This time of year, some teams -- for example, the Cowboys and Panthers -- are fretting over the various permutations they need to claw their way into the playoffs. For the Patriots, the postseason question is more subtle.
They are already into the tournament as winners of the AFC East, and hence have only one thing to gain in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins Sunday at Razor Blade Field. If the Bengals cooperate with the Patriots and lose to the Chiefs, New England could enter postseason play as the AFC's No. 3 seed and host Pittsburgh (assuming the Steelers defeat the lowly Lions on New Year's Day) rather than the higher-seeded Jaguars, who would be their opponent if New England finishes as the fourth seed.
But which is preferable? Is it better to face the Steelers and then go on the road to Denver in the divisional playoff round if they win, or might it be an easier road to host the Jaguars before squaring off with the top-seeded Colts on Indianapolis's fast, indoor track?
Frankly, neither is a prospect to feel elated about considering the depleted Patriots secondary and their still underwhelming running game against top-flight defensive fronts. But it seems from this vantage point that the Steelers are at the moment more dangerous than the Jaguars because their defense is healthy and playing well and their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is healthier than he's been in a month and playing with predictably consistent results.
After losing three straight in a late November swoon during which Roethlisberger's thumb was killing him, Pittsburgh is back on track, winning three in a row against fairly stiff competition by a combined 80-12 score, mowing down the Bears, Vikings, and Browns. Only Indianapolis is giving up fewer points among AFC playoff teams (15.6 to 15.8), and it has the best run defense among the six. Jacksonville is strong defensively as well (No. 6 in the league, compared with the Steelers' No. 3 ranking) and is superior statistically on pass defense but is allowing more than 107 rushing yards per game and neither runs the ball as well as the Steelers nor stuffs it as effectively.
And even if you beat the Steelers, they take a physical toll on you, and with the Patriots having gone through a long and injury-plagued season, they don't need to see their sore-legged quarterback, Tom Brady, or still-limping running back, Corey Dillon, beaten up in a hard-nosed victory.
Same is true of New England's defense, which would have to deal with a Pittsburgh offensive line that pounds opponents and has a breakaway threat behind it in Willie Parker, as well as a crew of wide receivers nearly as physical as those linemen.
Jacksonville, though tough on defense, lacks the offensive explosiveness of the Steelers (Who is their Hines Ward? Their Antwaan Randle El? Even their Willie Parker?) and a quarterback problem that leaves coach Jack Del Rio having to pick between a rusty Byron Leftwich (recovering from a broken ankle and only this week able to practice for the first time in a month) and a more mobile but far less experienced and far less accurate passer in David Garrard. Juxtapose Jacksonville's quarterback situation with that of the Steelers -- young Roethlisberger now has seen New England's multiheaded defense three times in a year -- and it seems far more inviting to deal with Garrard and Leftwich.
If the Patriots get by the Steelers, they'd then have to go to Denver, where the Broncos are nearly unbeatable and where their quarterback, Jake Plummer, is 19-3. They could avoid that fate by landing the lower seed and facing Jacksonville before going off to Indianapolis to play a Colts team they are confident they can make wilt, as they have in the playoffs the past few years.
Past performance is no guarantee of future returns in either the stock market or the NFL, of course, but Patriot Nation probably would rather face Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, and the Colts' young and speedy defense on turf than the Broncos in the altitude of Mile High Stadium. These are not the defenseless Colts of the past few seasons, but earlier this season the Broncos beat the ears off the Patriots in Denver before easing up offensively, a mistake they would not make again in three weeks.
Bill Belichick would say it doesn't matter, because to get to Detroit and the Super Bowl, his team very likely will have to pass through both Indianapolis and Denver anyway, but even if one accepts that, that's all the more reason to concentrate on the first game first and let the chips fall where they may.
If the Patriots don't win that first one, the rest of the debate is moot, so the smartest rooting interest is for a home game against the Jaguars.
The Steelers, like the Patriots, seem to be finding themselves the past three weeks while the Jaguars were life-and-death just two weeks ago at home against arguably the worst team in the league, the 49ers. That doesn't mean Jacksonville couldn't come to Foxborough and win or that the Patriots couldn't beat Pittsburgh at home. When you have to play on wild-card weekend, none of your options are all that good.
After that, whether the Patriots' route to Detroit takes them through Denver and then Indianapolis or vice versa, it will be an uphill battle. But that's a discussion for a week or two from now, as are any thoughts about the Bengals, who have the most balanced offense and the hungriest playoff team in the AFC.