NEW YORK (AP) Going into the playoffs, the New England Patriots are once again a strong favorite to reach the Super Bowl.
The Patriots finished the regular season with an NFL-best 14-2 record. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and will start their drive for their seventh Super Bowl appearance in Foxborough on Jan. 14.
The Patriots also finished the season as the unanimous choice for the top spot in the final AP Pro32 poll of the season, released Tuesday.
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New England received all 12 first-place votes for 384 points from balloting by media members who regularly cover the NFL.
”The 14-2 Patriots own home-field advantage in the AFC,” said Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News. ”But does it really matter? New England was the only NFL team to go 8-0 on the road this season.”
Dallas and Kansas City remained at No. 2 and 3, respectively. Dallas has the top seed in the NFC.
”And now for the hard part. After a brilliant regular-season performance earns the Cowboys the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, they try and become the first team to win a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback,” Newsday’s Bob Glauber said.
”But Dak Prescott doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the moment, and wunderkind running back Ezekiel Elliott looks ready to build on a spectacular regular-season performance.”
The Chiefs wrapped up the AFC West title and a first-round bye.
”What the Chiefs have done in four seasons under Andy Reid and John Dorsey should serve as a model for teams starting the rebuild process this offseason,” said Jenny Vrentas of The Monday Morning Quarterback. ”Reid trusted Dorsey to build a deep roster; Dorsey trusted Reid to coach and develop their players. The result was steady forward progress and sweeping the toughest division in football.”
NFC South champion Atlanta and AFC North winner Pittsburgh both inched up, to No. 4 and 5, respectively.
”No one is talking about Matt Ryan or the Atlanta Falcons,” said Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. ”Something tells me that’s just the way they like it.”
The Giants and Packers, who will meet on Sunday afternoon in Lambeau Field, tied for No. 6.
”Very hot right now, but banged-up on defense,” NBC’s Tony Dungy said of the Packers. ”If they can handle the Giants, I could see them winning in Dallas.”
NFC West champ Seattle was No. 8 and hosts Detroit on Saturday night.
”Should have an easy time with Lions,” Fox Sports’ John Czarnecki said of the Seahawks.
The Raiders dropped five spots to No. 9 and may have to use Connor Cook at quarterback in their wild-card game against the Texans on Saturday.
Miami remained at No. 10 as the Dolphins go to Heinz Field and face the Steelers on Sunday.
Denver, which missed the playoffs and needs a coach after Gary Kubiak resigned for health reasons, finished No. 13.
”Went from 7-3 on their bye week to 9-7 and out of the playoffs,” ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold said. ”They lost an eight-point lead with three minutes to play in Denver against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12 and weren’t the same since.
”Now Gary Kubiak has retired and they enter the offseason with huge questions in the offensive line and in need of a head coach.”
Carolina, the Broncos’ opponent in Super Bowl 50, finished No. 24.
”Cam Newton and the shell-shocked Panthers looked like they never recovered from that Super Bowl loss to Denver,” said Ira Kaufman of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Cincinnati, which won the AFC North last season, failed to qualify for the first time in six seasons and was at No. 25. And the Bengals’ division rival, the Browns, were 1-15 and last in the poll.
But the Browns finished first for the NFL draft, where they will have the No. 1 overall pick in the spring.
”Have enough draft picks and cap space to acquire some talented young players,” Dungy said. ”But if they don’t find a QB it won’t help.”
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