Breaking Down Patriots' Potential Divisional Playoff Opponents
The Patriots' first opponent in the playoffs will be a team they've already faced, and while they own a 2-1 record against those teams, all three would present unique challenges.
Patriots fans don't need to be reminded of what can happen when a team you just blew out a few weeks ago crawls back into town for the divisional round. Everyone was writing off the Jets and they returned and played flawless football while the Patriots sputtered.
Anything can happen in the playoffs.
Let's take a look at the three teams and break down how the Pats would match up in the rematches.
The Texans are the most likely team the Patriots will face. The last time Houston came to New England everything went right for the Patriots in a 42-14 domination.
They attacked Matt Schaub early and often and held J.J. Watt without a sack, pass broken up or stop for loss for the first time all season.
The Texans went on to lose two of their last three games, bowing out of the top seed in the conference with their Week 17 loss to the Colts.
Nothing the Texans showed against the Patriots or in any of the games that followed have demonstrated that they are a team that is peaking going into the playoffs. They had a two-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs that they could not hold.
The Patriots know what they have to do stop the Texans, and they've done it. But the Texans will not make the same mistakes, and the rematch would be a lot closer than 42-14.
Cause for Concern: J.J. Watt. Yes, the Pats stopped him once, but stopping him twice is another thing. Justin Tuck has caused New England a major headache in two Super Bowls with his interior presence. New England can be susceptible there at times, and if Watt is on his game, he could slow down Brady in the rematch.
Cause for Confidence: The Texans offense is conventional and the Patriots defense matches up well against it. The Pats are almost always sound in the running game, so shutting down Arian Foster again should not be a problem. Once that's accomplished, the Texans are out of their comfort zone.
The Texans would need career days out of Arian Foster, Matt Schaub and J.J. Watt to take down the Pats in New England. But no performance in the past month has given any indication that the Texans will be able to pull off the perfect game that must be played to beat the Patriots in Foxboro.
It's been more than three months since the Patriots saw the Ravens in a 31-30 loss on a field goal as time expired. It was a penalty-marred back-and-forth with the Patriots blowing a late nine-point lead.
This game was an especially good example of the kind of losses that the Patriots have had over the past few seasons. They just weren't able to close games out.
Just look at the last two possessions for the two teams and that tells the story.
Ravens: Touchdown. Field Goal.
Patriots: Punt. Punt.
As we've seen over the past three seasons, Patriots-Ravens games are always close, except when New England's run defense doesn't show up; then you get the 2009 AFC Wild Card Game.
The Ravens are a different team now than they were in September, having lost Ray Lewis and Webb in Week 6. Terrell Suggs came back early but is still not the player he was before the injury. With the game being in Foxboro and the Ravens having a depleted secondary, it should tip the scales enough toward Brady and the Pats in what would surely be another close one.
But there's no denying that the Ravens have some talented weapons, and when they get loose they put up a lot of points. The Patriots have seen it firsthand.
Cause for Concern: Joe Flacco. The Patriots have struggled defending the deep ball and Flacco is not afraid to throw downfield, especially to Torrey Smith, who burned the Pats for 127 yards the first time around.
Cause for Confidence: Wes Welker. He put up 142 yards against the Ravens when they had their best corner, Lardarius Webb, healthy. There's little doubt Brady would carve them up again.
The Ravens have the pieces in place to exploit the Patriots defense and will know what to expect should they come to New England for the third time in the last four playoffs. That makes them the team the Patriots would most like to avoid.
The Colts have been everyone's favorite story this year, and for good reason. Chuck Pagano's victory over cancer has been a rallying point for a team that most expected to be picking in the top 10 of the draft again.
Luck has flashed major potential and the young Colts have been one of the most exciting young teams to watch this year. It all peaked last weekend with Pagano returning to the sideline and the Colts riding the wave of emotion to victory and knocking the Texans from the top seed in the conference.
Cause for Concern: The Colts' first two drives in the last matchup. The Colts didn't do much in their first game against the Pats, but their first two drives were flawless. Both for touchdowns, the first was seven plays, 80 yards; the second was 10 plays, 84 yards. If the Colts could ever establish and maintain that kind of performance again, it might be close.
Causes for Confidence: 49 points last time. The Patriots dominated the Colts in all aspects of the game. They returned two interceptions for touchdowns, returned a punt for a touchdown and Tom Brady threw for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Patriots played out a similar storyline last year in the divisional round against the Tebow-led Broncos. They were 2011's feel-good team and the Pats dispatched them 45-10.
The outcome here would likely be similar, though Luck and the Colts certainly look like a team that is set up to be another AFC power in short time.
Who the Pats Want
It would be silly to root for the Colts to come to Foxboro because they're the longest shot and easiest opponent, but in a choice between Houston and Baltimore, the Pats should be rooting to see Houston.
The Texans have talent, no question, but their best game matches up with the Patriots' best game, especially when Houston is on offense.
If the Ravens have their best game against the Patriots, Joe Flacco might throw for 500 yards. The Patriots can beat Baltimore and would be favored, but familiarity breeds close games, and there's little doubt it would go down to the wire.
Houston will have their hands full with the Bengals this weekend, as they've had their hands full every game of the past month. Geno Adkins could give the Texans zone-blocking problems, and if the Bengals offense is on they'll find the end zone.
The Patriots should make sure they do plenty of catching up on the Ravens.
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