Now that the regular season is over for the Patriots, we can sit back a little and take stock of where they are and where they're heading as Divisional Weekend of the playoffs looms this weekend. The Pats finished 11-5 which was good for the #2 seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and a guaranteed home game in the Divisional round. They finished a game behind the #1 seed Kansas City Chiefs which makes the ridiculous loss in Miami (or the one in Pittsburgh the following week) all the more frustrating as winning either one of those games would have given New England the #1 seed. Still, given how bizarre this season was, the #2 seed is a pretty good place to be. But what about going forward?
As the playoffs started with Wild Card weekend last week, all eyes in New England were on the two AFC games. Depending on how those shook out, the Patriots' road to the Super Bowl could unfold in myriad ways. Being the #2 seed, the Pats would play the highest remaining seed out of Houston (#3), Baltimore (#4), Los Angeles (#5), and Indianapolis (#6). I think I speak for most Pats fans when I say that I was hoping for Houston to beat Indianapolis so that the Texans would come to Foxborough. Houston was not as good as their record showed this season and this was borne out with the drubbing they took at home against the Colts. They have a history of not showing up in the postseason and had lost to New England in week 1; it's safe to say the Pats would have handled them with ease. As it shook out, the Colts won and the Chargers beat the Ravens and so LA will come to Gillette Stadium to face the Pats while Indy heads to Kansas City. So with a tough Chargers team ahead, why do I suddenly feel good about the Pats?
Because the more I think about it, the more it seems as though the path the Super Bowl might have actually gotten easier. Please keep in mind that I said MIGHT, because we won't know for sure until the games are actually played, but indulge me for a moment. The Chargers were the ultimate road warriors this season, going 8-1 away from home (and with the way their home crowds were made up mostly of visiting fans all season, one could make the case they played 16 road games this season). Philip Rivers is a future Hall of Fame quarterback who is tough as nails while on defense the Chargers have a fearsome pass rush and solid secondary. And yet...Rivers is 0-7 against Tom Brady in his career and more importantly, the weather is supposed to be cold (20 oF at game time) with wind and the chance for rain or snow.
Combined with West Coast teams traditionally struggling coming east and the fact that the Pats went 8-0 at home this season, my money is on New England. So that takes care of that game (assuming the Pats hold serve and win). What about the AFC Championship game? Won't that mean New England has to go to Arrowhead to face the scary Chiefs? Not so fast. I actually think Indianapolis is going to beat Kansas City. The Colts started out slow this season at 1-5 but have been on a tear since then, winning 10 of their last 11 (including last week in Houston). Andrew Luck returned from his long recovery from shoulder surgery and had an MVP-caliber season throwing 39 touchdowns, second only to KC's Patrick Mahomes. Even better, Indy actually has a legitimate defense for the first time in forever, led by stellar rookie Darius Leonard. Seeing as I've been living in Indy the last two years, I've involuntarily seen and heard a lot about the Colts and this year's team shaped up to be a good one. They're going up against a Chiefs team that A) has Andy Reid as their head coach, B) has a stud QB in Mahomes who has never played in a playoff game before, C) has an atrocious defense, D) has a long history of playoff failure, and E) has Andy Reid as their coach. That game is going to be a shootout of the 49-45 variety and with the way the two teams ended the season (Indy winning 10 of 11, KC going 3-3 after their 9-1 start), I think the Colts are going to win. Which means...
...if the Pats also win, they'd host the AFC Championship game at Gillette. And while the Colts are good, they'd be on the road in New England where they never win, outside in the elements (remember, they're a dome team), going up against Brady and Bill Belichick. That's a game the Pats should win, which then leads to the Super Bowl where anything can happen (especially depending on who they play). Obviously it's not perfect and in order for the path to unfold the way I laid it out, those two games will have to go the way I hope. But if you had asked me how I felt about the Pats' chances to make it to the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have had a good feeling at all. Now? I'll be disappointed if they don't.
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