Brady and the Pats are all smiles after a historic comeback against the Broncos.
It's that time of the season where scoreboard-watching your favorite team's potential playoff opponents gets a little more intensive.
After a comeback win as important and unlikely as the one the New England Patriots just completed over the AFC-leading Denver Broncos, Pats fans are naturally inclined to peek ahead at what may be coming down the pipeline in the postseason.
While an article like this may prompt a few Jim Mora-esque responses from the more cautious among the Pats' fanbase, let's have a little fun. Here are five teams the New England Patriots would love to face in the 2013-14 playoffs.
The Steelers are one of the teams it would hurt most to see the Patriots lose to, but I just don't see it happening.
Let's start with the 55-31 drubbing the Pats handed the Steelers earlier this year. Naysayers will point to the 2010 Pats' 45-3 regular season blowout of the Jets, who wound up beating New England in the divisional round that year. However, those Jets allowed the third-fewest YPG of any defense, were ranked fifth in Football Outsiders' DVOA and had the 10th-best adjusted sack rate of any defensive line.
The 2010 Jets had a great defense. This year's Steelers? Not so much.
Pittsburgh ranks 20th in both points and yards allowed this season, and they can't generate a sustainable pass rush. They're 26th in adjusted sack rate, and rank outside the top-16 teams in covering every opposing WR.
On offense, their leading rusher Le'Veon Bell averages 3.2 YPC, and their offensive line has the seventh-highest adjusted sack rate in the league.
So, the Steelers can't rush the passer, can't protect their own QB, can't run the ball effectively and aren't equipped to stop the Patriots' passing attack. When these two teams met in Week 9, New England racked up over 600 yards.
There's very little that could prevent the Pats from running up the score again on these Steelers. Maybe a 2010 redux is in the works if these two teams were to meet, but again, I just don't see it.
There's a bit of a caveat to this one—if the Colts play the way they have since Reggie Wayne was lost for the season, then the Pats will beat them handily.
Though it's hard to say if correlation equals causation in this case, the Colts were 5-2 with Wayne on the team, including signature wins at San Francisco and against Denver. They were rolling along like one of the league's most formidable teams.
Since Wayne's injury on October 20th, the Colts have looked eminently beatable. They're 2-2, with two close wins against relatively weak division opponents, and two blowout losses outside the division. They also have a mediocre plus-three point differential on the season, which is actually worse than divisional rival Tennessee (plus-five).
Speaking of mediocre, the Colts are mediocre at just about everything. They're 18th in passing and rushing yards per game, with RB Trent Richardson (2.8 YPC) performing at an unqualifiedly disappointing level since the Colts gave up a first-rounder for him. They're 19th in passing yards allowed, and 27th in rush yards allowed. They generate a middling pass rush (16th in adjusted sack rate), making them no more than a minor threat to Tom Brady.
Playoff success comes as a result of teams getting hot at the right time, which could happen to a Colts team that has beaten some tough opponents. But there isn't one elite unit on the team that could carry them through the postseason, and there isn't much to suggest they would pose more of a threat to the Patriots than any other playoff contender.
I almost don't want to say the Jets—the sting of the 2010 loss was as bad as any non-Super Bowl Pats loss in recent memory.
These Jets have also beaten the Patriots this year by shoving the ball down their throats and disrupting Brady's timing with a ferocious pass rush (four sacks in the game). So they're no pushovers, especially when Rex Ryan is at the helm of a talented defense.
However, there aren't any pushovers in the NFL playoffs, and these Jets just aren't very good by playoff standards.
Their point differential is an awful minus-101, second-worst in the league behind the 2-9 Jacksonville Jaguars. They haven't won two games in a row all season, making it exceedingly unlikely that they'll be able to string together a series of playoff wins. Their rookie QB Geno Smith has gotten worse and worse—he hasn't completed double-digit passes in any of his last three games, during which time he's had five INTs and no touchdowns.
To their credit, they do boast the league's best run defense (ranked first in rush defense DVOA). But New York's pass rush is actually worse than New England's—the Jets are ranked 15th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate while giving up the ninth-most passing yards in the league.
The Jets always play New England tough, but if anything, Tom Brady and the Pats might relish a chance at revenge for this year's overtime loss and the 2010 playoffs.
Tennessee is another one of those middling AFC teams playing in an easy division that might have a chance of slithering their way into the sixth seed.
Like the fellow AFC South Colts, Tennessee isn't elite at much. They're just 21st in the league in passing yards, and while Kendall Wright has had a strong year, he wouldn't be the toughest cover in the playoffs by any stretch. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is a familiar face to the Pats, and he hasn't had much success against them (1-6 career record with a 13-17 TD-to-INT ratio when playing New England).
Their pass rush won't scare Tom Brady (25th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate), and while Chris Johnson (3.8 YPC) can bust some big gains, he isn't the type of consistent Chris Ivory-type bruiser that can pick apart New England's undersized defensive line.
Just about any Pats fan would be fine facing Tennessee in this year's playoffs if it came to that.
How sweet would a march to the Super Bowl be for Pats fans if it came by way of a victory over the Baltimore Ravens?
The Ravens and Patriots met in each of the last two AFC Championship games, with each team winning once. Last season's 28-13 victory in favor of Baltimore left a nasty taste in the mouths of Pats fans born to detest Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and crew.
Much of last season's Ravens team has been overhauled during an offseason that saw them mired in a bit of a cap crunch. While their defense is still above average, the Ravens offense simply hasn't been the same this year.
The Ravens have lost four of six, and haven't been as adept at protecting their QB as they were during the 2012-13 playoffs. They're just 24th in the league in adjusted sack rate allowed, and their QB, Joe Flacco, has responded with an interception for every touchdown pass (14 of each).
Flacco isn't the only one who has dropped off his elite perch this season. Star RB Ray Rice has averaged just 2.9 YPC in 2013, leaving the Ravens with a scuffling offense that has topped 30 points just once all season (against 2-9 Houston).
New England should be wary of Baltimore's strong pass rush (Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have 18.5 combined sacks), but the Ravens can be run on—they're just 19th in the NFL in adjusted line yards.
Any team that can rush the passer is scary in the playoffs, but the Pats can run to set up play action for Brady and get the Ravens defense back on their heels. At that point? It's revenge time.