The New England Patriots have done it right so far. Here they are, it's Week 17 and, with only one more win, they'll have the top playoff seed in the AFC wrapped up.
Easiest path to the Super Bowl, right?
Well, by itself, yes. It's hard to dispute the perks of playing every playoff game in either Foxborough, Mass. or Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. But this is 2011, and considering the field, that question isn't the slam dunk it normally is.
Maybe the top seed, while the most convenient option, isn't the easiest.
The easiest playoff route is the one that doesn't equal a first game against either of the AFC North's top teams. For the Patriots to get off the one-and-done slide, they'd have their best chance if they don't come off the bye week and draw either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens off the bat.
The final week of the season will determine whether the Ravens hang onto the AFC North title or whether the Steelers usurp them at the finish. Whichever team isn't the division champion becomes a fifth seed and gets thrown into a wild-card mix that will include Houston and whichever teams emerge from a group including Denver, Oakland, Cincinnati, Tennessee or the New York Jets.
Patriots fans have a right to be confident against any of those teams. The Ravens and Steelers are a different story.
Pittsburgh looked far more complete than the Patriots did in a not-that-close 25-17 Steeler victory on Halloween. Granted, that was a long time ago, but it's hard to shake those images when thinking of another game against Pittsburgh. As for Baltimore, the Ravens have the type of menacing defense and physical ground game that could turn a matchup into the kind of slugfest the Patriots hate.
Assuming the status quo remains, Pittsburgh will draw the AFC West champion, which would either be a stumbling Broncos team or an unintimidating Raiders squad. Either way, if Ben Roethlisberger's ankle is better by then, it would be surprising if the Steelers didn't come out on top in that game. After all, one measly game separates Pittsburgh from the top seed and the best shot at representing the AFC against Green Bay—I mean, the NFC champion—in Super Bowl XLVI.
And that's where it gets interesting.
A Pittsburgh win would be a victory for the fifth seed, meaning that the prize for winning the top position in the AFC would be the conference's toughest second-round matchup. Avoiding it would require a victory by either the Raiders, Titans, Bengals or Jets over Houston. The Texans are cold right now, but planning on a sixth seed beating a third seed is a losing strategy more often than not.
Getting the second seed might be the best route to avoid Pittsburgh. The Patriots would get the Texans if Houston took care of business as the third seed, and New England fans should feel confident about the chances of winning a Tom Brady vs. T.J. Yates track meet.
Whether it's Pittsburgh or Baltimore, the fifth seed will be the bad one to draw. That could be the outcome of the first seed, but of course, getting the top seed just makes the road after the divisional round as easy as possible.
But that's weeks away, and with the Patriots looking for their first postseason win since January 2008, the objective of focusing on one game at a time has never been more accurate.
The Patriots are hoping to have plenty of postseason games to play, but it starts with the first one. Even from the No. 1 seed, the Patriots could be tested early.