Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — Duron Harmon is ready to do his best impression of an average football fan next weekend, happy to park in front of the television and watch a full slate of wild-card games, sounding every bit the fan Sunday when he declared, “Playoff football is always the best football.”
Of course, the Patriots fifth-year safety will watch the NFL’s opening postseason games with a slightly different stake in the outcome, eyeing up the potential competition for the following weekend’s divisional round, when the Patriots will cash in on the No. 1 seed they secured with Sunday’s 26-6 win over the Jets and begin their Super Bowl defense.
“I’d be watching anyway; I’m a football fan,” Harmon said inside New England’s victorious locker room. “I like to watch good football, and it is the best football. But I’m watching not only for that, but for the three opponents we could possibly face, the sixth seed, the fourth or the fifth. I’ve got to watch.”
Yet across this decades-long run of Patriots dominance, the question hasn’t merely been, “Who do they have to beat to win another Super Bowl,” but more like, “Who can possibly beat them to stop them from winning another Super Bowl?” This year feels different.
From the 2-2 start to the 13-3 finish, the Patriots certainly did another masterful job in besting the rest of the AFC East, pulling out the miracle finish against their hottest conference rival in Pittsburgh, and earning yet another home-field run through the playoffs. And still we are right to ask, are they really ready to pull off another Super Bowl run?
“They have everything you need,” Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “Everything you need to make the playoffs and make a run. It seems like nothing ever changes. Tom Brady does a great job; he does everything you need to run that offense.”
So maybe it’s unfair to ask (and answer) this question after watching the Patriots handle the Jets as easily as they did Sunday, ignoring temperatures so cold they left plumes of frozen breath hovering over the field like car exhaust, so cold they had players dancing on the field as if they’d arrived early to their New Year’s Eve celebrations, so cold as to leave the Jets dropping passes and penalties in equal measure while Brady was able to drop a timely block on linebacker Darron Lee, making this outcome a certainty before the first quarter was even over.
The Jets have been swatted away. Now it’s time to look forward, to ask the hard questions about a team whose quarterback threw interceptions in his last five games before Sunday, whose offensive line hasn’t done its best job of protecting him this season, whose running game has been energized by Dion Lewis but could still be missing James White, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee, whose run defense has been porous and third-down defense ineffective, whose pass rush was so thin newly signed James Harrison dropped in after three days of practice and had two sacks.
Is this a house of cards, or is this a team ready to push off its long-built solid foundation?
“I hope [we’re ready],” veteran Devin McCourty said. “[The playoffs] are the only thing that’s left on this season. I don’t think we can look at the end of the season and say we’re ready. To me, it’s a day-by-day thing, a week-by-week thing. We’ve got to come in here for the bye week and get stuff done. Since I’ve been here, that’s always been huge. We fix some things, we put something new in, we fix a problem that happened, whatever we need to do, and usually it finds a way to help us win one of these game in the playoffs. That’s huge, and we got to understand that urgency of preparing and not going into this week saying, ‘We made it, and we’re going to be OK,’ understanding we’ve still got work to do.”
Of course, the Patriots have their reasons to believe. There’s Brady, the best postseason quarterback of them all, who pulled off yet another fourth quarter game-winning drive only a few weeks ago on the road against the No. 2 seed in Pittsburgh. Yet it was a replay reversal and terrible Steelers play call that ultimately pushed the verdict the Patriots’ way, making a potential AFC Championship game rematch more of a toss-up than it has been in years.
What other teams could scare the Patriots? How about Jacksonville, with its full-on pressure defense that would love nothing more than to channel Tom Coughlin’s Giant recipe of two Super Bowls past and knock Brady around? Of course, the Jaguars would also need Blake Bortles to do enough on offense to score some points, and they’d have to do it in the hostile confines of Gillette Stadium.
“Getting the No. 1 seed is all a part of the process for us,” McCourty said. “Obviously, we knew that was at stake, but it was more important to come out here and win, finish what we started. Now we get into that second part of the season, a new season where really everything else we’ve done doesn’t really matter. It’s all about how you play your next game.”
The Patriots earned the right to sit back, to join Harmon on their couches with remote in hand, all the while thinking about the three potential wins to a title. But they have to know nothing is assured, this year more than ever.
“We definitely are happy to have home field throughout the playoffs, but you’re not guaranteed to have it throughout the playoffs. You’re guaranteed to have it just one game,” receiver Brandin Cooks said. “So we have it for one game in two weeks that we know we are going to be home for. We just have to put our all into that game.”
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