Setting aside the 12-game winning streak that vaulted the Patriots past the Chiefs as the #1 seed in the AFC playoff tournament set to begin with divisional games this weekend, New England might be in for more of a struggle than they realize.
The Patriots are either going to face the Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans or Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs. The obvious choice is to play the Ravens who have a solid defense, great running game but their passing offense is weak.
New England does not want to face the Broncos or the Titans in the playoffs. They don't match up well against either one of them plus they've already beaten them once this season and that won't be an easy feat to accomplish that trick again.
For all the experts who claim the Patriots are a lock to get back to the Super Bowl, they need to understand that this team has won 12 games in a row, still has a questionable running game and is totally dependent on their quarterback, that this team could be in for a rude awakening in their second round playoff game.
What the Patriots did down the stretch and the coaching job by Bill Belichick has been amazing. The team suffered through injuries, player defections and still somehow managed to weave rookies and second year players into a defense led by a few veterans. Simply the best coaching job in the NFL.
On offense, they relied on Brady to win games on the road, while he struggled at home. Before the Bills game, Brady had thrown only TWO touchdowns at home the first seven home games of the season. Saturday afternoon, he doubled that total with four but the Bills defense was anything but aggressive or stellar. Still four touchdowns is a tremendous day for a quarterback that struggles playing at home.
The Patriots offense has improved their running game but you can't count of controlling time of possession in the playoffs with a short passing game. Too many bad things can happen. Although Brady has not thrown an interception at home this season,, it will be much tougher to be effective offensively if they don't run the ball.
Running back Antowain Smith has ran for nearly 200 yards his last two games but still the Patriots prefer to feature an empty backfield and a four wide receiver set. Wide receiver Troy Brown has been affective in his return. But so have Deion Branch, David Givens and Bethel Johnson. They all can go over the middle to catch passes and they understand their roles on the team.
That's a key advantage to the Patriots success on offense. But you have to wonder what impact winning 12 games in a row will do for this team knowing that one loss and the season is over. In addition, the Patriots will have to carry the weight of being the #1 AFC seed and unless the weather is brutally cold or snowing, they might not have much of an advantage in the playoffs.
Outside of their last game against the Bills, the Patriots have not blown out their opponents. They allow teams to hang around but eventually finish them off. But they do it by an average of seven points or less and that's too close for comfort in the playoffs.
If the Patriots show the same offensive intensity and can avoid any hits on Brady as they did against the Bills, then they have a good shot at breaking the jinx of #13 and also the #1 seed. Those are mighty powerful stokes of fortunes to overcome.
Looking down the road. If the Patriots face the Broncos, they could be in for a nightmare stopping Jake Plummer and Clinton Portis. The Denver defense has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback but they do have holes in their secondary. But as a unit the safeties and corners play well together and they have the ability to shut down an effective passing game especially if they do not have to worry about a running game.
The Titans with Steve McNair will be in any game on the road. The Patriots defeated them once this year at home and the Titans simply did not play a very good game. Like the New England the Titans don't rush the ball. Their strength on defense is stopping the run but they can be beat down the field in the passing game.
The Ravens can run the ball down the Patriots throat. On defense Baltimore can put enough pressure on Brady to force him into some errant throws. Their might not be a better bump and run defense than the Ravens. That does not bode well for the Patriots.
All three potential opponents in a one game winner or take all format can defeat the Patriots at home. New England must play even sharper than they have down the stretch. The downside is they beat up on some very bad teams.
They stand 5-1 against playoff teams this season and that's a good sign for a team that wants to advance to the Super Bowl. But most of those wins were on the road and for some reason playing at home, the Patriots have taken advantage of the elements and poor play by their opponents.
That won't happen in the playoffs.
For the first time in ten years anyone of the six AFC playoffs seeds could wind up in the Super Bowl. Kansas City after their strong performance against the Chicago Bears seem to be back in a groove. The Titans continue to win without McNair in the lineup, the Ravens win despite no solid quarterback, the Colts behind Manning continue to be impressive on the road and the Broncos are just plain scary.
New England is also going to be distracting with the inevitable overtures of their top two assistant coaches. Over the next week as many as ten head coaching jobs could be open. The Patriots Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel are going to be hot commodities. In fact, Crennel will speak with the Falcons on Thursday and Weis is expected to talk with the New York Giants the same day.
So for those who think it's a cakewalk for the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl, better hold on tight. Two huge streaks are against New England despite having home field advantage. Winning two more games in a row in the playoffs will be far more difficult than winning the last twelve consecutive games for the Patriots.
The road might indeed be tougher than the #1 seed warrants this time around.