Now we get to play.
It doesn't make sense to plan the NFL playoffs before the final game of the regular season is finished. After all, that's how you get yourself into false assumptions. Like thinking the Chiefs would secure the AFC's third seed. Or that a 7-9 team couldn't possibly make the tournament.
But now, the field is set. And Patriots fans can decide who to root for.
In the wild card round, the Jets face the Colts in Indianapolis, while the Ravens travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. Of the four teams, only the Jets, Ravens and Chiefs can make it to Foxboro for the divisional round; the Pats were dealt a lucky hand when the Colts got the third seed, making another Manning vs. Brady matchup impossible until an AFC championship meeting.
New England's schedule, marked with victories over Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York and Indianapolis, shows the team can handle any challenge from the AFC, with Kansas City providing a lone unknown.
Despite the Patriots' success against the field, some opponents match up better than others, and fans will spend the first round rooting for and against teams based on which results offer New England the path of least resistance.
The most favorable outcome would have Kansas City defeating Baltimore and New York knocking off Indianapolis. That would send an inconsistent Jets team to Foxboro while ousting the teams that are the biggest threats to the Patriots' potential trip to Dallas.
Baltimore has played New England tough in each meeting since 2007, and destroyed the Patriots in the playoffs last year for their only home loss since the end of the 2006 season. Indianapolis has taken hold of its rivalry with New England since 2005, and came within a big Peyton Manning mistake of shocking the Patriots with another late rally in November.
Patriots fans should root passionately against these teams next weekend. Baltimore stacks up well against the New England and always gives Tom Brady fits. Indianapolis, with Manning, always seems to bring games down to a final, agonizing drive.
If you're a Pats fan, you want those opponents out as soon as possible.
The Chiefs and the Jets are excellent draws. New York has sputtered down the stretch, and would face a challenge going back to the building that triggered what was almost a collapse.
Kansas City, while stocked with legitimate, growing talent, is untested, and it's the opinion of this writer that Bill Belichick simply wouldn't allow Matt Cassel to succeed against his team.
The dream scenario is unlikely, but seeing the Jets beat the Colts would be an excellent start. That would accomplish two objectives at once, eliminating a headache in Manning and sealing a matchup with an error-prone quarterback and a team that has played dumb football over the past few weeks.
The worst outcome would be the one that the betting odds currently favor. Indianapolis and Baltimore winning would keep the two nemeses alive and send the Ravens to Gillette.
New England would open against the team that embarrassed it last year, and its most favorable opponent would be the second-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers. It's not a particularly rosy picture.
The Patriots gave themselves the most comfortable situation they could, clinching home field advantage and a bye week and stocking up on momentum entering 2011. And a team that goes 14-2 and unbeaten at home should be able to take care of business, regardless of opponent.
But it wouldn't hurt for the task to be made a little easier.
Drew Bonifant is a sportswriter at the Concord Monitor. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/dbonifant.
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