The Patriots avenged last season, beating the Jets and the Dolphins down the stretch to finish up a 14-2 regular season and lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots have won Super Bowls without being the No. 1 seed, but their chances improve exponentially by having home-field advantage. The Patriots have had the top seed five previous times in the Bill Belichick era, and have reached the Super Bowl in four of them, winning it all in the 2003 and 2014 seasons and losing in the 2007 and 2011 seasons. The other appearance was in 2010, when the Patriots lost at home to the Jets in the divisional round.
The road to Houston for Super Bowl LI looks pretty reasonable for the Patriots. Three of the six AFC playoff teams are playing backup quarterbacks — Oakland (Matt McGloin), Houston (Tom Savage), and Miami (Matt Moore), and McGloin (shoulder) and Savage (concussion) left their games Sunday.
And the draw fell favorably for the Patriots. Their toughest challengers are the Steelers and the Chiefs, but they won’t have to face either in the divisional round, with the Chiefs the No. 2 seed and the Steelers at No. 3.
The Chiefs finished an impressive 12-4 and might be the best overall team in the AFC other than the Patriots. While the Chiefs lost to the Patriots, 27-20, at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round last year, they look to be better equipped to pull off an upset this year.
Their defense is just as stout as it was in 2015. Kansas City was fifth in the NFL in points allowed entering Sunday, with a solid pass rush led by Dee Ford (10 sacks). But the Chiefs look more explosive on offense this year thanks to rookie dynamo Tyreek Hill, who has six touchdowns receiving, three touchdowns rushing, two on punt returns, and one on a kickoff return.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is the only team that can match the Patriots in a shootout. Tom Brady is 3-0 at home in his career against Ben Roethlisberger, but Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown can never be counted out, especially in the playoffs.
The Patriots have a week to rest up and get healthy, and could play any of three opponents in the divisional round at Gillette. Let’s take a look at each team and gauge whether they have any chance of pulling off an upset:
1. Miami. The Dolphins visit the Steelers in the first round, and if they can pull off the upset — they beat Pittsburgh, 30-15, in Week 6 in Miami — they have proven to be a tough matchup for the Patriots.
While the margin of the Patriots’ win Sunday wasn’t close, two big plays — an early interception by Logan Ryan and a late forced fumble by Devin McCourty — altered the complexion of the game. The Dolphins fought back admirably from a 20-0 deficit to make it interesting, just as they did in Week 2 at Gillette after falling behind, 31-3.
The Dolphins’ receivers gave the Patriots all kinds of trouble in both matchups this season, and their defensive line frustrated Brady. Beating a team three times in a season isn’t easy, and the Dolphins are talented enough to pull off an upset if the ball bounces their way.
2. Oakland. It’s really a shame that Derek Carr broke his leg last week and is done for the season. The Raiders were one of the league’s best stories, and a Brady-Carr showdown in the AFC Championship game would have been phenomenal. Instead, the Raiders’ season falls on McGloin, whose start on Sunday was his first since his rookie season in 2013, or third-string rookie Connor Cook.
The Raiders still have a great running game with Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard, talented receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and one of the NFL’s best pass rushers in Khalil Mack. But the Raiders entered Sunday 19th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed, and now don’t have Carr to bail out the defense in the fourth quarter.
Backups have come through in the playoffs before — think Earl Morrall and Jeff Hostetler — and the Raiders could definitely beat the Texans in the wild-card round. But it’s probably asking too much of McGloin or Cook to keep up with Roethlisberger, Brady, or even Alex Smith.
3. Houston. No, sorry. The Texans are not coming into Gillette Stadium and beating the Patriots in the playoffs. Not even if the Patriots put Scott Zolak at quarterback.
The Patriots dominated the Texans at home in Week 3, earning their only shutout of the season at 27-0. But it wasn’t just a shutout — they did it with a third-string quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) who could barely throw the ball because he was playing with a broken thumb.
The Texans’ defense is pretty good, ranking 10th in points allowed and first in yards allowed despite not having J.J. Watt for most of the season. They might be able to slow down Brady and the offense for a little bit.
But the Texans’ offense is horrible, no matter if it’s Brock Osweiler or Savage under center. There is just no way either of those quarterbacks could protect the football and keep pace with Brady on the scoreboard.
If the Texans and Steelers win in the first round, the Texans come to Gillette. This is by far the best scenario for the Patriots.
Saturday, Jan. 7
Oakland at Houston, 4:35 p.m. (ESPN)
Detroit at Seattle, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Jan. 8
Miami at Pittsburgh, 1:05 p.m. (CBS)
N.Y. Giants at Green Bay, 4:40 p.m. (FOX)
Saturday, Jan. 14
Seattle, Green Bay or N.Y. Giants at Atlanta, 4:35 p.m. (FOX)
Houston, Oakland or Miami at New England, 8:15 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 15
Pittsburgh, Houston or Oakland at Kansas City, 1:05 p.m. (NBC)
Green Bay, N.Y. Giants or Detroit at Dallas, 4:40 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, Jan. 22, TBD
Sunday, Feb. 5 At Houston TBD, 6:30 p.m. (FOX)