Friday, January 7, 2011

Easiest Path to the Super Bowl

There are no real juggernauts in this year’s NFL.  Every team could potentially be undone by flaws on offense, defense, special teams, or even coaching.  So as often happens, the road to the Super Bowl will largely come down to which team matches up best with the opponent it has to play.

Play teams you usually beat, teams with weaknesses that work to your strengths, teams that can't handle what your home field dishes out (weather, crowd noise, etc.) -- and your chances of reaching the big game increase.  Play teams that frustrate your offense, skewer your defense, or that are built for January football, and your chances decrease.

Considering only the issue of matchups, here are the Patriots potential playoff foes, in order from the team they should most like to see to the team should least like to see.  Note that nothing here is guaranteed; but given past results, injury status, and playoff experience, here are the AFC playoff teams, listed in the order you'd most like to see them in Foxboro, because they would give the Patriots the best shot at advancing another week.

(A quick spoiler, get ready to hold your nose and root for the Jets this weekend.)

1.  Pittsburgh Steelers

You might be shocked to see the #2 AFC seed listed at the easiest win, but the Patriots simply own the Steelers, especially in the playoffs and especially when Tom Brady plays.  The Steelers haven't beaten Brady since Ben Roethlisberger's sixth career start, way back in 2004.  Tom Terrific is 4-1 against Pittsburgh in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs.

The Steelers like to do what they do best, and don't mix it up much from week to week.  That makes them an easy mark for a Patriots team that always evolves and can win just about any way imaginable.  One additional factor in New England's favor: for some reason they always have better special teams than Pittsburgh.  Special teams won them the 2001 AFC Championship game, and the Steelers almost never get that aspect of the game to go in their favor against the Patriots.

Speaking of AFC Championships; the Pats and Steelers can't meet until that game this post-season.  So if the Patriots win on January 16, keep your fingers crossed that the Big Bad Steelers come to town the next week.  It's the surest bet on the table for a Patriots Super Bowl berth. 

2.  New York Jets

Not an easy game, but the Jets as currently constituted do not appear to be much of a threat to take out the Patriots in Foxboro.  Their defense is better suited to stop traditional wide receivers; Randy Moss, Larry Johnson, or even Chad Ochocinco types.  Their corners are physical at the line, slowing route development enough for the pass rush to get there.

But their stout cornerbacks and run-stopping linebackers got schooled by short, quick passes in the 45-3 drubbing they suffered in Foxboro.  And there isn't much evidence that Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromartie can suddenly change techniques to disrupt those routes.  Besides, even if they do it would open up room for Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, or Danny Woodhead.

Besides, Rex Ryan should know by now that it's a game of inches, not a game of feet!
(Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

3.  Kansas City Chiefs

You hear it a lot, that Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel know the Patriots as well as the Pats know themselves, and those two coordinators can devise a new scheme to stop Tom Brady and attack the Patriots defense.  Only one flaw in the plan: Bill Belichick knows those two pretty well, too, along with the tendencies and weaknesses of their quarterback, Matt Cassel.

Under different circumstances this would be a decent chess match -- like if the Chiefs had anywhere near the talent the Patriots do.  But they do not, especially at the all-important quarterback position.  Kansas City is slightly more likely than the Jets to pull off an upset, but only because they might surprise the Pats and get a quick lead.  But how likely are they to do that to a guy who knows them as well as they know themselves?

4.  Indianapolis Colts

Any team with Peyton Manning will always be a threat in a one-and-done situation, so the Colts are a dangerous opponent.  And remember that in November the Pats had them down 31-14 with 8:00 left and had to hang on for a 31-28 win.

There are two main reasons the Colts are not as tough an out as the Ravens (ranked #5).  First, they aren't as healthy, missing receiver Austin Collie, as well as Dallas Clark and safety Bob Sanders.  Secondly the weather in November was actually pretty good.  It was 37-degrees, sunny, and not windy at all (6 mph), and the January weather is sure to be worse.

The Colts can't play the Patriots until the AFC Championship game (if either team makes it), and I doubt Peyton and company will luck into such benign conditions on January 23.  More likely they'll face snow, colder conditions, and almost certainly more wind.  Hell, games in *August* usually have stronger winds than 6 mph!

5.  Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are the team you least want to see in town this January.  They had the Pats down by 10 points earlier this year in Foxboro, and since then they got all-world safety Ed Reed back and Joe Flacco is doing a better job at quarterback.  And Flacco had his second best QB rating of the year against the Patriots (119.3); though admittedly that was when Devin McCourty was still developing and Brandon Meriweather was still starting.

The Ravens aren't what they used to be on defense, giving up late leads a few times (including the Pats game), and Flacco isn't the most dangerous quarterback in the league.  But Baltimore put together a team in the same sense as the Patriots: they can beat you in many different ways, they don't turn the ball over much (just 20 all season), and they are sound on special teams.

If the Patriots have to play the Ravens, let's hope they meet on January 23, not January 16.  A later meeting would mean Baltimore had to win two road games just to get to the AFC Championship game.  And they play with so much emotion it is doubtful they could crank it up a third straight week.  But if the Pats have to play Baltimore on January 16, watch out!


If you are looking for the easiest path to the Super Bowl for your Patriots, you should root for the Jets this weekend.  That would knock out the second toughest AFC opponent (Colts), and would have the Patriots playing the second easiest AFC opponent (Jets) on January 16.  And if the Pats took care of business on the 16th, it would leave either the easiest opponent (Steelers), the third easiest (Chiefs), or a team emotionally drained by two road wins (Ravens).

Again, take all this with about 100 grains of salt.  Nothing is for sure in the NFL.  But the path of least resistance to Dallas is Pats-Jets followed by Pats-Steelers.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  14-2!

1 comment:

  1. A couple of notes. I like the Jets matchup. This is for a number of reasons.

    They have to blitz to get pressure, which means all the receivers are 1:1 and Brady lives on slants and ins 1:1.

    Second, Revis is their best player. Against these Pats, the best player on the Jets is therefore neutralized. Revis takes out, who, Branch or Welker? Probably Branch. It is not as much of a loss to the team as if Revis was covering an Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. Their best player is essentially neutralized by a decent but not great player for us. He was actually more important when we had Moss, yet another weird way the Moss trade "helped" us in addition by subtraction.

    I would put Indy as the one they least want to see (I know, they are out, but still). Peyton is still Peyton. Baltimore still has Flacco and I don't trust him in the playoffs. They won in Foxboro last year because they got a lead and the Pats just couldn't hang without Welker.

    Actually, I though the three most dangerous teams to the Pats were in the NFC: Packers (played them tough at home with Flynn), Eagles (so quick and dangerous, will turn any secondary mistake into 6 in a heartbeat), and Saints (methodical QB who will tear a young secondary apart). So, I think we got the best possible result this weekend, knocking Indy, KC, and two of those three NFC teams out.