The Patriots have won more games than any other NFL team during the last four regular seasons, but they don’t have a Super Bowl victory to show for it. Against that backdrop, this year’s NFL playoffs set up as a measure of where the franchise ranks and where it’s headed.
Where the Patriots are headed in the immediate future is into a postseason that is cloudier than any in recent memory. If we could make these predictions with any kind of accuracy, we’d be very, very wealthy. Lady luck probably won’t cash any checks for us in Vegas, but we gave it our best shot anyway.
1. The Patriots’ tight ends will make a difference
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches and 2,237 yards this season, with the position being a dominant feature of a strong New England offense. Hernandez was limited by injury during last year’s playoffs, and Gronkowski has made a tremendous leap in his second year. The two players should prevent the Patriots from becoming stagnant or too reliant on Wes Welker on offense, and they will be a handful no matter the opponent.
2. Tim Tebow will falter
The Patriots ended Denver’s six-game winning streak on Dec. 18, and since then the Tebow magic just hasn’t been there. In a 7-3 loss to the Chiefs last week, Tebow was 6 of 22 with a QB rating of zero in the fourth quarter. No matter which side of the argument you were on, it was hard to argue with Tebow’s winning results. The Broncos aren’t winning now, and they’re unlikely to win this week against Pittsburgh. Even if they do win that game, a repeat performance on the road against a higher-seeded team just isn’t in the cards for Denver.
3. Big Ben’s ankle will be an issue
Ben Roethlisberger revealed on Wednesday that he suffered a setback with his ankle in practice, bad news for the banged-up franchise quarterback. The Steelers would probably be the AFC favorite if Roethlisberger were healthy because their defense is solid and because Big Ben’s mobility is difficult to defend against, especially for teams like the Patriots with questionable secondaries. Now? The Steelers, already without injured running back Rashard Mendenhall, look vulnerable.
4. Rex Ryan won’t shut up
The Jets head coach called his team the kings of New York before losing to the Giants a couple of weeks ago, and he’s publicly called out Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the past. Ryan may be out of the playoffs, but he’s unlikely to stay silent as they’re going on. How long until someone calls the brash Ryan at home to solicit a “we could be either of these teams” quote from him?
5. The Saints and Lions will put up 90 points
The official over/under for this game as established by Las Vegas oddsmakers is 59 points, the highest ever for an NFL playoff game. In the dome in New Orleans, these teams could shatter that total. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford both threw for more than 5,000 yards this season, and Brees threw for 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions at home this season. Get your popcorn ready.
6. The Patriots will show up
Tom Brady has been sacked 13 times in his last three playoff games, all losses by the Patriots (one was the Super Bowl loss to the Giants). Pressure on Brady was a theme in those games, but the Patriots are currently battling against the perception that their great regular seasons are followed by duds in the playoffs. The Jets shocked the Patriots last year, and the Ravens ran out to a 33-14 win at Gillette Stadium a year before. With a more balanced attack and likely a less dangerous opponent in Round 1, expect the Patriots to come out stronger this time.
7. Home-field advantage will matter
The Patriots haven’t fared well at home in their last two playoff appearances, and their fans haven’t been known as great noise-makers. Still, home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs gives the Patriots -- who were 7-1 at home this season -- the best chance to win. The alternative -- games in, say, Pittsburgh or Baltimore -- would probably find the top-seeded Patriots as underdogs. In addition to the Patriots, home field gives the Saints, Packers, and Niners a chance to win in the NFC, and it could be the difference in showdowns between any of those teams.
8. The Texans won’t miss Matt Schaub
Houston ranks second in the NFL in both defensive yards per game and rushing yards on offense, so the absence of their starting quarterback won’t be the deciding factor in their playoff run. They should be able to beat the Bengals at home, and anything after that probably would have happened with or without Schaub. Their destiny, like that of the rest of the AFC, remains very much uncertain.
9. Eli’s team will let him down
Giants quarterback Eli Manning had a fantastic individual season, leading the fifth-ranked passing offense in the league with 29 touchdown passes and almost 5,000 passing yards. But these aren’t your slightly-older cousin’s Giants. The G-men were dismal on defense this season, ranking 27th in the league in yards allowed, putting them only four places ahead of the much-maligned Patriots. The Giants should bow out early.
10. The AFC will surprise us
This is kind of a cheap prediction since no one knows what will happen in the AFC playoffs. Ray Lewis and the Ravens are a sexy upset pick as a No. 2 seed. The Patriots might not even be the favorite as a No. 1 seed. The Steelers could win, but if they do, it will be surprising given Ben Roethlisberger’s health. The Broncos aren’t expected to even contend, while the Texans and Bengals haven’t been there at all. Should be fun.