Although they're the most experienced playoff team in this year's race, the New England Patriots may be exiting the postseason sooner than many think.
It's true that they have shown tremendous resiliency this season. Through all the injuries and players lost in free agency, the fact that the Pats have a 12-4 record is mighty impressive—on paper.
Yes, they did win 12 games this season, but they only played four teams with a winning record and play in a generally weak division. Outside of the Patriots, not one team in the AFC East had a record better than 8-8. Not only that, seven of their 12 wins were by six points or fewer.
This may seem like the same old story with the Patriots—good record, top seed in the playoffs, etc.—however, they are very different than Pats teams from recent years.
This will be the first time in seven years that Tom Brady will go into the playoffs without Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski, and that will prove to be a huge hindrance. They have had Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola show up at times this season, but neither have been as consistent as Welker and Gronk each were for Brady.
The AFC playoff picture is littered with top defenses that could dash New England's playoff hopes. If the Patriots play in a game that becomes a defensive struggle, then they will likely lose; especially without Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo, their 26th-ranked defense may not be able to hold up against the firepower of these other AFC teams.
The two teams New England is most likely to face in the divisional round are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals, two teams that have top defenses and plenty of offense.
Let's say the Patriots take on the Bengals. They will be facing the NFL's third-best defense and will have to stop the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection, not to mention they already lost to Cincy earlier this season. Things could stack up against New England rather quickly, and it would be hard for Brady to manage a comeback without a reliable group of receivers to depend on.
If they end up taking on the Chiefs, then Brady could be in for a long day. Kansas City plays great defense and can rush the passer better than most any team in the NFL. They will also be returning stud pass-rusher Justin Houston to the starting lineup which will certainly give them a boost.
When it comes to KC's offense, the star of the show is their All-Pro runner, Jamaal Charles. The Patriots' 30th-ranked rush defense would likely struggle to contain Charles, who's scored a touchdown in each of his last five starts on the way to accumulating 794 all-purpose yards during that time.
Both of these teams are tough outings for anyone, and the Patriots would be remiss to write either of them off.
The Patriots are a good team, but they don't have the necessary pieces to have the same type of success in the playoffs as they have before.