Now that the four wild-card games are over, the four teams that had the weekend off — the Broncos, Patriots, Falcons, and 49ers — can begin to sharpen their preparations, with their opponents finally determined.
Those with first-round byes have plenty going for them in the divisional round. They’ll be playing at home, and will have had an opportunity to get healthy — or at least healthier — during the week off. All four teams that earned a bye are favored this weekend, according to the oddsmakers.
The eight teams remaining are a win away from the conference championship games, but those coming off the bye need only win at home this weekend to advance. For the Patriots, beating the Texans on Sunday at Gillette Stadium — a rematch of a regular-season game less than a month ago, won by the Patriots, 42-14 — will send them to the AFC Championship game for the seventh time in 12 years.
With Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots have played in six AFC title games. They’ve won five.
In their six most recent trips to the AFC Championship, the Patriots had a first-round playoff bye five times. Only in the 2006 season, when they won the AFC East but were the conference’s No. 4 seed, did the Patriots follow a win on wild-card weekend with another victory, advancing to the conference title game that year in Indianapolis against the Colts.
Advantages that come with a first-round bye? There are definitely a few.
“It’s one less game that you have to play in this league,” Belichick said. “At this time of year, you know you’re playing a good team. Whoever you play, they’re going to be good. Having to play one less game, I think there’s some advantage to that.”
Those built-in plusses don’t always translate into the hoped-for on-field result, however. Chances are quite good, history has shown, that at least one of the home teams coming off a bye will lose this weekend.
In keeping with the period of time since the Patriots’ first of three Super Bowl titles, here’s how the top two seeds have fared the past 11 years in the divisional round, with bye-team losers noted:
2001: 3-1 (Philadelphia beats No. 2 Chicago)
2003: 2-2 (Indianapolis beats No. 2 Kansas City, Carolina beats No. 2 St. Louis)
2005: 2-2 (Pittsburgh beats No. 1 Indianapolis, Carolina beats No. 2 Chicago)
2006: 2-2 (New England beats No. 1 San Diego, Indianapolis beats No. 2 Baltimore)
2007: 2-2 (San Diego beats No. 2 Indianapolis, New York Giants beat No. 1 Dallas)
2008: 1-3 (Baltimore beats No. 1 Tennessee, Philadelphia beats No. 1 New York Giants, Arizona beats No. 2 Carolina)
2009: 3-1 (New York Jets beat No. 2 San Diego)
2010: 2-2 (New York Jets beat No. 1 New England, Green Bay beats No. 1 Atlanta)
2011: 3-1 (New York Giants beat No. 1 Green Bay)
Add those results up, and home teams seeded first or second and coming off the bye are 28-16 in the divisional round over the past 11 seasons. Narrow that list to just the past seven seasons, though, and the record is only 15-13.
The Patriots have made the playoffs 10 times under Belichick. This marks the seventh time they’ve been seeded either first or second, and only once have they been bounced in the divisional round when they opened with a bye. The Jets beat the top-seeded Patriots at Gillette two years ago, 28-21.
How important has it been for the Patriots to get a playoff bye? The five times that Belichick and Brady have taken the Patriots to the Super Bowl, they’ve been seeded No. 1 or No. 2.
Just once in team history have the Patriots reached the Super Bowl when seeded third or worse, starting their quest on wild-card weekend. That was after the 1985 season, when they were the AFC’s No. 5 seed, won three playoff games, then lost to the Bears.
It certainly can be done, though, and has been done recently. Over the last seven seasons, five teams that played a wild-card game eventually won the Super Bowl, including the last two champions (Giants last year, Packers two years ago). A pair of wild-card teams (Giants in the 2007 season, Steelers in 2005) have won recent Super Bowls.
Only one wild-card team — Seattle — is still playing this postseason. The other seven remaining teams won their divisions.
Sixteen games in (20 if you count the preseason), the Patriots, Broncos, Falcons, and 49ers have reached a new point.
They’ve done enough so far to earn the spoils that a successful regular season brings: the chance for welcome rest, some time to heal, a spot on the couch for the opening weekend.
Now it’s time to go back to work. The Patriots are scheduled to return to the practice field Tuesday, and go four straight days, getting ready for the Texans. Unlike the final weekend of the regular season, when the Patriots could have been seeded first, second, third, or fourth, their situation now is crystal clear.
“From here on out, we have to win,” Vince Wilfork said after the Patriots’ regular-season finale. “That’s reality. There’s no beating around the bush. If you want to get to where you want to be, you have to win out.
“If you lose now, you go home. So it’s up to us to decide what we want to do, how we want to be. We’re in the driver’s seat right now, so we drive the car where it needs to go.”