By: Bob George/
December 07, 2008

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SEATTLE -- The best way to the playoffs for the Patriots picked up a little steam on Sunday.

In what is becoming something like what the 1967 Red Sox went through, three of the four AFC East teams are tied with 8-5 records following play on Sunday afternoon. The Dolphins defeated the now hapless Buffalo Bills on the road, 16-3, and the Jets suffered a mystifying 24-14 loss at San Francisco. The Patriots managed, albeit barely, to join the lead in the division with a late rally at Qwest Field in Seattle and a 24-21 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

The Jets still lead the division based on a better division record (3-1) than the Patriots and the Dolphins (3-2). The Patriots lead the Dolphins because of a better record in common games. That said, if the Patriots can win their last three games (at Oakland, Arizona, at Buffalo) and the Jets manage one more loss, preferably against Buffalo but more likely against Miami, the Patriots could sneak in as division champs and secure perhaps the three seed. If Denver wins the AFC East, the Patriots would win a tiebreaker with the Broncos (Denver is currently also 8-5).

The Patriots struggled with the 2-11 Seahawks in their first visit to Qwest Field, and their first visit to this city since Drew Bledsoe's rookie season. They earned their first win in this city since 1985 thanks to a fourth quarter drive which culminated in a one-yard dive by Sammy Morris to give the Patriots their first lead of the game. They sealed the win with a strip sack of reserve quarterback Seneca Wallace by Brandon Meriweather, and a fumble recovery by Richard Seymour.

This game was about beautiful poetic irony. Deion Branch, the former Patriot and still the second most prolific receiver in Super Bowl history, torched the Patriots for 88 receiving yards on four catches, two of them for touchdowns and one of them a 63-yard lollapalooza which set up the final Seahawk touchdown. The draft pick the Patriots received from Seattle became Meriweather, and Meriweather was the one who made the game-ending strip sack of Wallace. Branch won the battles, but the Patriots won the war, the most important consequence of this game.

The Patriots, beginning their second two-week west coast jaunt this season, looked mostly listless and tired, seemingly still shell-shocked from the second half of the Steeler game last week. Adding insult to injury, no pun intended, was the fact that more key Patriots went down with injuries. Tedy Bruschi suffered a thigh contusion thanks to a hit from one of his own men, Mike Richardson. Vince Wilfork also went down with an injury, and Le Kevin Smith was there in the end to try and stifle any last Seattle comeback attempts.

Bill Belichick, who should be a shoo-in for Coach of the Year given all the adversity he has faced as head coach this year, again managed to stabilize the team and come up with just enough to catch the Seahawks in the end. Granted, this approach might not work if the Patriots have to play a road Divisional playoff game, but for now, Belichick is perhaps experiencing his best coaching job in his distinguished career.

Matt Cassel played a fairly good game, misfiring on some throws but not losing the game on bad throws. He finished 26 of 44 passing with one touchdown pass and 268 total yards passing. His rating was 84.3. With Randy Moss still not himself thanks to blanket coverage by Marcus Trufant, Wes Welker continues his ascent to superstardom with 12 receptions for 134 yards, and has become Cassel's safety blanket.

Welker's performance was particularly satisfying on two counts. First, few Patriot fans can forget the jarring hit he took last week against Pittsburgh which knocked him out of the game. Welker came back this week by attending all practices and having an exemplary game on Sunday, keying the Patriot offense to victory. Second, anyone who still pines for Branch saw firsthand why Branch became expendable and not a candidate to be overpaid by the Patriots. With Moss and Welker in there, the Patriots almost don't need Branch. This is not to be dismissive of the great work done by Branch and David Givens (whose NFL career might be over, a fact brought out in a stunning Globe article last week). But the Patriots moved on when both receivers wanted to break the bank, and if Meriweather can someday become all the Patriots want him to be instead of only on occasion, the loss of Branch will be further minimized.

The Patriot defense still causes the most concern for Patriot Nation. Seeing players like Smith, Mike Wright, Junior Seau, Rosevelt Colvin, Jonathan Willhite, Richardson and Louis Sanders in there for so many critical plays in this game is hardly comforting if you are expecting another January Super Bowl march. Bruschi's season may be over thanks to the football equivalent of friendly fire. Wallace was able to find receivers for the most part with little trouble (John Carlson, a rookie tight end from Notre Dame, had eight catches for 69 yards and the only touchdown not scored by Branch). Wallace was sacked only once, the game-ending fumble.

In the end, the ineptness of Seattle came through and was decisive, but the Seahawks hung around way too long in this game. The Patriots could have and should have blown this team, who was last seen getting destroyed at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, out of the stadium and into neighboring Safeco Field. But the Patriots, who in addition to being undermanned seemed tired from the long travel and still sore from last week, barely managed to escape with the win. With a better team on the other side of the ball, the Patriots are more likely to see results like last week unless the defense can somehow rally around Dean Pees and nail down their fundamentals and cover receivers tighter and more efficiently.

The Patriots will remain on the west coast, staying in San Jose and playing at Oakland next weekend. Seattle is bad, but Oakland is forlorn and having an absolutely horrid season. Still, Oakland remains a tough venue for the Patriots, and the fans who still remember the Snow Bowl will try and uplift this awful Raider team. On their last two week west coast trip, the Patriots won the first game (San Francisco) and lost the second (San Diego). Too bad the Patriots didn't get the Chargers of right now versus back then.

A win is a win, and the Patriots will take it. They'll stop off at a Starbucks for a chocolate chip frappuccino and some coffee cake, then hop a plane to the Bay Area.

And Pees will hope that JaMarcus Russell doesn't suddenly figure out the NFL next weekend.