So the 2011 Patriots ended their most recent regular season romp with an eight-game win streak to cap off a campaign in which they wrapped up the AFC's No. 1 seed and fielded one of the most dynamic offenses in NFL history.
Sound familiar? It should.
The 2010 Patriots ended their season in similar fashion, going on an eight-game tear in which they outscored opponents by an average score of 37-16, beating such contenders as the Jets, Steelers, Packers and Bears, all who appeared in their respective conference championship games.
And yet, despite their late season success their momentum was cut short with a devastating 28-21 loss to their hated rival, the Jets, in Foxborough. As it turned out, home-field advantage and an eight-game winning streak meant nothing going into the playoffs.
The 2011 Patriots are in a similar situation going into the postseason. You could even say that their streak is less impressive, as they've bested only one playoff team (the 8-8 Broncos) and they've beat their mediocre slate of opponents by an average score of 36-20 (still an impressive mark, but considering their opposition, not quite as outstanding as their 2010 streak).
So why do I feel so confident about their chances to reach Super Bowl XLVI, making their first appearance in four years?
Let's take a look at the competition in the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are undoubtedly the two greatest threats to the Patriots' potential AFC bid in the Super Bowl. Both sported 12-4 records this season and play stout and aggressive defense, with Pittsburgh playing particularly stellar defense, ranking first in both points allowed and total yardage allowed.
The Steelers have proven they can beat the Patriots this season at Heinz Field...with a healthy roster, that is. Ben Roethlisberger has not been at full health for weeks and Rashard Mendenhall could be out for the postseason with an alleged torn ACL.
Add that to the fact that, if the Patriots and Steelers did rendezvous in the playoffs, it would be at Gillette Stadium and the Steelers don't seem as indomitable an opponent as they once did.
The Ravens have played lights-out at home, going 8-0 and beating teams by an average score of 27-15. On the other hand, their inconsistent offense has faltered on the road, as the team went just 4-4 on foreign turf and scored just over 19 points per game.
Not coincidentally, quarterback Joe Flacco has not played well on the road, posting just a 78.2 passer rating outside of M&T Bank Stadium, which bodes well for a defense, that, while giving up yardage by the boatload, led the AFC in interceptions with 23.
The Patriots will play either the Broncos, the Steelers or the Bengals in two weeks and they've already proven they can beat the Broncos. Should the Bengals beat the Texans in the Wild Card round (which seems more and more likely considering the Texans' decimated roster and recent losing streak), the Patriots will play and eliminate them in the divisional round.
Assuming (however wrongly, depending on the reader) the Steelers beat a floundering Broncos team, the Steelers will find themselves in a rematch with the Ravens in the divisional round. While those two teams beat each other up in a slugfest of dominant defenses, the Patriots should be sitting pretty, waiting for whomever shows up at their doorstep for the AFC Championship Game.
I've already enumerated above the reasons why I feel the Patriots can beat both the Ravens and the Steelers, and with a fired up crowd at home and the second best passing game statistically in the history of the NFL, they should advance to their first Super Bowl appearance since their infamous 18-1 2007 season.
Patriots fans can only hope.
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