The New England Patriots are the number one seed in the AFC.
Crazy, I know, especially considering the way this defense played all year. But that is the beauty of the new NFL for Pats fans—this defense can be historically bad, yet with Tom Brady manning the controls, the offensive firepower is enough to net this team 13 wins.
And don't let there be any doubt, this is a new NFL. An NFL where New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Brady both broke Dan Marino's legendary passing yardage record, and where an oft-injured, 23-year old Detroit Lions quarterback named Matthew Stafford can come just 47 yards shy of tying the record.
The NFL has been a passing league for a few years now, with big-name quarterbacks being a team's only chance at a Super Bowl title. But in 2011, it became official. If you don't have an elite quarterback you aren't winning a Super Bowl, plain and simple.
Luckily for Patriots fans, they have Brady.
In Baltimore, quarterback Joe Flacco has regressed tremendously and is looking like the Ravens' Achilles heel right now. In 2000, with Trent Dilfer, having a horrible quarterback did nothing to stop the Ravens from plowing through the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl.
Nowadays? I just don't see it happening. Unless Ed Reed and Ray Lewis turn back the clock the defense and running game are just not enough to get this team a championship. Flacco will need the turnovers to disappear for Baltimore to have a shot.
In Pittsburgh, there are a plethora of issues. First and foremost, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger described his ankle as a "five" on a scale of 1-10. That doesn't sound good, especially considering the trip to Denver this weekend to face the Broncos with rookie sensation Von Miller and sack specialist Elvis Dumervil licking their chops in anticipation.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is out for the playoffs with a torn ligament in his right knee, which thrusts Isaac Redman into the spotlight and further puts pressure on Big Ben to produce.
While the Pittsburgh defense is certainly capable of changing games, asking them to win three of them, all on the road, is a little much. Unless the offense, which has mustered only 14.25 points per game over the last month, is up to the task.
With a healthy Roethlisberger, I would say "to hell with the numbers, all this guy does is win." However, Roethlisberger on a bum ankle has been pretty painful to watch recently. He isn't as elusive as usual—probably his biggest strength—and his inability to plant has affected his deep-throw accuracy to the point that Mike Wallace, who gathered catches of 40+ yards in six of the team's first seven games, has only one 40+ yard catch since then. Some will argue that Wallace's lack of big plays is a direct affect of Antonio Brown's emergence, and they will be right. However, unlike Wallace, Brown is absolutely not a touchdown threat, with only two career receiving touchdowns.
That leaves Brady and the Pats.
The "defense" played in Foxborough was pathetic this season. With players like Matthew Slater, Niko Koutouvides, and Sergio Brown receiving significant playing time, opposing quarterbacks enjoyed an open receiver every time they went back to pass.
With the historic sophomore slump of Devin McCourty and the injuries to Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Andre Carter, Ras-I Dowling and Dane Fletcher, quarterbacks and running backs alike feasted on the pu-pu platter head coach Bill Belichick put on the field every Sunday.
The returns of Spikes, Chung and Fletcher have been helpful, but they have by no means solved all the problems on their side of the football.
I expect teams to be able to throw the ball down the field almost at will against this defense in the playoffs. The question remains, will they be able to turn those long drives into touchdowns?
With Tom Brady orchestrating the New England offensive attack they better hope they are scoring touchdowns or they won't stand a chance. Brady has been his usual prolific self, throwing for a career high in yards (5,235), while quietly adding a career high with three rushing touchdowns this season.
Everyone knows about the impossible-to-defend trio of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Their dominance should continue in the playoffs.
Normally, I would expect scoring to be down in the playoffs, as that is usually the accepted theory. However, with Brees, Brady and the new quarterback rating record holder Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs, are the points really going to disappear?
In what I imagine will be one of the highest scoring postseasons in NFL history, I like New England's chances with by far the best quarterback in the AFC.
The defense will have to force a few turnovers and Brady will need to be perfect, but that has been the Patriots' formula all season long. And with the number one seed in the AFC to show for it, I think it has been pretty successful.
In the new NFL, where quarterbacks rule and quality defensive backs are few and far between, Tom Brady should be able to maneuver the Pats through the Divisional and Conference Championship games into the Super Bowl.
With an ineffective Joe Flacco and a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger the only legitimate threats to New England's Super Bowl aspirations, Pats fans should take a moment and recognize how lucky they are to have a surefire Hall-of-Famer like Brady leading their team in the playoffs.
Given their sizable advantage in the quarterbacking department, the Patriots are looking like the best bet to come out of the AFC.
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