New England Patriots Enter the Playoffs On a High Note

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In a season full of ups and downs, the New England Patriots head into the playoffs on what appears to be an uptick.  After two consecutive wins, albeit at home against two awful teams, the Pats once again find themselves resting on Wildcard Weekend, with a home game awaiting them in the Divisional round. 

Photo courtesy of MassLive.com
It’s difficult to take a lot of stock from their final two regular season games because of the teams they lined up against.  If the games had been flip flopped - and the Pats finished the year with that ugly win against Buffalo - the vibe around the team might be a little different.  However, they weren’t, and New England looked about as good as it has all month in the regular season finale. 

Specifically, it was the offense.  Ever since the meltdown in Miami, the defense has been trending in the right direction.  Sunday was all about the offense.  Again, it came against a Jets team that was on the verge of firing its coach, and missing several key players, but Tom Brady and the offense took full advantage. 

Brady bounced back from a woeful performance against the Bills, and looked much more like himself against New York.  It wasn't perfect, as he missed some throws - including a wide open Chris Hogan in the end zone - but it was much better than the previous two weeks.  Historically, Brady and this offense is at its best when they share the ball.  That's exactly what happened last Sunday.

Brady completed a pass to seven different receivers.  He targeted four guys five or more times.  In a blast from the past, he connected with Hogan for a game high 6 completions, and targeted him on one third of his pass attempts; and it didn't feel forced.  It felt like Brady was going through his progressions and finding the open receiver.  He didn't look rushed in the pocket.  None of his throws felt hurried, and it didn't seem like he was concerned with getting the ball out quickly.

A great deal of that is due to great protection from his offensive line all game.  Brady was sacked just once, and faced very minimal pressure.  That certainly had a lot to do with it, but it's also later in the season, so Brady may be more willing to stand in the pocket and absorb a hit.  At 41 years old, and in his 19th season, Brady knows what it takes to last an entire season.

He's even acknowledged the idea that sometimes it's more beneficial to throw a few passes in the dirt and avoid the big hit early in the season, to ensure that you last until December.  He understands how important he is to this team.  So if he has to sacrifice some plays early in the year, to ensure that he is healthy at the end, he's going to do it.  I'm okay with that. 

All that being said, one performance doesn't change what the we learned from the first 15 games this year.  This is clearly not the most talented version of the Patriots we have seen compared to previous seasons.  However, the AFC is so wide open that it may not matter.  The Kansas City Chiefs looked like the class of the conference early in the season, but have shown some vulnerability recently, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  They lost two of their last three games, and were just 2-4 against playoff teams this year.

Outside of maybe the Indianapolis Colts, any of playoff teams could realistically represent the conference in the Super Bowl.  Along those same lines, there’s not a team in the AFC that I think the Patriots are incapable of beating, especially at home.  That's why to me, it doesn't matter who they face next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.  Do they match up better with one team over another?  Sure.  The Houston Texans are probably the more favorable matchup of the three potentials, but New England will be the favorite no matter who they face next week.

However, I also think any of those three potential Divisional round opponents - Ravens, Chargers and Texans - could come here and win.  Well, maybe not Houston, but that's not the point.  Though the Pats have been pretty consistent at home, they’ve been inconsistent over the course of the entire season.  In 2009, the team went 8-0 at home and got torched at home by the Ravens on Wildcard Weekend.  I wouldn’t pick against New England at home, but if they went down, I wouldn’t come away shocked.  That’s the nature of the team this year. 

Now, the popular thought is that the Patriots will have to win the AFC Championship on the road.  I'm not so sure that's the case.  If the Chiefs draw the Colts next round, yes, I'd say the odds are with a win, New England is headed to Arrowhead for the conference championship.  However, if the Texans beat the Colts, and the Chiefs have to face the Chargers or the Ravens, things could get interesting. 

The Chargers already beat the Chiefs this year, and would have familiarity on their side as a divisional foe.  The Ravens, were it not for an epic meltdown on fourth down, would have beaten the Chiefs earlier this year as well.  It's not a lock that the Chiefs win next weekend.  Nothing is a lock in this conference this year.  That's what is going to make it so fun.

If you've learned anything from watching this team over the past couple of decades, it's that you never count out a team with Belichick on the sidelines, and Brady under center.  The bottom line, as long as those two guys are still there, the Patriots have just as good a chance as anybody to come out of the AFC.  So for once, stop thinking about who the Patriots can't beat, and just buckle up and enjoy the ride Pats fans.


Follow me on Twitter - @mcvay34

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This article was submitted prior to the Colts 21 - 7 win over the Texans in the first AFC Wild Card Game.

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Boston Sports Syndicate: New England Patriots Enter the Playoffs On a High Note
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