, the clock and their opponents like simple arithmetic while every other team's doing trigonometry. What was broken in September has been long fixed.

The time will come again when the Patriots appear just as inept, clueless and mired in mediocrity as every other AFC team appears right now. But it won't be this year.

So embrace the softness? I guess?

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