Around here, we should require no reminder to let all of the scenes play out, to let the entire plot untangle before we offer our review of the film.
The Denver Broncos and Patriots both began the season 3-3, and any serious frustrations and concerns fans here or in the Colorado area code had six weeks into the season -- Can Peyton Manning still throw downfield? Can the Patriots cover anyone? -- should have long since given way to the optimism that comes from victorious Sunday after victorious Sunday, right up until you find your team is a favorite in The Tournament.
We shouldn't have drawn conclusions early in the season, and we probably should not now. But man, the foreshadowing of the final scenes are tough to ignore on this morning after the final Sunday of the regular season, one in which the Broncos and Patriots locked up the respective Nos. 1 and 2 seeds with impressive authority.
Right now, it is impossible to resist envisioning how at the least the early stages of the postseason will play out. So how about we allow the Patriots to avoid any more bumps and bruises, breeze past the ancillary details and warmup acts, and just skip ahead to January 20 at Sports Authority Stadium and the inevitable AFC Championship Game classic-in-waiting with Manning and the Broncos?
I know, I know, we're not supposed to think that way, let alone say it or put it in print. One game at a time and all that. And Patriots players surely have been trained to know better than to even consider looking past the bye week, let alone the Texans, Ravens, or Colts, their potential AFC Divisional Playoff opponents. If Brady has had a thought about another duel with Manning, his generational and historic rival, surely it was a fleeting one.
The Patriots must focus on the task at hand, which is simultaneously getting as healthy as possible over the next two weeks -- can we now acknowledge that the bye is essential for this talented but hobbling team? -- while preparing for that yet-to-be-determined opponent. But for us, the couch-bound commentariat, looking ahead is an enjoyable temptation, especially after pretty much everything save for a Broncos loss to the Chiefs -- a wish ultimately too unrealistic to be fulfilled -- went according to plan Sunday.
The top-seeded Texans lost to the inspired Colts, and Gary Kubiak's Chargers-soft team has been reeling since its 28-point loss to the Patriots roughly a month ago. I suspect those infamous lettermen jackets, given the team's 1-3 record since their unveiling, will end up in the bonfire at the next pep rally. There was even some satisfaction to be found in the NFC, where the Giants, those two-time Super Bowl spoilers, were eliminated.
All right, in the here and now, you have to feel good about the state of the Patriots. The 28-0 shutout of the shivering Dolphins was one of those encouraging, empowering regular-season finales, somewhat reminiscent of the 38-6 rout of the hapless Panthers in 2001, the 31-0 vengeful whitewashing of the Bills in '03, or even the methodical 21-7 win over the Niners in '04. It's just the way a championship aspirer is supposed to end the regular season, with a tune-up to make sure all parts of the machine are working in unison.
Coming off a sluggish win over lowly Jacksonville that left Brady infuriated, the Patriots were all business Sunday. It felt like they were constantly on the Miami 30-yard-line or so and threatening, and you saw what you needed to see. The One-Armed Gronk returned after a five-week absence, making his first catch midway through the first quarter and opening up the field for others as only he does for a Wes Welker scoring grab seconds later. It was great to see him again.
Stevan Ridley ran for two scores and didn't put the ball on the ground, encouraging signs given his tough and skilled running style is going to be crucial to postseason success. Danny Woodhead capped a truly excellent season with another strong performance (eight touches on offense, 97 yards), and oncoming Justin Francis led a shorthanded-but-swarming defense with three sacks, which is 0.5 less than Mark Anderson and Andre Carter had combined all season.
The only aggravation was that ultimate NFL equalizer -- an injury to a key player. While Jim Nantz and Phil Simms prattled on about seeding and Dolphins kicker Nate Kaeding warmed up for one of his traditional late-season misses, Patriots fans held their collective breath as Rob Ninkovich, who is just now gaining national notice for all of the Vrabelian things he does, had to be be helped off the field with what the team said was hip injury.
Here's hoping the bye week helps his recovery, because the challenge would be tougher without him. But barring catastrophe, I still believe the Patriots will meet it. I've felt for several weeks now that this would be another Super Bowl season. I still do. Now we just know the route. It begins two weeks from now in Foxborough and it goes through Denver.
It should be noted that this the first time the Broncos and the Patriots have entered the playoffs 1-2 since the '96 postseason. The Patriots advanced to New Orleans that year. Sixteen seasons later -- and 11 after the first championship of this historic run was secured on the same site -- they will again.
Not that we're getting ahead of ourselves or anything.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.