The Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Colts and and Jets. With the possible exception of the Kansas City Chiefs, will it really be a surprise if any of those teams are representing the AFC in Dallas on February 6?
We haven’t seen a cast like that since "The Departed.’’
And so now we enter what Bill Parcells affectionately referred to as "the tournament,’’ a term more fitting than ever in the early days of 2011. The AFC is wide open this year. As good as the Patriots were during the regular season, their margin for error is relatively small. No one should be shocked if the AFC plays out like the early rounds of the NCAA tourney, when one bad game can destroy a full season of work.
For that matter, ditto for the NFC. Excluding the Seattle Seahawks, the five remaining participants in the conference all pose significant threats. Add it all up and you have the makings for an NFL postseason like no other in recent memory.
Come Feb. 6, it could be Pats-Eagles, Steelers-Bears, Ravens-Falcons, Packers-Jets, Colts-Saints … or any one from a number of other combinations and permutations. Of course, some of those outcomes are more likely than others. But none would be a total shock.
With regard to all of the teams in the postseason, let’s give the Patriots their due – and not solely because they had the best record (14-2). New England played seven games against playoff teams and won six, their only loss coming in Week 2 at the Jets. (The Pats avenged that performance with a 45-3 pasting of New York on Dec. 6.) The Pats also defeated the Ravens by 3, the Steelers by 13, the Colts by 3, the Bears by 29 and the Packers by 4. New England will spend the entire AFC postseason in Foxborough and was the only NFL team to go unbeaten at home in 2011.
If that makes the Patriots a clear favorite in your mind, so be it. But as Tom Brady pointed out following yesterday’s win over the Dolphins, the Pats already have claimed the rewards from their regular season. They get a week off. Then they play at home. Nothing else is a given.
For the Pats, the best matchup in the first round is certainly open to debate, but they appear to have caught a break in the seeding structure. By virtue of a last-second win over Tennessee, the Indianapolis Colts locked up the No. 3 seed and absolutely, positively cannotplay at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 16. That means Indianapolis must win twice before a potential rematch with the Pats in the AFC title game, minimizing the chance that Peyton Manning will have yet another crack at undressing the New England pass defense.
Beyond that, there are really more easy games or certainties. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis all have won Super Bowls since the turn of the millennium. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has one fewer Super Bowl ring than Brady does. The Ravens had the Patriots beaten in Foxborough earlier this season before the hosts rallied in the fourth quarter. Regardless, the Ravens’ playoff victory here last January is New England’s only home loss with Brady at quarterback since 2006. And the Jets may not scare you, but they are 2-2 against the Patriots with the tandem of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez – and they went to the AFC title game last year.
On some level, even the Chiefs post an interesting matchup with a host of former ex-Pats including Scott Pioli, Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Mike Vrabel and Matt Cassel. With the exception of Cassel, who was drafted in 2005, all of those men won multiple titles in New England and know the Patriots operation as well as anyone outside of Belichick and Brady.
As for the NFC, if you dare to look that far, everyone with the exception of the Seahawks and, perhaps, the Bears, poses a dilemma. The Saints, Falcons, Packers and Eagles all have explosive offenses. (Green Bay nearly beat the Patriots here with backup quarterback Matt Flynn.) Michael Vick and the Eagles are a scary matchup for any defense. The last time the Saints played the Patriots in a meaningful game, New Orleans blew off New England’s doors – then went on to win the Super Bowl. Former Boston College star and current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has evolved into one of the most dangerous and efficient quarterbacks in the NFL, overseeing one of the more balanced offenses in football.
And then there is this: the Super Bowl will be played in a controlled environment in Dallas, increasing the likelihood of a shootout that would further test New England’s suspect pass defense.
Of course, all of that helps explain why the NFL is most perfect of the four major sports leagues. Depending on your perspective, 8-10 teams all have a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl this season. On paper, the Patriots are among the most select handful. Slightly more than a month from now, we will know whether New England’s presence as the No. 1 seed was any real indication of superiority over the balance of the field.
The tournament starts Saturday.
Let the games begin.
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