Yes, the New England Patriots manhandled the conference rival Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. Yes, they held the league's best defensive lineman in J.J. Watt without a sack or batted pass. And yes, the Pats shredded the AFC's best run defense to the tune of 130 yards en route to a 42-14 drubbing.
But while all those developments were wildly encouraging—and indicate that the Pats belong atop the short list of Super Bowl favorites—expect New England's journey to the Big Easy to be anything but.
The Patriots are a great team—perhaps the best in the league. But in today's NFL, there are always a number of viable threats in the playoffs, and beyond the division, nothing is guaranteed for New England just yet.
The Pats are still looking up at the Texans in the AFC standings, with the Broncos and Ravens breathing down their neck. Once they get in the dance, New England may have to deal with tough defensive matchups against the tenacious Pittsburgh Steelers (the NFL's top-ranked defense) or Cincinnati Bengals (NFL-best 42 team sacks).
Let's take a look at a few defensive studs that may keep Pats OC Josh McDaniels up late at night during the Pats' 2012-13 playoff run.
As an aside, I'm choosing not to break down J.J. Watt; if you're a Pats fan you read quite enough about the Texans' rusher leading up to last week's game.
Also, keep in mind that this isn't an exhaustive list; if you're mad at me for leaving out LaMarr Woodley, Connor Barwin, Kenan Lewis or whoever else, let me know in the comments section below.
LB Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver Broncos
The speed of the Broncos' star pass-rushers, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, causes matchup problems for the Pats' exterior lineman. Miller and Dumervil (24 combined sacks this season) were responsible for two-and-a-half of the Broncos' four sacks against the Pats in their Week 5 meeting.
The only sack not credited to either player in that game came as the direct result of a Dumervil speed rush. So, yes, these two players are pretty tough on New England.
Here's a look at this tough matchup.
This would be the other sack, this one registered by DE Derek Wolfe. The Pats line up in four WR empty backfield, and the Broncos counter with a 4-3. Wolfe (green circle) runs a stunt into the A-gap, engaging the center. But it's Dumervil (red circle) who ruins the play for the Pats, speed rushing to the outside on LT Nate Solder (yellow circle).
Dumervil beats Solder to the outside quickly—the Pats' receivers are hardly five yards downfield and already Brady feels the incoming pressure.
Brady, always a master at maneuvering the pocket, senses the blind-side pressure and steps up. That clears Dumervil and allows Solder to reestablish leverage on him, buying Brady more time.
The problem? The Broncos' interior rushers, who had been reasonably held in check by the Pats' line on the play, is suddenly in position to take a shot at Brady once he steps up in the pocket. You can see Wolfe freeing his right arm from his blocker to take Brady down.
Brady ducks, but it's too late—Wolfe wraps him up and brings him down.
Wolfe should thank Dumervil for forcing Brady to step up on that play, allowing the defensive line to make a play on the QB.
Let's take a look at the very next play.
It's now third and 16. The Pats line up in 11 personnel (one tight end, one RB) with three WR. The Broncos drop seven and rush four at the QB. The big matchup on this play is Miller (yellow circle) against RT Sebastian Vollmer (red circle).
Once again, the interior line has their assignments under wraps, but the speed of a Broncos' edge-rusher breaks the play down.
Miller keeps his pad level very low and scoots around Vollmer (who, by virtue of being 6'7", has a much higher pad level), easily turning the corner for a shot at Brady.
Miller wraps up Brady from behind and brings him down for the sack.
Exterior pressure isn't as bothersome to the Pats offense as pressure up the middle—after all, it put up 31 points against the Broncos' defense in Week 5. Still, a few big plays from Miller and Dumervil could swing the outcome of a Pats-Broncos playoff matchup.
If New England and Denver do indeed meet again this season, the Pats will need to chip one or both of the Broncos' rushers, and use their pursuit against them by utilizing misdirection and play action.
DT Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Atkins is the leading sack-getter on the team leading the NFL in sacks, an amazing accomplishment given that he's a defensive tackle. He's the first DT to rack up 10.5 sacks since Rod Coleman did it for the Falcons in 2004, and he's done it with three games remaining.
He's no slouch against the run, either—in fact, ProFootballFocus has him graded as the NFL's best DT at both rushing the passer and stuffing the run (subscription only).
Atkins (orange circle) lines up across from Cowboys guard Nate Livings (green circle). Beware if you have an irrational fear of defensive lineman—this is an absolute mauling.
At the snap, Atkins and Livings engage. Livings actually has a lower pad level at this point—Atkins is almost straight up and down. It's Atkins' pure strength that allows him to change that—he simply shoves Livings back and then lowers his pad level.
So it begins. Atkins resets, gets low and leverages his man. Livings is already stumbling out of his pass set, with his outside hip opening up like a turnstile. This won't go on Livings' highlight reel—but it might end up on Atkins'.
Atkins has his man beat, and Romo knows it. He takes off toward the right sideline in desperation to avoid the rush. Atkins is held illegally by Livings, who is restraining the DT with his left arm, but still demonstrates a great motor to free himself and pursue Romo to the sideline.
Atkins chases Romo down for the sack. Oh, and see the nifty yellow kerchief in the bottom right corner? That's a flag on Livings for holding. Call it the NFL's version of an "And-1."
Atkins is the kind of disruptive interior rusher that could cause the Pats problems in the playoffs. I don't need screenshots to demonstrate what interior pressure did to the Patriots in their last two Super Bowls.
S Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens
Well, my elevating Ed Reed to "tough matchup" status probably won't make any breaking news tickers. Brady often struggles with Reed, who still has good range and ball-hawking instincts even at 34.
Let's look at Ed Reed's most recent INT, in the Ravens' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sorry for the weird angle, but the broadcast doesn't show the deep safety. Reed (red circle) has got deep middle responsibilities, and after the snap he moves to his right to bracket the slot receiver.
That's exactly what the Steelers want—they're hoping to clear out Reed with the receiver in order to get a one-on-one matchup with TE Heath Miller against the LB up the seam.
By reading QB Charlie Batch's eyes (fixated on where Miller is headed), Reed diagnoses the Steelers' intentions and recovers quickly—a good thing for Baltimore, because Miller is wide open up the seam. By the time the ball is released, Reed has begun his break on the ball.
He displays excellent instincts, range and closing ability on this play, covering ground in a short amount of time to make a play on the football.
Reed makes a diving, overhead catch—a remarkable play, which he follows up with a pretty nice return. You can see the full play here.
Reed is always tough on any QB—thankfully, Tom Brady is one of the best in the league at looking off safeties. Still, Brady will need to be at his best if the Pats face the Ravens again in the playoffs.