In all likelihood, the Patriots are heading to the playoffs. Even if they lose again in Baltimore, the Pats could still amazingly finish with a first-round bye.
Three teams in the AFC have already locked up their spots, with only their seeding left to be determined. Denver and Kansas City are both in – the Broncos are likely to be the West champs and Indianapolis has clinched the South. Cincinnati and Baltimore are battling for the North and, of course, that leaves New England and Miami vying for the East. One of those last four will fall short. Presently, it would be the Dolphins.
All the Pats have to do is win one game against the surging Ravens or the lowly Bills and they’ll lock up their fifth straight division crown and their 11th in 13 years. In actuality, a Bengals loss would get them in as well. Rest assured, it’s going to happen. The Patriots don’t have to win the next time out, nice as it would be to have the option of resting key guys in Week 17 and not having the potential must-win pressure.
But it’s not unreasonable to think it won’t happen this weekend, unless the Fins manage to fall in Buffalo against Thad Lewis or the Bengals bungle their way through a game with the Vikings.
Sunday’s showdown will have all the feel of a playoff game for a Patriots team trying to avoid consecutive losses for the first time since September of last season and a favored (-2.5) Ravens squad riding a four-game winning streak and playing for the postseason. In recent years, games of such magnitude in this underappreciated rivalry haven’t benefited the Pats.
New England’s dropped two of three all-time playoff meetings with Baltimore, all of which have taken place in Foxborough. Last year, the Pats were thumped 28-13 in the conference title game before the much celebrated Ray Lewis Super Bowl swan song. A year earlier, the Patriots advanced from that same game with the breathing room of a field goal thanks to a Lee Evans dropped ball and Billy Cundiff’s poor aim. In 2010, the Birds were dominant, 33-14, in the AFC Wild Card affair.
As has been well documented, the Ravens don’t fear the Patriots and there’s plenty of hatred to go around. Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata don’t think much of Tom Brady, John Harbaugh’s never offered to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings and he surely won’t now that he has one of his own, and their improving top-10 defense (surprisingly without Lewis and Ed Reed) knows it can stop a makeshift offense that lacks any stars beyond the one distributing the ball. And say what you want about Joe Flacco, but he’s been an elite quarterback when it’s mattered most and money has been on the line.
The Pats have the better coach and the better quarterback, but the favoritism pretty much ends there. Add to that the Ravens’ momentum, 6-1 home record, and the return of Dennis Pitta, plus the fact that the Patriots have lost four of five on the road and haven’t won in Baltimore since 2007. This may not go well.
If that’s the case, if the Patriots lose this next game, what does that say about the team?
We could all ask if Baltimore has New England’s number or question whether the Ravens are the chink in Belichick’s armor. Really, those conversations wouldn’t be all that important just yet, certainly not after a regular season game.
But, would it be fair to say then that the injuries are just too much to overcome? That the Patriots have already peaked? That, even with a first-round bye, they’re no match for the NFL’s toughest foes in the NFC?
Yes, yes, and yes. Frankly, I think that’s still the case if they win.
There was a time not long ago when we spoke of the Pats and their arsenal of weapons as superior to the rest of the competition. It hasn’t always ended in confetti – look no further than the Super Bowl’s host city for evidence of that – but there was reason to be confident. Obnoxiously cocky, some might say. They were just better.
Now, though, we’re looking for reasons that the Patriots could win in the playoffs because the inferiority isn’t necessarily there like it’s always been.
Don’t you know? Peyton Manning chokes in the postseason and he’s terrible in cold weather. Alex Smith has never won a big game. The Bengals won't take the big one as long as Marvin Lewis is in charge. Andrew Luck? He’s good, but he won’t get the job done without Reggie Wayne.
Maybe enough of those are true. Say New England does reach New York?
Well, let’s see if Russell Wilson or Drew Brees can win outdoors in the elements. Who knows which Cam Newton will show up? And, sure, the Niners got there last year, but who have they really beaten this season aside from the Seahawks once at home by two?
Reason after optimistic reason to give us hope.
The glory days aren’t over. Belichick and Brady aren't going anywhere, and that's always reason enough for high hopes. The Patriots could load up in 2014 like they did in 2007, or simply enjoy better health. But the ending to this script may already be written – even if it has been one of the coach’s finest jobs in a storied career.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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