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Patriots: Playoff pitfalls?

There are mathematical chances and real chances, and with two weeks to go it is probably time for Patriots fans to face the real ones, which are that there will be a long row to hoe for their team to return to the Super Bowl this year. It is hardly Mission Impossible, given the shaky caliber of their competition in the parity-infested NFL. But it is more likely their plane will be hit by lightning for the second time this season than that they will capture lightning in a Gatorade bottle for the second time this millennium (the Super Bowl win over the Rams being the first).

At the moment, the Patriots are the fourth seed in the AFC, meaning they would host the Bengals or Broncos in the first round barring any other changes, although the Jaguars and Jets remain very live outsiders in what has become an 11-team race to the postseason tournament. The Bills and Steelers still have a slim chance, and the Titans do, as well, but because of a 4-6 conference record and 7-7 record overall it might be a waste of time for anyone in Nashville to be booking flights to either Boston or Indianapolis for wild-card weekend.

In theory, New England still could earn a first-round bye, but that would require collapses by Baltimore and Indianapolis -- and there is no sign of that. So let's concede the top two slots to the Chargers, who are the best and most balanced team in the conference, and either the Colts or Ravens.

So where does that leave the Patriots? Probably in the fourth slot unless they collapse against the hungry (and surely angry) Jaguars on Christmas Eve and again on New Year's Eve in Nashville. The downside for New England is that it is on the road the final two weekends of the season, first facing a desperate team in Jacksonville, which at 8-6 and with a 5-5 conference record is stuck in the seventh position in a six-team tournament and knows it cannot lose again to have a decent chance of reaching the playoffs.

Then the Patriots visit a young Titans team that has won five in a row and believes if rookie Vince Young had been at quarterback all season it would have been a lot better than 7-7. Whether or not the Titans are in the playoff hunt on the season's last Sunday, they'd like nothing better than to beat the Patriots to make a statement.

That the Jaguars are clinging to a shot at the last playoff spot doesn't make them good, but it does make them dangerous. So, too, does their defense, which is nasty and efficient. What is neither nasty nor efficient is an offense that had the ball for three quarters Sunday against the Titans and managed to score more points for Tennessee (giving up three defensive scores) than for itself (17). The Jags can run the ball, but the Patriots can stop that more effectively, which puts the load on the one person Jacksonville doesn't want it on -- quarterback David Garrard.

So the Jaguars, in the long run, would be the least of the Patriots' postseason problems. The teams Patriots fans should not want to see coming to Foxborough on wild-card weekend are the Bengals, who are considerably improved on defense since they faced New England early in the season; the Jets, who easily could finish 10-6 and would be a difficult opponent for a team they and their nameless coach know all too well; or the Broncos.

The Broncos? Aren't they in free fall with a rookie quarterback now leading them more often backward than forward? They are, but they also are a bad stylistic match for the Patriots and have proven it repeatedly in recent seasons. It's best that they be left alone, if at all possible, although I'd rather play them than the Jets, to be honest.

More than likely, however, the third-place team will end up hosting the Broncos, Bengals, Jets, Jaguars, or whomever staggers into that sixth and final playoff spot, with New England faced with playing the Broncos or the Cincinnati Mugshots, a team that has had as many players arrested (8) as it has victories this season.

Cincinnati's defense allowed only 33 points over the four games before its 34-16 loss to the Colts last night and had begun to play far better against the inside run, a sign that Marvin Lewis's teaching may finally be rubbing off on his team. That defense still is not as formidable as New England's, but it's good enough to win with on any given day because Cincinnati's offense can hit you deep and spread any secondary thin, or run over you with Rudi Johnson.

More than likely the Patriots' 6-4 conference record dooms any shot at a first-round bye, and a second-round game would hold no attractive matchup for them. That's where the problems that have plagued their offense all year very likely will resurface in deadly fashion.

Like Denver, Miami, and Chicago, the Chargers and Ravens, two of the Patriots' possible second-round foes, are stylistically bad for New England's offense because they can play the Patriots' wideouts man-to-man in most circumstances, freeing their safeties and linebackers to harass Tom Brady. They also have enough speed at linebacker and safety to handle the threat of New England's tight end, Benjamin Watson. They also force turnovers at an alarming rate, the Ravens leading the NFL with a plus-15 differential. And let's not even get into the mounting number of nagging injuries the Patriots seem to be accumulating each weekend.

But enough about the second round for now. That's a worry for another day. For now, just concentrate your mojo on wild-card weekend and hope New England ends up facing the Jaguars, Bills, or Steelers, and not the Bengals, Broncos, or Jets. They could beat any of those contenders, but they'll have a lot less trouble with any of the first three than any of the last three.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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