Thankfully the regular season is over and now we get the drama of the NFL playoffs where the remaining twelve teams are in a win or go home situation. Last year’s champions, the New York Giants did not even make the playoffs after their “let’s hope we catch fire at the right time” strategy failed to ignite. Meanwhile last season’s Super Bowl losers, the New England Patriots find themselves in a great position to make another run at the Lombardi trophy.
After a 12-4 regular season, the Patriots earned the second seed in the AFC which includes an all-important first round bye.
Why is a bye important for the Pats? Well consider this, in the Belichick era he has guided the Patriots to the playoffs ten times including 2012. In those years, his team has finished as a top two seed six times (before 2012) and has gone to the Super Bowl in five of those years, winning three. Their record when they have finished as the three or four seed? Lost in the divisional round at Denver in 2005, lost the AFC Championship in 2006 and lost in the wild card round in 2009; or in short, no Super Bowl trips in three years. While this team is one of the best in the league, asking it to play an AFC North team at home before travelling for consecutive weeks just to make the Super Bowl would have been too draining on what is still a predominantly young team. Having that extra week of rest is imperative if the Patriots want to make a Super Bowl run this season and make amends for last year’s loss.
New England’s first playoff action will come at 4:30pm on Sunday January 13 against Houston, Baltimore or Indianapolis. Assuming that all goes to plan, they will in all likelihood have to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship (barring an upset from the Ravens, Colts or Bengals). Each potential opponent presents a unique issue for the Patriots to deal with and no win is certain in this field. Let’s start with the most likely opponent which is the Houston Texans, a team whose downward spiral was started on a Monday night in Foxborough in week 14 when the Patriots destroyed them 42-14. As many Patriots fans can attest to, when teams face off for a playoff rematch, the regular season result counts for nothing. J.J Watt will still present a matchup nightmare for the Patriots offensive line, Arian Foster can still pound the defensive line and Andre Johnson is a threat to go for a long touchdown every time he runs a route. If you were to handicap that game, the Patriots would still be slight favourites given the way their first game played out and should do enough to get by, just not by the four touchdowns they did last time.
If Cincinnati is able to spring a major upset in the first playoff game of the weekend, then New England will get the winner of Sunday’s Baltimore-Indianapolis game. In week three the Ravens beat the Patriots 33-31 in primetime in what can only be described as a debacle of the games due to the replacement referees throwing flags on coaches for having something coming out of their nose. Baltimore has to be one of the few teams that has the confidence to travel to New England and think they have a better than average chance of winning, something not many teams have managed around the turn of the year. What works in the Patriots favour is the fact the strength of their team, the defense is depleted with injury and the team has been in a tailspin the last few weeks. Meanwhile, the Colts seem to just have something special behind them with the Chuck Pagano factor. Of course the Colts made the playoffs largely on the back of a 7-1 record at home and a good enough 4-4 road. One of those losses came in week 12 against the Patriots where they got hammered 59-24. Much like the Texans, you would have to give the Patriots an advantage in that matchup and assume they have a better than average chance to advance against to the conference title game.
In all likelihood, if New England is to go to the Super Bowl, they will have to go to Denver and beat Peyton Manning. After a 2-3 start, the Broncos are now riding an eleven game winning streak and boast a player who will at worst be co-MVP of the league in his comeback year. Despite his slow start Manning is now back to the top of his game and a threat to any defense, especially one as susceptible to the big play as the Patriots. Their pass rush strength is on the outside which is a place the Patriots are more than capable to deal with but with their young tackles they are susceptible to a bad game and it would not be out of the question for them to have a poor game on the road. In the last few games against the Broncos defense, the Patriots offense has had no problems moving the ball and creating enough points to get by. While Denver will no doubt be favoured in this game, you would have to think that it would be one hell of a game that could go either way.
Overall, while they are not the presumptive favourites, you would have to think that compared to any other team in the AFC, New England has as good of a chance as anyone else to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. With history on their side after securing that vital first round bye, then they are only two games away from getting back to the big game and as the team and their fans are hoping, they will go one win better than the last two trips there. After all, it’s on the same date and in the same place as their first Super Bowl triumph eleven seasons ago, so why the hell not?