Now that the Patriots have finished up their somewhat improbable 12-4 season and secured a first-round playoff bye, they’ll enjoy a well-earned additional week of rest before hosting the Bengals, Colts, or Chiefs on Saturday, January 11 for the right to play in the AFC championship game.
At some point, coach Bill Belichick and his players may be asked if there’s a preferred opponent but, since they would never answer (and, truthfully, may not even care), that’s a topic left for the rest of us to debate.
The wild card round features the Bengals hosting the Chargers and the Colts entertaining the Chiefs. Since San Diego’s the lowest seed, it can only travel to Denver in two weeks or go home for the offseason.
Among the remaining playoff entrants, the Patriots are best-suited to deal with the Colts.
This season’s incarnation of the Colts – the 11-5 AFC South winners with victories in four of their last five games – have an average offense with a middling defense, one that also happens to struggle in the red zone and is penalized with uncomfortable regularity. Led by Luck (who was erratic in a 24-9 playoff loss last year in Baltimore as a rookie), Indy’s passing game ranks in the middle of the NFL, but his top weapon has become T.Y. Hilton in the absence of injured stud Reggie Wayne. His only protection comes from an offensive line that allows relatively few sacks but plenty of quarterback hits. The running game is balanced between Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, but neither is an imposing force on the ground. Defensively, the Colts are run-of-the-mill against the pass and near the bottom of the league versus the run. Plus, at 5-3 on the road and a dome team at home, they’re not accustomed to playing outdoors in an unpredictable New England winter.
Many of those facts play into the Patriots strengths – or lack thereof.
Even without Rob Gronkowski, the Pats have proven they can score and, lately, it’s been the running game strutting around the field. Buccaneers castoff LeGarrette Blount has supplanted the fumble-prone Stevan Ridley as the team’s top option, though Ridley’s proven to be a resourceful member of the committee. The rapidly improving tandem would likely thrive against a Colts defense that rarely halts the rush. Tom Brady’s passing attack would fare well also, as long as he could get rid of the ball before the Indianapolis pass rushers found their way through a hole. On the other side of the ball, New England has been putrid against the run, but fortunately Indy doesn’t feature a premier back. The Pats have struggled in their pass defense this season at points, but their ability to get to the quarterback has alleviated some of those concerns.
With a week off and an 8-0 home record, the Patriots will be favored no matter which club they face in their first game of the second season, but that’s no reason not to root for their best chance to advance.
In different ways, the Bengals and Chiefs are more worrisome foes.
Beginning with Cincinnati, we all remember when it held New England to a season-low six points in Week 5. The Patriots haven’t scored fewer than 20 points in 11 games since, and they’ve averaged 31.7.
It’s easy to count out the North champion Bengals because they’re 3-5 on the road, coached by the playoff win starved Marvin Lewis, or quarterbacked by Dalton (same story), but the 11-5 Cats have won five of six (including a pounding of the Colts), they convert on nearly three-quarters of their trips to the red zone, and they’re efficient on third-down – an area the Patriots struggle mightily defensively. Moreover, Dalton’s having a career-year with top-flight receiver A.J. Green at his disposal and his offensive line has made it nearly impossible to reach him in the pocket. Cincy’s defense has lost Geno Atkins, but remains one of the best in the NFL. It’s very difficult to score against, impenetrable on third-down, elite versus both the pass and the run, and the group intercepts and sacks with regularity. Plus, it almost never takes a penalty, so those pass interference flags the Pats have eyed in recent weeks wouldn’t be flying.
The Chiefs ended their regular season at 11-5 as well, but only because their B team failed to hang onto a 10-point advantage against a Chargers team fighting for its playoff life. Recent history hasn’t been kind to Kansas City when merely looking at five losses in the final seven contests – comprised of two apiece to the Broncos and Chargers, and one to the Colts – but it’s still a strong offensive team with a capable and rarely intercepted QB in Smith, a dynamic running game led by Jamaal Charles, and an experienced head coach in Andy Reid. Defense has been the strength for the Chiefs, though, particularly on third-down and in the red zone. Those areas are their backbone, given generally unimpressive numbers against aerial and ground attacks. It doesn’t matter how well Brady can throw or Blount can run between the 20’s if there's little they can do in the red area.
In an ideal world, and this would have to be the pipe dream, the Lewis-Dalton playoff struggles would continue on their way to being upset at home by Philip Rivers and the Chargers, followed by a San Diego triumph in Denver. That’s obviously pretty pie-in-the-sky since the Broncos possess the most prolific offense in NFL history. But, the Chargers also topped the Broncos by a touchdown at Mile High in Week 15, and Peyton Manning has gone one-and-out in the postseason a mind-bending eight times in his career – including last season against the Ravens.
From there, with their win over the Colts, the Patriots would host the six-seed Chargers in Foxborough for the opportunity to head to the Super Bowl. San Diego’s bad in the red zone both offensively and defensively, terrible against the pass, and it has a negative turnover differential. Some early scouting, just in case.
I know what you’re thinking – there’s absolutely no way.
But, suppose I told you last March that Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez would both be wearing orange this season (uh, kind of), Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Sebastian Vollmer would play a combined 25 games, and Ridley would spend half the year on the bench – and the Patriots would still win 12 games and earn a playoff bye?
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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