Breaking Down Every Potential Playoff Matchup for the New England Patriots
If you think this year feels familiar for the New England Patriots, you're correct. Think back just two years.
In 2010, the Patriots played nearly the entire AFC playoff field during the regular season, and beat them all. In 2010, the Patriots used the months of November and December to catch fire entering the playoffs.
New England wants there to be one key difference between the two seasons, however. In 2010, the season ended way sooner than it was supposed to.
This year, the Patriots want to win the last game they play.
They're looking like a team that can. When time finally ran out on New England's 42-14 win over Houston, any remaining reason not to call the Patriots the team to beat in the AFC may have gone with it.
Of course, as that 2010 season showed, it only takes one bad game for the whole thing to go up in smoke. As the Patriots showed last year against Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos, the key to going on a long run is by hitting top gear from the opening playoff snap.
But who will it be against? As AFC East champs, this much is known: The Patriots will be in the playoffs, and they'll open at home.
As for the opponent? That's up in the air, and a lot can happen in three weeks.
Here's what to expect from the various opponents the Patriots could open up against.
The Patriots currently control their destiny for a bye, and if they get it, there's a good chance Peyton Manning could come to Foxborough.
The Broncos are on pace for the third seed, and a win in the wild card round in this scenario would put them against the Patriots in the divisional round. If that's the case, New England would have to prepare for a different Denver team than the one that visited Gillette in October.
The Broncos haven't lost since falling 31-21 that Sunday, building their winning streak to eight games. They've found a groove and settled into it, and Peyton Manning is playing as well as any quarterback in the game.
In the event of a rematch, New England would have to replicate the same fast start it managed the first game and in most of the previous run-ins with Manning in Indianapolis. Manning nearly completed a comeback from a 31-7 deficit last time, so that insurance would be vital in January as well.
The Patriots defense, however, has improved as well. Manning wouldn't be up against an in-flux secondary looking desperately for an answer. As New England showed against Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, the presence of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at the corners and Devin McCourty at safety has greatly improved their capabilities against legitimate passing games.
Denver's big task, however, would be shutting down Tom Brady. The Broncos' last three run-ins with No. 12 have resulted in them getting shredded to the tune of quarterback ratings of 104.6 (in October), 137.6 (last January) and 117.3 (last December).
Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will have to devise a wrinkle, because the Patriots have been nearly unbeatable when Brady's been allowed to get comfortable.
The Ravens are the exception in the field of playoff hopefuls, the one team New England played and wasn't able to beat.
A rematch would likely come with a big caveat: The game would be at Gillette.
The roaring crowd at M&T Bank Stadium has been a major asset to the Ravens this year, who are unbeaten at home. Baltimore came close to going through Gillette to the Super Bowl last year, but the odds favor the Patriots far better on their home field.
Since last meeting in September, Baltimore's defense has undergone changes that would hinder its chances against New England. While Ray Lewis is returning, Terrell Suggs is again dealing with an injury and Lardarius Webb's season-ending injury deprives Baltimore of its best corner.
While the Ravens' defensive key will revolve around handling Brady, who was masterful against them in September, the Patriots will have their hands full stopping Ray Rice. Baltimore's star running back burned the Patriots for 101 yards on 20 carries, and carried the Ravens during crucial drives in which they climbed back from a fourth-quarter deficit.
The Patriots will also face a challenge to their rejuvenated secondary, as Torrey Smith torched them for 127 yards and two touchdowns on six catches. The deep pass has faded from Baltimore's arsenal recently, but considering how easily the Ravens carved up New England's secondary before, the Patriots will likely have to come prepared with a solution for Smith.
Stopping the deep pass will force Joe Flacco to win by being methodical, which always provides the Patriots with an advantage. If Rice and Smith are accounted for and the game becomes Flacco vs. Brady, New England's chances of a win look good.
Don't sleep on the chances of Indianapolis and Andrew Luck returning to the house of horrors that slowed down some of the hype surrounding his standout rookie season.
It's been a while since the Colts had a defense that made life difficult for Tom Brady and the Patriots. Brady would likely be on his game, meaning Luck would need to be at his potentially Rookie of the Year best.
We've seen the results if Luck is less than perfect. He threw three picks against New England in the earlier matchup, and the result was a 35-point loss.
If the Colts are going to close the gap, think along the lines of Nov. 4—when Luck was 30-of-48 for 433 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a win over Miami. He'd have to be that, because the Colts can't afford much less.
As good as Luck has looked at times this season, he's hardly demonstrated the care with the football that would be required of a quarterback looking to take down the Patriots. Luck's yardage numbers are through the roof, but he's thrown 18 interceptions against 18 touchdowns.
The way the Patriots are playing, winning the turnover battle is vital, and Luck has shown that interceptions have become part of his game.
He's on the path to stardom, but a win in Foxborough in January would likely demand more from Luck than he's shown he can currently provide.
A Steelers team that gets hot between now and a playoff matchup could be the least desirable matchup for the Patriots.
Defense-first teams are the ones that give New England fits, and the Steelers continue to fit that mold. Pittsburgh's ranked first against the pass and fifth against the run.
The Steelers have also proven themselves capable of the quality quarterback play needed to beat New England. Ben Roethlisberger is a winner in January, and a tough out regardless of opponent. Like Eli Manning, he's not often one to light up the stat sheet, but he makes plays, and he makes them when the stakes are high.
The Steelers aren't high on the radar as a Super Bowl favorite, but part of what robs Pittsburgh of its luster are losses that came with an injured Roethlisberger standing on the sideline. The Steelers are older, but as the stats show, they still play the kind of defense that makes them dangerous.
The Steelers have also taken on a dimension to their offense that suits them better against New England than their old ground-and-pound style did. Weapons like Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders make Pittsburgh a hard team to contain vertically, and they would make the Patriots prove how far along they've come as a defense.
For its statistical prowess, however, Pittsburgh's defense isn't good at forcing mistakes and generating turnovers (it ranks 28th in the league, with 12). That would force Roethlisberger to be careful with the ball against the opportunistic Patriots defense, or else the Steelers would be banking on a bad day at the office from Tom Terrific.
The Bengals' playoff hopes are still alive, as is their chance of venturing to New England for a playoff game.
Cincinnati was one of the hottest teams in the league before a loss to Dallas last weekend slowed their late-season roll. The offense has been balanced, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis (remember him?) is on pace for nearly 1,200 yards on the ground and A.J. Green's been enjoying a fantastic season.
Finding a way to halt the Andy Dalton-to-Green connection would be a defining challenge for the Patriots. The secondary's steadily improved since Aqib Talib came over, but it's rarely been tested the way it would be against the 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green.
The Bengals are a good team, but they're not great, and as a result, they would need help against New England. They don't stack up well, so they'd have to hope Green would be capable of the sort of monster game that could overcome those on-paper differences.
If the offense can get its stride against the Patriots, then the situation gets interesting. A close game would allow Cincinnati to bombard Tom Brady with its top-ranked pass rush, which has been New England's weakness in recent playoff losses.
There is a formula that would help Cincinnati, but the Bengals would need the game to break their way.
If either the Patriots or Texans fall out of position for the bye and this becomes New England's first game, don't expect a repeat of Monday night.
The Texans are far better than they looked yesterday, and it'd be hard to imagine New England getting the game to break the way it did, both due to fortune (like Danny Woodhead's fumble that bounced straight to Brandon Lloyd for a touchdown) and the Patriots' own merit (like the hot start that put the game away quickly).
New England's goal would likely be to repeat what it did a terrific job of yesterday: Getting an early lead and taking Arian Foster out of the game. With Foster's impact nullified by a quick 21-point deficit, the game became a Schaub vs. Brady showdown, and that's a contest the Patriots would opt for every time.
As crazy as it might sound following a 42-14 drubbing, the Texans still pose a serious challenge to the Patriots due to the variety of things they do well. They have a balanced offense, and their defense is still one that could give Brady and his targets fits. On Monday night, the Patriots had the answer. That could change in January.
If a rematch takes place, the Texans will have to do a better job of putting their versatility to use. They'll have to get Foster going and get points on the board quickly. If Foster is removed from the equation, it's hard to imagine the Houston offense looking much different to the unit that stumbled for most of Monday night's ugly loss.
The Texans will also have to account for Gronkowski, who missed yesterday's game. It's no easy task, and it'll mean that Houston will have to throw away its defensive approach from last night.
Not that the Texans needed any incentive to do that.