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.