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Playing the match(up) game

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 28, 2009 09:31 AM

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From Tom Brady's injured ribs to Laurence Maroney's buttery fingers to the disturbing lack of overall consistency, the problems remain. And yet, no matter what happens on Sunday in Houston, the Patriots are now just three meaningful wins from another trip to the Super Bowl.

For that, give the Patriots credit. Even division titles should not be taken for granted. In the wake of yesterday's dismantling of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the only question that matters now is whether the Pats are heading in the right direction again.

And that is certainly open to debate.

"It hasn't always been perfect, but I think that our preparation, our communication, our understanding and just playing together and playing situational football has improved, which it should," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was speaking specifically of his defense but could just as easily have been speaking about his entire team. "I mean we've had over 100 practices and 15 regular season games, but those are the kind of things you get out of it."

As a result, the Patriots will be playing again in Foxboro on the weekend of Jan. 9-10, though the opponent remains unclear. Depending on where the Pats end up in the AFC hierarchy -- as the No. 3 or No. 4 seed -- and depending on who the remaining AFC playoff participants are, New England could face any one of the five following teams: the Texans, Jets, Broncos, Ravens or Steelers.

Preferences, anyone? (We'll skip the Dolphins and Jags, who are the longest of long shots to make the playoffs although it's mathematically possible next week).

The Texans. As luck would have it, Houston is the Pats' opponent in Week 17, when it might actually benefit the Pats to take a knee. For one thing, Tom Brady (and others) could benefit from a week of rest. For another, the Pats could angle themselves to be the No. 4 seed, potentially putting the team in position to play at Indianapolis (and not San Diego) in the second round of the playoffs.

Given the events of Week 10 on Sunday, Nov. 15 -- the night of fourth-and-2 -- wouldn't the Pats rather face the Colts on the road again than venture to red-hot San Diego?

Here's the problem: if the Pats lose in Week 17, they could open the door for a possible meeting with the Texans in the first round. On paper, the Texans don't look like a great matchup. Houston has the No. 2-ranked passing offense in the league and the Pats defense has been vulnerable against offenses of the like (Indy, New Orleans). The fact that the game would be played in Foxboro is a huge advantage -- the Pats lost to Indy and New Orleans indoors -- and New England should be able to throw on the Houston pass defense.

One other thing to consider: the Houston rushing attack is ranked 30th in the NFL and Belichick typically devours one-dimensional offenses. (But is this his typical defense?) Still, in the end, this looks like a desirable opponent given that the game would be played at Gillette Stadium.

The Jets. Plain and simple, with a win at home against the Bengals in Week 17, the Jets guarantee themselves a playoff spot and, perhaps, a return trip to Foxborough. That spells bad news for Randy Moss -- hello again, Darrelle Revis -- but it should be good news for a Pats team that throttled the Jets by a 31-14 score on Nov. 22 (Week 11).

The Jets are one of the better defensive teams in football -- they have allowed an NFL-low eight passing touchdowns - but their offense has scored a total of just 30 points in two games against the Pats this year. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, who threw four interceptions at Foxborough on Nov. 22, would be making his first career postseason start. Assuming Vince Wilfork can play, the Pats will be reasonably effective at slowing the Jets' running game.

The bottom line? Under Belichick and Brady, the Pats are 14-3 in the postseason and 8-0 at Foxborough. In a playoff game, would you bet on the team with Brady at quarterback or on the team with rookie Sanchez?

The Broncos. Former Pats understudy Josh McDaniels defeated Belichick and the Pats in overtime by a 20-17 score in Week 5, but these aren't the same Broncos. Denver is 2-7 in its last nine games, a period during which the Broncos have allowed an average of roughly 24 points a game and lost to, among others, the Redskins and Raiders.

During that span, Denver's only road win is at Kansas City.

If the Broncos play to their capabilities, their pass defense could create some problems for the Patriots, thanks largely to the presence of Champ Bailey.

Still, the Pats all but spit up on themselves in the game at Denver in October, and it's hard to believe that Belichick and Brady will make the same mistakes against the same opponent in Foxborough in January. All things considered, this, too, is a favorable matchup.

The Ravens. This is purely subjective, but what we may have here is the very best 8-7 team in football. The Ravens now have a balanced offensive attack and a tough, physical defense that excels against both the pass and run. So why are they fighting to get into the playoffs? Because they fail to execute at the most critical times, a flaw evidenced yet again in yesterday's 23-20 loss at Pittsburgh.

Of Baltimore's seven defeats this year, four have been by a field goal or less. Add in a 27-21 defeat to the Patriots in October -- the Ravens were deep in New England territory when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth down pass late -- and the Ravens could easily have 10 or 11 wins. The simple truth is that you want no part of this team in January because the Ravens might be one of the more balanced teams in football.

The Steelers. The defending Super Bowl champions are still fighting for their playoff lives, but the truth is that the Steelers have more problems than they have had in some time. Two weeks ago, head coach Mike Tomlin had such little faith is his defense (sound familiar) that he ordered an onside kick with a 30-29 lead against Green Bay, a move that backfired despite an eventual 37-36 Steelers win.

Still, the Steelers know how to win. Despite the absence of a reliable running game, the passing attack could present big problems for the Patriots. Despite Tomlin's apparent feelings toward his defense, the Steelers can get to Brady and are physical enough to neutralize Moss, which creates its own set of problems.

Fine, so the Steelers aren't the same team that came in here and throttled the Pats last year. But aren't there far better matchups for the Patriots in the first round than the men of steel?

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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