There was a lot of talk going into the final week of the regular season about the importance of a bye week, home field advantage, and who the Patriots would want to avoid in the playoffs. My thoughts all along were, "Who cares?"
Maybe I'm being overconfident. It's a feeling I am not too comfortable with, perhaps because it doesn't happen too often. The Patriots shouldn't fear playing anyone. The Patriots are the team other teams' fan bases should be afraid of playing.
Only in 2007 did I have this feeling of invincibility. That team was one minute from being considered, without question, the greatest team in the history of football.
Every other year during the Brady Era, there has always been that one team that scared me in the playoffs. Most years it was the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning. A couple of other years it was the Pittsburgh Steelers with their bone crushing running game and defense. One year it was the San Diego Chargers, led by LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers, Junior Seau, and Shawne Merriman. In recent years, it's been the Baltimore Ravens.
But this year, there is no team I fear. I don't care if the Patriots need to play on the road. No, I have no trepidation about going into the dreaded high altitude of Denver in January. I didn't even care if the Patriots had to play three games, instead of two, to get to the Super Bowl. It probably would have benefited the offense to stay in rhythm by not having a bye week.
Don't get me wrong-- I don't think this Patriots team is that dominant. They are no where close to the 2007 team. My overconfidence may instead be a reflection on how weak I think the rest of the league is.
Let's take a quick look at the AFC wildcard teams-- Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, and Baltimore.
The fact the Houston Texans have to play in the wildcard round is an upset. They started out the season 11-1 and appeared to have the number one seed in the AFC all but locked up. That is, until they got a wake-up call thanks to the Patriots on December 10. The Texans got man-handled, 42-14, and showed they (especially quarterback Matt Schaub and head coach Gary Kubiak) are a long way from being ready for prime time. That loss sent the Texans reeling and they ended losing three of their last four games.
The Texans find themselves playing the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals. Formerly known as "The Bungles," Cincy has won seven of their last eight and have now made the playoffs two years in a row. The Bengals, along with the Broncos, are in the top six in the NFL in fewest yards allowed on defense and most sacks. Offensively, they are led by second-year quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has become more efficient this year, but he is still a young QB. Belichick feasts on young QBs. Oh, yeah, and the Bengals have BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1094 yards rushing, 3.9 average per carry, 6 TDs). The Bengals front seven on defense is something to be concerned about.
The Colts have been a truly inspiring story. Anyone who has followed the courageous battle head coach Chuck Pagano has waged against leukemia would find it nearly impossible to root against his team. From a Patriots' perspective, that is saying a lot.
The Colts were 2-14 merely a season ago. The "Suck for Luck" strategy worked as rookie quarterback Andrew Luck passed for 4374 yards this year in leading the team to a nine-game turnaround, finishing at 11-5. Why is there not more buzz about him for M.V.P.? But, again, he is a young quarterback and the Colts' defense is horrible. The Patriots put up 59 points against the Colts on November 18.
The Baltimore Ravens are limping into the playoffs, losing four of their last five games. They may be inspired by news that future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis will be retiring following these playoffs. But inspiration only goes so far. This is not your older brother's Ravens' defense. They are middle of the road.
The Patriots, of course, will be grateful for a bye week. It allows Rob Gronkowski, Aqib Talib, and Rob Ninkovich to recover from injuries.
Gronkowski returned last week from a broken left forearm. It was obvious, however, that he was favoring the injured wing, particularly on blocks. The offense did just fine without him, but they are even more diverse with him on the field spreading the field.
Both Ninkovich and Talib are both recovering from hip injuries. The defense has gotten markedly better once Talib joined the team mid-November. A healthy Talib was able to lock down on the opposition's top receiver and, just as important, allowed Devin McCourty to switch from cornerback to safety. Along with the emergence of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the defense now looks like it can be adequate enough to win a Super Bowl.
Here's my picks for this weekend's wildcard games:
Houston beats Cincy, 20-14. Houston will buck the trends and get it done at home. That will mean they will be coming to Foxboro in a little over a week.
Green Bay blows out Minnesota, 42-10. There's usually always one blowout on wildcard weekend and this should be it. Erase the last game of the regular season from your memory-- this is the playoffs and the game will be in Green Bay where the Pack was 7-1 this year.
Baltimore beats Indianapolis, 27-17. Indianapolis' defense just isn't ready for the big stage. If John Harbaugh doesn't forget running back Ray Rice is on the team, the Ravens should be able to put up points and "Win One for Ray."
Seattle upsets Washington, 23-13. Great matchup between two rookie quarterbacks. I think Seattle can get it done on the road and maybe be poised to make a surprise run in these playoffs.