After defeating the Miami Dolphins 35-14 on New Year's day, the New England Patriots have clinched the #1 seed for the upcoming AFC playoffs. This means that for the sixth time since 1990, the road to the Super Bowl will go through Foxboro. The Patriots are seen as the clear cut favorite to come out of the AFC; however, how do they really stack up against their competition?
The largest advantage the Patriots have is at quarterback. The Raiders, Dolphins, and Texans are all going into the postseason with their backup quarterbacks at the helm. Meanwhile, the Patriots have the indisputable greatest postseason quarterback of all time on their side. Tom Brady’s 22 postseason wins are the most by any QB in NFL history and surpass the combined total of all the other AFC playoff QB’s by 9 (11 for Ben Roethlisberger and 2 for Alex Smith). Brady holds nearly every statistical postseason record for NFL QB’s to go along with his 15-3 postseason record in Gillette Stadium. Not to mention, TB12 just finished this year with the best single season TD:INT ratio of all time. Given that he has 2 weeks to get his body ready for the final stretch run, I expect the 39 year old legend to light up any opposing defense that stands in his way.
The difference between this year's Patriots team and last years squad is in the running game. Last year, the Patriots were forced to rely on Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden running behind a suspect offensive line. Even that team managed to take Denver, the eventual champion, down to the wire and nearly get the win. Now we have the NFL rushing TD leader in LaGarrette Blount, alongside the shifty Dion Lewis running behind a much improved offensive line that can be largely credited to good health and the return of Dante Scarnecchia. This gives the Patriots offense a multitude of different options. As opposed to predictably having Brady drop back to pass every play, the Patriots now have the ability to run the ball in order to keep the chains moving. This opens up the play action game and will keep opposing defenses guessing. Even without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense remains multidimensional and as scary as ever.
On the defensive side of the ball, Matt Patricia’s unit has exceeded expectations this season. They finished the regular season allowing the least amount of points in the NFL with an average of just under 16 points allowed per game. Looking at their potential opponents, the only offense that scares me is the Steelers. I am most concerned about matching up with Le’veon Bell. In their first match up with the Steelers, New England still had Jamie Collins to contain him. Now they are left with a platoon of less athletic linebackers that I am not confident can keep Bell from having a big game. If the Dolphins or Chiefs can help the Patriots and knock Pittsburgh out in the early rounds, there is no other offense that New England's defense should be scared of.
If I had to bet my life on either the Patriots or the field to come out of the AFC, I would 100% bet on the Patriots. Tom Brady made it his mission this year to force Roger Goodell to shake his hand and hand over the Lombardi trophy, and he will stop at nothing to make that happen. With that in mind, I fully expect Psycho Tom to show up in his house and play at high level in both the divisional round and in the AFC championship game. As far as the Super Bowl, we’ll get to that when the time comes. For now, let’s just stick to what we know. The road to Super Bowl LI will come through Foxboro, and we have the Greatest Quarterback of All-Time leading the way.
Photo Credit: (Boston Globe)