FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots path to the top seed in the AFC seems simple. Just win at home against two teams with losing records and they’ll reach that goal.

It hardly seems like a huge challenge for the highest-scoring team in the conference rolling along with a six-game winning streak. They just have to avoid stumbling the way their three closest contenders for the No. 1 spot did in their last games.

Baltimore, Houston and Pittsburgh all lost. That left them at 10-4. New England, with a 41-23 win at the Denver Broncos last Sunday, moved to 11-3.

The Patriots could smile at their good fortune, especially with the unexpected losses by the Ravens and Texans against underdogs.

“I don’t think we’ve got enough time to smile,” cornerback Devin McCourty said Tuesday. “We see that happen, but I think it really (emphasizes) how important it is for us to keep playing well and to be ready to go on Saturday.”

If they’re not, they could get upset by the Miami Dolphins and drop back into a tie for the top seed. After facing the Dolphins, the Patriots wind up the regular season on New Year’s Day against the Buffalo Bills. Both are currently 5-9.

When the Patriots returned to the locker room after the victory in Denver, AFC East championship hats and T-shirts were waiting in their lockers. None were in evidence in their home locker room on Tuesday.

“We were definitely happy that we won that game and had won the division,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said, “but we’ve got two more games that are going to help set us up for the playoffs, so we’ve got to continue to play hard and fight these last two games.”

Finishing with the top seed would give the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But if they lose to Miami and Pittsburgh beats St. Louis on Saturday, the Steelers would edge ahead because they beat the Patriots this season.

“It’s a good thing to be able to control that with these last two games,” Ninkovich said. “We just need to continue to play well and win out and we’ll be in a good position.”

The Patriots’ defense has played poorly, giving up the most yards in the NFL nearly the entire season. And now it must carry on without one of its best players, defensive end Andre Carter, the team leader with 10 sacks and a strong locker room presence.

His season ended Tuesday when the team put him on injured reserve with a left quadriceps injury sustained late in the first quarter at Denver. His absence could cause the Patriots to use more of a 3-4 alignment rather than the 4-3 they switched to this season as their primary setup.

“It’s tough for him and it’s tough for the team,” McCourty said. “He works incredibly hard and he’s been having a great season so to lose a guy like that I think we just have to come together as a group. Guys will step up and we have to be able to play through it.”

That might put more of a burden on the secondary to play better without Carter harassing the passer.

“Even if he was in there, I would still say we have to step up and make more plays and be better out there,” McCourty said. “I think that goes for the whole group as a secondary.”

Carter’s absence should mean more playing time for defensive end Mark Anderson, a pass rushing specialist. He’s started just one game but is second on the team with nine sacks.

“I’m going to do my best to step up and do whatever I’ve got to do to help the team out,” Anderson said, “but he’s a big part of the team and we’re going to miss him.”

The Patriots, though, have overcome injuries on defense this season. Starters Patrick Chung at safety and Brandon Spikes at linebacker were sidelined the last six games and the Patriots won all of them.

Now they’ll try to do it against the Dolphins.

“Whatever 11 guys we put out there will have to get the job done,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Whatever (offensive packages) they put out there we have to be ready to defend them.”

 

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