'Advantage' is hardly automatic for Patriots
FOXBOROUGH - Even though the Patriots were reluctant to publicly acknowledge it, one of the biggest motivations as the regular season drew to a close was securing the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC and the home-field advantage it provides throughout the playoffs.
Now that the Patriots have it - courtesy of eight straight wins to close the campaign, and a 13-3 record - do they necessarily want it? This is, after all, a franchise that has lost its playoff opener each of the past two seasons, with both defeats coming at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots’ last loss this season - a 24-20 setback to the Giants Nov. 6 - also came at home. Far better for Patriots fans to focus on the team’s seven home wins.
“It’s only as good as you take advantage of it, really,’’ said Brian Waters, who has started all 16 games at right guard. “It’s a comfortable thing for us, to kind of stay in our routine, but outside of that, we’ve seen a lot of teams with home-field advantage not take advantage of it.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to get the most out of this week and next week, really take all these days, put them together, have some good practices, good preparations, and take advantage of [playing at home].’’
The loss to the Giants snapped the Patriots’ 20-game home winning streak in regular-season contests, which makes the last two playoff defeats stand out even more. The Patriots were 8-0 at home in 2009 and 8-0 at home in 2010, then allowed the visiting team to come in each season - the Ravens (33-14) two seasons ago, the Jets (28-21) last year - and win a playoff game.
What’s more, prior to the loss to the Ravens, the Patriots had won 11 straight playoff games at home. Now they’ve lost two straight.
“I think the most important thing is to play well,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve won at home, we’ve won on the road. We’ve lost at home, we’ve lost on the road.’’
They’d like to start another postseason win streak at Gillette, but they don’t know which team they’ll be facing a week from Saturday night. As the No. 1 seed, the Patriots will face the lowest remaining seed. It’ll be one of three teams. If No. 6 Cincinnati beats No. 3 Houston Saturday, it’s the Bengals coming this way. Should Houston win, the Patriots will welcome the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 5 Pittsburgh and No. 4 Denver.
All three teams that could be bound for Foxborough went 5-3 on the road this season. None played at Gillette Stadium, but Pittsburgh (25-17 winners) and Denver (41-23 losers) both hosted New England.
No matter which team earns the trip, the Patriots are hoping the comfort of playing at home can turn into some kind of positive factor come kickoff.
“It’s extremely valuable,’’ said cornerback Kyle Arrington, when asked about home-field advantage. “It’s hard to put into words. You feed off the home crowd, there’s already that playoff atmosphere, very energizing atmosphere. It’s our 12th man, so hopefully we can use it, do what we need to do, and come out firing on all cylinders.’’
Since the NFL playoffs were revamped in 2002 - when each conference went from three divisions and three wild-card teams to four division winners and two wild cards - playing at home hasn’t meant an especially easy path to move on. Home teams are 53-37 in the playoffs since 2002. In five of the past six seasons, road teams have won at least two of the four divisional-round games, which the Patriots will be hosting a week from Saturday.
The Packers won three road games last season on their way to a Super Bowl title. The Jets won twice away from home each of the past two seasons.
No. 1 seeds haven’t avoided the upset, either. Last year’s top seeds (New England, Atlanta) both failed to win at home, and the No. 1 seeds also went 0-2 three years ago.
Add all the numbers up, and it’s clear that playing before the home crowd offers little in the way of guarantees.
“Whoever comes out playing better football that particular day is the team that deserves to win and is going to win,’’ Arrington said. “Home or road doesn’t really matter.’’
But the Patriots are at home, hoping to stop the playoff skid at two.
“I wasn’t here, so I really can’t speak to how things went the last couple years,’’ said Waters, who signed with the Patriots last September after 11 seasons with the Chiefs and was named last week to his sixth Pro Bowl. “I can say that there’s nothing but good teams left in this thing, and there’s some teams that really do well on the road, that’s their staple.
“So you really can’t put [home field] in the equation and think that’s going to be some kind of overwhelming factor for you. It’s only as good as you use it.’’
Waters made it to the playoffs three times with the Chiefs, and played two games at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest venues in the NFL. Reminded that he has been in some stadiums where the decibel level gets cranked up, Waters was asked how Gillette compares to his former home.
“Good question,’’ he said. “Um . . . uh . . . that’s a tough question. You’re right, I have played in some loud places, and this place can be loud . . . at times.’’
But he’d rather be playing at home?
“Yeah,’’ Waters said. “Who wouldn’t?’’
He wouldn’t mind one more road trip, though. Win twice at home, and the Patriots will be in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.