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Patriots have odd interests in first round

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 6, 2012 11:00 AM

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Despite not having won a playoff game since January 2008, the Patriots will be a second-round playoff participant for the second consecutive year this season. Let's give them credit for that much. The NFL bye is, in fact, a first-round playoff victory, a reward that allows the Patriots the right to stand by and watch others fight for their lives this weekend.

With that in mind, here is a look at the four NFL playoff games scheduled this weekend with particular attention placed on the Patriots' obvious interests:

The matchup:
Cincinnati (9-7) at Houston (10-6), 4:30 p.m.

The line: Houston by 3.

Impact on the Patriots: If Cincinnati wins, the Patriots are assured of facing the Bengals in the divisional round next weekend. If Houston wins, New England is guaranteed the winner of Sunday's game between Pittsburgh and Denver (with Houston traveling to Baltimore in the divisional round).

Overview: The fact that Vegas odds-makers have placed this line at three points should tell you plenty when you consider that home-field advantage is allegedly worth three points. Effectively, the gambling world sees this game as a dead heat - which it may very well be. The Texans and Bengals played in Week 14 at Cincinnati, Houston emerging as a 20-19 winner on a last-second touchdown pass from T.J. Yates.

Houston looked like as legitimate a threat as anyone else in the AFC this season until it lost both defensive lineman Mario Williams and quarterback Matt Schaub to season-ending injuries, which makes running back Arian Foster an obvious focus entering this game. If the Texans can run this weekend, the Bengals are likely cooked. (Cincinnati had one of the better run defenses in the NFL this year, allowing just 3.9 yards per rush (sixth).) But if the game ends up in the hands of the two rookie quarterbacks - Yates and Andy Dalton - we could very well the same kind of nip-and-tuck affair that took place in Week 14.

For the Patriots, the indisputable, one of the better scenarios would start with a Cincinnati win. If that happens, the Patriots immediately would know their first-round opponent while creating the likelihood that Pittsburgh would travel to Baltimore for the divisional round. That would ensure tha Pats facing only the Ravens or the Steelers -- and not both -- on the road to the Super Bowl.

The matchup: Detroit (10-6) at New Orleans (13-3), 8 p.m.

The line: New Orleans by 10 1/2.

Impact on the Patriots: If you're really thinking big, the Patriots' obvious concerns in the NFC come down to one thing: the best possible matchup in the Super Bowl. And while Drew Brees is a good quarterback wherever he plays, the simple truth is that he is otherworldly indoors. With this year's Super Bowl scheduled for Lucas Oil Stadium (indoors) in Indianapolis, you should be rooting for the Lions.

Overview: Everything in this game points to a shootout at the Superdome, where the Saints were 8-0 and averaged an NFL-best 41.1 points per game at home this year. (That is not a misprint.) New Orleans defeated the Lions by a 31-17 score at the dome in Week 13, with quarterbacks Brees and Matthew Stafford (both 5,000-yard passers with 40+ touchdown passes) combining for 750 yards in the air.

That said, the point spread for this game seems a little high. If the Saints win, New Orleans is guaranteed a trip to San Francisco in the divisional round. If the Lions win, Detroit will go to Green Bay. Regardless, the NFC has the far deeper field in these playoffs, with five of the six conference participants ranking in the top 10 of the league in points scored. (The San Francisco 49ers were 11th).

For the Patriots, determining a best-possible matchup in the Super Bowl is tricky. Do the Pats want a shootout, making matchups with Green Bay and New Orleans most desirable? Or do they want a pairing with a defense-first team like the Niners? Regardless, nobody should want to face Brees in a dome, where he threw 37 touchdown passes against eight interceptions this year while posting a rating of 118.7.

The matchup: Atlanta (10-6) at NY Giants (9-7), 1 p.m.

The line: New York by 3.

Impact on the Patriots: Deep down, given the outcome of Super Bowl XLII four years ago, every Patriots fan would love another crack at the Giants in the big game. That said, New York is the only NFC team the Patriots faced this year -- and the Giants ended the Patriots' home winning streak in the process. Tough call here, particularly when one considers the potential impact the Giants could have on the field. (More on this in a moment.)

Overview: On paper, at least, the Falcons have the better defense, having allowed fewer points per game while being more stingy against both the run and the pass. Assuming health, both clubs have fairly balanced offenses, though Eli Manning seemed to jump to the next level this year, giving the Giants a more explosive passing attack.

All of this is why the Vegas odd-smakers have seemingly declared this game as much of a draw as the Bengals-Texans tilt.

That said, the Giants can be scary-good when at their best. New York's defensive line can create major problems for opposing teams, something evident in the Week 17 beating of the Dallas Cowboys. If the Saints defeat the Lions, a New York victory would send the Giants to Green Bay - and there may be no team in the NFC more equipped to upend the Packers. Green Bay defeated the Giants by a 38-35 score in Week 13, but it was basically Green bay's toughest test of the year.

Translation: If you want the Packers out, the Giants may be your best bet.

The matchup: Pittsburgh (12-4) at Denver (8-8), 4:30 p.m.

The line: Pittsburgh by 8 1/2.

Impact on the Patriots: Again, by the time this game kicks off, the Patriots already may have their answer. Still, in the dreamiest of dream scenarios, the Patriots could get to the Super Bowl by facing both Denver (in the divisional round) and Houston (in the AFC Championship). But is there really any shot of that happening?

Overview: Ben Roethlisberger is banged up and the Steelers are without running back Rashard Mendaenhall -- and yet Pittsburgh is still favored by more than a touchdown on the road. The obvious reason is the inept Denver offense, which ranked just 25th in the NFL in scoring and managed just 18.5 points per game with Tim Tebow at quarterback.

Here's the problem: in the last month, with Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers scored just 30 points in three games. The Steelers should be able to beat the Broncos on the strength of their defense alone -- with almost anyone at quarterback -- but the Steelers offense has been very shaky in recent weeks.

While we've spelled out the best-case scenarios for the Patriots, the worst-case scenario, too, is obvious. New England's toughest road to the Super Bowl includes games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, a scenario that would start to develop with victories by the Texans and Steelers this weekend. And if Pittsburgh can win while keeping Denver away from Roethlisberger, the Steelers could pose a significant threat to the patriots in the divisional round next weekend.

During the regular season, of course, the Steelers defeated the Patriots at Heinz Field in a 25-17 game that was hardly so close.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

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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