The Patriots have a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Football Outsider's DVOA Playoff Odds Report, and it has us wondering already which teams in the AFC and NFC pose the biggest obstacle to the Pats' Lombardi hopes?
Let's break down who should scare New England the most.
In the AFC it looks like the Patriots will have seen every major playoff threat in the regular season, outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's no secret at this point the teams with the best passing offenses are the ones the Patriots don't want to see, and given the lack of quality in the AFC, it's pretty clear who those teams are.
The Baltimore Ravens squeaked out a win over the Pats in Week 3. It came down to the last questionably good field goal, but the Ravens offense cut through the Pats defense like Swiss cheese for much of the game, with four touchdown drives of over 80 yards.
Every time the Pats and Ravens meet it seems to come down to the last play, so the biggest factor in the rematch could be where it's played, and right now that looks like Baltimore.
The Ravens have a two-game lead on the Pats, but they have a tough second-half schedule facing the Steelers twice, along with the Denver Broncos and New York Giants. The jury is still out on exactly how good the Ravens are after getting throttled by the Texans, 43-13. Regardless, this is not the same defense as it once was, and their uneven performance in Cleveland certainly reinforced how inconsistent they can be.
The Broncos are everyone's favorite team right now, and despite Peyton Manning's wobblers he seems to be improving every week. The Pats were somewhat lucky to escape with a win over the Broncos in Week 5, after Willis McGahee basically handed the victory over with a fourth-quarter fumble.
Which AFC team poses the biggest threat to the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes?
The Pats offense absolutely rolled right over Denver's vaunted defense with their blitzkrieg attack running at maximum efficiency. And that was without Aaron Hernandez.
As with the Ravens, a rematch with the Broncos would likely come down to where it's played. The Pats haven't had great luck in Denver, and we all remember the 2005 playoff loss that started the streak of missing Lombardis.
The Broncos have the easiest remaining schedule of all the contenders (trip to Baltimore the only real tough one), so they will be breathing down New England's neck. Holding off the Broncos could mean the difference between the No. 2 seed and a bye, or the No. 3 seed and a game on Wild Card Weekend with a trip to Denver and Peyton Manning waiting in the wings. No thanks.
The Pats will see the Houston Texans in Week 14 in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football, and you can already imagine the hype surrounding the potential AFC Championship preview.
The Texans have a pretty easy schedule left for them as well, with trips to Chicago, Detroit and New England the only challenging ones, and they're already sitting on a two-game lead. It might be an uphill battle for the Pats to take the top seed in the AFC from them, especially if they can't beat the Texans in December. That game is essentially worth two in the playoff standings.
The good news is that win or lose in December the Pats will get a first look at the Texans, and you have to like Bill Belichick's chances when facing a team for the second time.
Perhaps the AFC team that should scare the Patriots the most is the one they won't see in the regular season. The Steelers dominated the Pats in Pittsburgh in 2011, and the strength of their vertical passing attack would certainly match up well with New England's biggest weakness at the moment.
The results of the Steelers-Ravens wars will have a big impact on who the Pats will play and where. At the moment, though, they must root for the Ravens to lose.
There won't be much margin for error, Denver will be hot on their tails and they'll need to beat the Texans and get help to have any shot at the top seed. For the No. 2 seed it will take consistent football, and they'll need to really play well at home if they want to be playing at home in the playoffs.
If I had to line up who the Pats most want to see:
- Miami Dolphins (by this point the Pats will know the Dolphins inside and out)
- Indianapolis Colts (Andrew Luck in Foxboro in January? Yes please.)
- San Diego Chargers (Philip Rivers still scares me somehow.)
- Houston Texans (home or away)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (Pats can attack that defense with speed, but Mike Wallace vs. Pats D would be scary)
- Baltimore Ravens (they might not be the same defense, but they're still a very good team when they're on)
- Denver Broncos (Peyton Manning is still the second-best quarterback in the AFC, and they're going to be very tough to beat come January)
As for the Super Bowl, the NFC is near impossible to predict; it's pretty amazing how quickly the power shifted from the AFC, and it really started with the Giants defeat of the Patriots in Super Bowl 42.
Let's look at some of the favorites.
The Atlanta Falcons are undefeated, but the physicality of the Pats defense could pose problems for them. However, with Matt Ryan having an MVP year he's not the quarterback I'd like to see go against the Patriots defense no matter what Aqib Talib brings to the table.
A game with the Green Bay Packers would be a track meet that I'm sure the NFL would love to see, with two of their prime franchises squaring off in a game where the over/under would likely be in the 60s.
The San Francisco 49ers are another team the Pats will get a firsthand look at in December, and of all the NFC Super Bowl contenders, they might be the most intriguing of all.
Tom Brady's hometown team.
The best defense against the best offense.
A chance for Belichick to break the Lombardi tie with Bill Walsh, on the field where they won the first one.
Yup, this is the Super Bowl matchup I'm rooting for.
Finally, we have to end it with the Giants. Seeing them in the Super Bowl for the third time in six years would probably be pretty boring for most of the football world, but maybe the third time around New England finally puts the Giants away on their own terms, instead of leaving the door open for Eli to lead a late drive.
No matter the opponent, the Patriots will have to finish games out in a way that has eluded them for large chunks of the last three seasons, especially in the playoffs.
You can say a lot of things about the Patriots of Belichick and Brady, but if they lose a game it's not going to be by much.
So the question is do the 2012 Patriots have that magic to close?
To make the biggest plays on the biggest stages in the biggest moments?
Or will they be another in a string of Patriots teams that had a Lombardi within their grasp and they let it slip away because they couldn't close?
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.