It feels pretty strange to recite that fact. In each of the previous three seasons, the Jets had advanced as far as or further than the Patriots in their hunt for the Super Bowl. In 2008, the Jets lost a critical Week 17 matchup that allowed Miami to slide into the playoffs ahead of New England via tiebreaker. In the 2011 playoffs, New York went head-to-head with the Patriots and sent them packing early once again.
As bad as they can be at times, the Jets have seemed like New England's biggest pest when it comes to earning a February football game once again.
With those Jets failing to figure into this season's playoff picture, the Patriots find themselves atop the AFC once again with a dashingly better outlook moving forward.
Before we dive into how awesome the seeding could be for Patriots fans, let's address the worst case scenario. If the cards fall a certain way, New England may have to go through the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round before taking on the vaunted Baltimore Ravens in the conference championship. The Steelers would be coming off a win against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in that case, while the Ravens would be fresh off a victory against T.J. Yates and the Houston Texans.
Needless to say, that isn't the most favorable scenario that could play out. The truly favorable scenario? Well, let's just say the Patriots and Bengals fans are rising together as one unified force this weekend.
All it takes is a Cincinnati Bengals victory over the banged up Houston Texans this weekend in the Wild Card round of the AFC playoffs. If rookie quarterback Andy Dalton can lead his franchise to its first postseason victory in 21 years, the Patriots will almost assuredly be lined up for the easiest road to the Super Bowl of any team in the playoffs.
A Bengals win, first and foremost, would guarantee that Cincy will be the first team to travel to Gillette Stadium to battle the Patriots. The No. 1 seed and the No. 6 seed doing battle in Foxboro. Most Pats fans will take that over the alternative—welcoming either the Steelers or the Broncos to town.
While anything can happen in the NFL on any given Sunday, a Patriots-Bengals matchup is not the scariest thing we've seen. Most can predict with relative confidence that New England can hold off a Bengals team—albeit a team with a bright future—that doesn't have the body of work just yet.
So the Patriots win that one and they move to the conference championship. In that game—given that the Texans were eliminated by the Bengals—New England could face three different opponents. Baltimore, Denver and Pittsburgh would be the three potential suitors to be the last team in the visitors' locker room at Gillette this season.
In the other divisional game, it will be the Ravens against the winner of the Steelers and Broncos—once again, predicated on the Bengals beating Houston. I've never been shy about my lack of confidence in Tim Tebow, so my initial reaction is that the Steelers win this game easily.
Nonetheless, both teams have very physical defenses and a run-first mentality. They will try to pound the ball down their opponents' throats and tire out the defensive front. When you face either of these teams, you wake up with a pretty sore body the next morning.
Baltimore is that same type of team. Whether it is the Ravens and the Steelers or the Ravens and the Broncos, that divisional round matchup will be another tough, rugged, grinding affair. The two teams—especially in the case of the Ravens and Steelers—will beat each other up for sixty minutes, shedding blood, sweat and tears until the final whistle is blown.
Whatever is left from that blood bath will board a plane destined for Massachusetts a few days later in an effort to halt the AFC's most high-powered offense, an offense that anchors arguably the most consistent football team of the past 12 years.
Maybe "easiest" isn't the right word, because nothing in the NFL is easy. But among the possible paths that any of the teams in the playoffs could face, the Patriots seem to own the best potential scenario for getting to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
In the NFC, any team who wishes to play in February will need to go through the Packers and the Saints, the two clear front-runners. Still, with hard-nosed defensive teams with big strong fronts in the mix—say, the Giants and the Niners—there are no easy games to be had.
The Patriots have their share of issues. Their defense will need to step up in the critical moments for the next month. If they draw the worst possible outcome, they will need to rise to the occasion against both Pittsburgh and Baltimore to get to where they want to be.
Can they do it? Absolutely. Bill Belichick will make sure his team is ready to face any opponent, and he will make sure they take nobody lightly.
Points like this one are irrelevant inside the locker room. But for Patriots fans, you guys can sleep a little easier at night knowing that your boys have a favorable chance to get back where they belong.
Be sure to follow Derek Robinson on Twitter. @DRobMachine