As the New England Patriots enter the holiday season atop the AFC with an 11-3 record and the inside track on the number one seed in the playoffs, talk of a fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons under Bill Belichick is beginning to mount.
With Tom Brady running the show, the Patriots are never too far away from the conversation. Give him offensive weapons that are the envy of the NFL—like Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez—and you have a franchise with a legitimate chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis in February.
New England will secure home-field advantage with victories over the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, its AFC East rivals, at Gillette Stadium to close out the season. Recent playoff disappointments aside, securing the top seed represents a huge advantage—no opponent will relish a January appointment with the Patriots in Foxboro.
However, the parallels with the 2010 season are not lost on fans in Patriots Nation. Then, a 14-2 regular season team was bounced from the playoffs by Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets, who torched the New England secondary with three touchdowns and a 127.3 passer rating.
12 months on, and the problem persists. Huge chunks of yardage are conceded through the air, caused by a combination of the "bend, but don't break" philosophy and an absence of talent.
What's more, the run defense has sprung a leak, and Matt Patricia must work overtime to fix some fundamental flaws in tackling and edge-setting.
Despite some major concerns, the defense remains respectable in points allowed and red-zone defense. Both are ranked in the middle of the pack and have kept the Patriots on the right side of some high-scoring shootouts...for now.
As the quality of opponent increases in the playoffs, so too does the intensity. What has worked so far might not be enough to win in January.
In short, the Patriots can beat anyone this postseason. On the flip side, anyone can beat the Patriots, too. Well, almost anyone.
Let's break down the opponents that could upset New England at Gillette Stadium in January, and those that have no shot of overcoming Tom Brady and company.
Having lost the initiative for top seeding in the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers are limping their way into January—literally.
Ben Roethlisberger's high-ankle sprain should concern Mike Tomlin enough to rest him for the upcoming games against the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns. A minimum fifth seed is locked up; it makes no sense to expose his most important player to further setbacks.
As demonstrated in Week 8, the Steelers are a dangerous opponent. A healthy Roethlisberger picked the New England secondary apart for 365 yards and two touchdowns, taking Pittsburgh to a 25-17 victory.
The Steelers defense kept Tom Brady off the field by forcing multiple three-and-outs, then controlled the clock on long scoring drives through short completions to Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Mike Wallace.
That they did so despite five sacks on Roethlisberger, is an indication of how poorly the Patriots secondary matched up on their receivers.
Brady's record against the Steelers in the Dick LeBeau era is 4-2, so as ever, he gives the Patriots the edge in a potential matchup in Foxboro. To win, he'll need to put on a quarterback clinic and score on almost every possession.
The 2010 matchup in Pittsburgh is the blueprint. He and Bill Belichick must execute it to perfection.
The Baltimore Ravens have seen it all before.
Rewind to their wild-card game at Gillette Stadium in 2009. That day, a combination of Ray Rice and three turnovers forced by the Ravens defense, ensured the game was out of sight after 15 minutes.
Rice is enjoying a stellar 2011 season, and considering New England's recent problems in run defense—first exposed by the Redskins' Roy Helu, then the Broncos' Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee—this postseason meeting could be a carbon copy of their last.
Baltimore has been inconsistent on the road this year, with losses to the Titans, Jaguars and Seahawks on their 10-4 record. But against playoff-caliber opponents, they have shined, sweeping the Steelers and taking down the 49ers in the "Harbaugh Bowl."
If the Patriots found a way to limit Rice to 100 yards and a single touchdown, they would be heavy favorites to prevail. Joe Flacco is as frustrating as ever, exploding with production one week, then failing to hit any targets the next. If the Ravens have to rely on him to keep the scoreboard moving, Tom Brady will take control of the game.
On recent evidence however, keeping Ray Rice quiet is easier said than done.
San Diego would need a miracle to win the AFC West, but if they did, expect them to cause a stir in January.
In the unlikely event they win their final two games against the Lions and the Raiders, and the Broncos fall to the Bills and the Chiefs, the Chargers would enter as the number four seed and one of the hottest teams in the postseason.
Key to their resurgence is the recent form of Philip Rivers, who has recovered from his mid-season slump to throw eight touchdowns, zero picks and complete 68 percent of his passes in the last four games.
With Malcom Floyd back from injury and Ryan Mathews racking up 100-yard games, the Chargers offense is as varied as it is high-powered.
Make no mistake, this San Diego team is in a much better place than the one that lost 35-21 at Gillette Stadium back in Week 2.
A chain of long shots would have to fall into place to take Norv Turner's men back there for a rematch, but the Patriots would certainly have their hands full in what would be a contender for the most exciting shootout of the playoffs.
No Patriots fan will need reminding of the 28-21 defeat to the New York Jets last January. Considering their previous meet at Gillette Stadium—in Week 13 of the regular season—ended in a 45-3 blowout victory for New England, this was one of the toughest losses to take in the Belichick era.
The 2011 Jets are much less sure of themselves, and with Mark Sanchez showing a worrying lack of development in Brian Schottenheimer's system, the offense hasn't been able to compensate for the drop-off on defense, caused by injuries at the safety position, and a loss of form in the defensive front seven.
This matchup has a decent chance of unfolding in the divisional round for the second year running. If it does, lock New England in as seven-point favorites right now. They were favored by a similar spread in 2010, too, so fans won't get too carried away.
In spite of Sanchez's struggles, the Jets can lean on an in-form Shonn Greene, who is a better player than any of the runners that gashed the Patriots recently.
Then there's Plaxico Burress, whose height and jumping ability can hurt the Patriots' patchwork secondary—as long as Sanchez stays upright long enough to find him, of course.
And with Rex Ryan—the architect of the defensive game plan that left Brady battered and bruised last year—the Jets always have a chance to keep it close.
I'm not saying the Jets will win in Foxboro in January, nor should they be feared. But Belichick and Brady will definitely respect the challenge.
The Denver Broncos gave the Patriots everything they had last Sunday at the Sports Authority Field in a 41-23 losing effort.
After a wildly productive first quarter for the option offense—with Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee rushing for 167 yards in the first quarter alone—the Broncos raced out to an early lead, only to be outscored 34-10 the rest of the way.
Key to the victory, aside from Tom Brady, was Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, whose defensive adjustments on the fly prevented the option from creating further damage, and as a result, kept the lid on Tebow Time.
The Broncos are only built to play one way—clock control on offense, and a lights-out defense rushing the passer and forcing three-and-outs—to keep the score down.
Tom Brady showed that elite quarterback play can blow that game plan away. If the Broncos played at Gillette in January, they would have to rely on the same tactics.
The Houston Texans might be one of the most impressive teams in the NFL. There are very few playoff teams who could withstand the loss of their stud running back, elite wide receiver, starting quarterback and beast pass-rusher at various points through the year and remain in contention.
Finally, those setbacks are beginning to catch up with them. Matt Schaub is not considered an elite quarterback, but he is a far more productive option than rookie fifth-round pick T.J. Yates.
Yates is managing games to the best of his ability, but at times looks every inch the rookie that he is. He can lean on Arian Foster and Ben Tate, but teams are able to defend the run much more easily when they know it's coming.
With the Texans' form deserting them at the worst possible time, they might not hang around in the playoffs long enough to earn a trip to Foxboro. If it does happen, though, they have no shot at advancing against Tom Brady and his prolific aerial offense.
The Patriots were last limited to under 20 points in Week 8, in Pittsburgh. The Texans will struggle to play keep-away in the same way Ben Roethlisberger could.
The Bengals are currently on the cusp of a wild-card place behind the New York Jets and are relying on favors from the Giants or Dolphins. There's a good chance they will need to take care of business when the Ravens come to town on New Year's Day, too.
All in all, it's unlikely that we will see the Bengals at Gillette Stadium in January. Even if they did make it, they have no chance at beating the Patriots.
Andy Dalton has enjoyed an impressive debut season at quarterback, and in an ordinary year with no Cam Newton smashing all expectations, he would be a realistic candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
His play in recent weeks has been a little spotty, however, and with top wideout A.J. Green dealing with a shoulder injury, the Bengals are ill-equipped to take down an elite offense on the road in a postseason game.
Cincinnati's time will come, but in 2011, they will have to learn what they can from seasoned playoff teams and move on.
In the interests of full disclosure, the Tennessee Titans still have an outside shot at the wild-card spot that the New York Jets would own if the season ended today.
The chances of the Titans claiming it and going on the road to win a playoff game are very slim. If they did, they'd probably find themselves up against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round, and that would be all she wrote.
Chris Johnson has taken over half a season to find his rushing form, but he did in spectacular fashion back in Weeks 12 and 13, going for a combined 343 yards and two scores against the Buccaneers and Bills.
However, their defense has been average at best. Against Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, they have no chance of keeping the score down. And regardless of whether Matt Hasselbeck or rookie Jack Locker is starting under center by then, neither have a chance of making enough plays to cling onto the Patriots' coattails.
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