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Jerry Sullivan: As usual, the Patriots are the team to beat

Column as I see 'em, Week 15:

Embattled Bills head coach Rex Ryan had at least one revealing pronoucement after Sunday's 33-13 win over the Browns:

"This just in," Ryan joked. "I'm a huge Patriots fan for the rest of the regular season."

Ryan knew the Patriots needed to beat the Broncos later in the day to keep his faint playoff hopes alive. New England would also have to beat the Dolphins in the season finale, assuming the Bills beat Miami first and got tons of help.

At least Rex can count on the Pats these days. They took care of business, beating the Broncos in Denver, 16-3. The Bills playoff chances are even more remote than they were before the weekend, but at least they're alive.

Sunday's win guaranteed the Pats a first-round playoff bye for the seventh straight season, an NFL record. They're 12-2, giving them at least 12 victories for the seventh year in a row. They're looking to reach a record sixth straight conference title game.

That's amazing. Bill Belichick and Co. are well-positioned to get back to the AFC championship. They have a one-game lead over the Raiders – who clinched their first playoff berth since 2002 Sunday – for the top seed.

The Raiders have games remaining at home against the Colts and on the road at the Broncos, so Rex is rooting for Oakland the rest of the way, too. Considering the schedules, the Pats (who host the Jets this Sunday) have a great shot at being home throughout  the conference playoffs.

As is so often the case, the Pats are peaking late in the year. They have won five in a row since a home loss to Seattle. Tom Brady gets most of the attention, but the New England defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. During the five-game streak, they've allowed 70 points.

Of course, none of those five wins have come against teams with offenses or QBs ranking in the top half of the league. They've beaten Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco and Trevor Siemian. Not exactly the storied quarterback class of 1983.

We'll find out in the playoffs how good the Pats defense really is, and how much they missed departed linebacker Jamie Collins. But if the Pats are at home, they're very tough to beat. It might take an elite QB such as Oakland's Derek Carr or the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger to win in Foxborough.

And to think, some people thought the Pats would struggle to get in with Brady missing the first four games with his DeflateGate suspension. Instead, they went 3-1 without him and have gone 9-1 since his return. They're almost sure to win 13 for the first time in five years.

Brady has been magnificent at age 39, and he rarely loses at home. He has completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,064 yards, with 22 TDs and two interceptions. He's averaging 8.27 yards a pass and has a rating of 109.7, second to Atlanta's Matt Ryan in both departments.

The Broncos held Brady without a TD pass and limited him to 16-for-32 passing and a season-low 188 yards. It was the first time this season he completed under 60 percent. But he didn't turn the ball over and got a win at Mile High, where the Patriots lost twice last season, including the AFC title game.

Cowboys fans would beg to differ, but the Patriots look like the team to beat, Ryan can root for them for two more weeks, then they go back to being the enemy, assuming he's still coaching by then.

* * *

The Pats didn't just beat the Broncos, they left them bickering like a bunch of drunken in-laws at a wedding. According to NFL.com, a shouting match broke out between offensive linemen and defensive backs in the locker room after the loss, forcing coach Gary Kubiak to intervene.

According to the report, cornerback Aqib Talib began yelling at left tackle Russell Okung when Okung tried to address the team. Evidently, it was not the first time those two groups have squabbled after a game.

Denver defensive players are reportedly fed up with the offense for making them play around 80 snaps a game, a high number. New England ran 73 plays on Sunday. Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian threw for 282 yards, but a third of that came in fourth-quarter garbage time.

The Broncos have lost three of four. The only win was at Jacksonville, where the offense had just 10 first downs and the decisive play was an interception return for a touchdown by Bradley Roby.

The tension is understandable. The defending Super Bowl champs are in trouble. They probably need to win their last two against the Chiefs and Raiders and get some help to get back in the playoffs.

If Denver misses, it will be the first time since the 2002 season that neither Super Bowl participant from the previous year made the playoffs the following season.

* * *

As soon as the Jaguars fired coach Gus Bradley on Sunday, speculation began flying that they might turn to Tom Coughlin, who led the Jags for the first eight years of their existence, guiding them to four playoff appearances.

Coughlin later coached the Giants to two Super Bowl wins over the Pats. There has also been talk that Coughlin could be a candidate for the Bills' job if Ryan gets fired. Coughlin reportedly met with the Pegulas, Russ Brandon and Ryan last spring to discuss a consultant's role.

Coughlin, 70, works in the league office. Word is he wants to coach again. If so, the Bills should consider him, despite his age. He won two Super Bowls against their perennial nemeses, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. That alone makes him more qualified than any Buffalo coach since Marv Levy.

But it's all moot until the Bills make their decision on Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley. This makes two teams that have fired head coaches in December, the Jags and Rams. It gave them a head start on the search for their next coach.

* * *

This week's featured fantasy player in "Is He Owned" is Green Bay running back/wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who recently became eligible at running back because of injuries to other Packer backs.

Montgomery, a second-year man from Stanford, carried 16 times for 162 yards and two TDs, including a 61-yarder, in Sunday's 30-27 win at Chicago. He had never rushed 10 times in a game before. Montgomery has 390 yards rushing and 314 receiving on the season.

If you're still alive in the playoffs, grab him if he's out there. I nearly lost my semifinal because Jonah Javad put him in, Luckily, I had Cameron Brate, the only "Is He Owned" guy I claimed this year. Brate had a big game Sunday night and pulled me through.

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