Meet the New Year.
Same as the Old Year.
Same owner. Same coach. Same quarterback. AFC East champs. First-round bye. Divisional-round home game. Potential for AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots have checked all the boxes. The cans have been toppled, the field is set, and is there anyone in Patriot Nation who doesn’t think this story ends in Atlanta Feb. 3?
I’ve bought my plane ticket. Have you?
The 2018 Patriots’ path to Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been somewhat different from the carefree highways of the last two decades. We didn’t anticipate a 3-5 road record (notice that all five teams that beat the Patriots are out of the tournament?). Seeing the Patriots lose two straight in December was highly unusual. Bill Belichick had a couple of head-scratchers, and there were times when Tom Brady looked 41 years old. There’s fear that these are the final days of Gronk, the linebackers look a little slow, and the next couple of years are rife with uncertainty.
But who in the AFC is going to stop these Patriots from getting where they want to go in January? In a year in which the conference seems especially soft, the Patriots and their fans have every reason to ask, “Why not us again?’’
I see two land mines: Arrowhead Stadium and the Baltimore Ravens.
If form holds — and it always does when it comes to the Fortunate Sons of Bill Belichick — the Patriots won’t have to worry. The time-tested Patriot magic will rear its head in the next few weeks: The Ravens will get bounced by the Chargers and the Chiefs will get taken out in the divisional round.
There is no evidence that these Patriots can win a road playoff game. The five-time Super Bowl champs haven’t won a road playoff game in 12 years. The Belichick/Brady tandem is 3-4 lifetime in playoff road games. Mark Sanchez has more playoff road wins than Brady.
The Patriots don’t win playoff games on the road because they usually position themselves so they won’t have to leave town. Their last three playoff road trips (all AFC Championship games) resulted in losses, two in Denver and the 38-34 classic in Indianapolis in 2007.
We know that the 2018 Chiefs are a scoring machine. The Patriots certainly could win in KC — never forget the Andy Reid clock-management factor — but it is the worst-case scenario. Root for somebody to take them out in the divisional round.
You also want to root for the Chargers to erase the Ravens Sunday. The Ravens are problematic for the Patriots. They are offensively challenged, but they have a mobile quarterback (Lamar Jackson) and a 1950s running game. We remember what the likes of Brandon Bolden, Frank Gore, and Jaylen Samuels did to the Patriots in Miami and Pittsburgh in December. It was not pretty.
The Ravens can eat up lots of clock, and their defense is simply ferocious. They also have the only coach in the AFC playoff field who will not lose his football mind at the sight of Belichick. John Harbaugh knows how to win a playoff game in New England. Root for the Chargers to beat the Ravens.
The worst case for the Patriots this weekend would be Indianapolis beating Houston and Baltimore beating the Chargers. That would bring Baltimore to New England for the divisional round. No thanks. Belichick is a master against rookie quarterbacks (the Hoodie is 11-0 vs. rooks at Gillette), but I’d rather take my chances with any of the others.
Face it, Patriots fans. You want Houston. Big time. When it comes to playing the Patriots, the Texans have so much baggage they would need six aircraft to travel to New England. Bill O’Brien, who once coached here, is 0-5 against Belichick and had an embarrassing afternoon at Gillette in September.
Remember Gronk making a “questionable” catch for a 28-yard gain, then O’Brien freezing while Brady hurried to the line to get off the next snap before the play could be reviewed? O’Brien explained that it was “not my job to call a timeout to make their [referees’] job easier.’’ The Patriots went in for a touchdown to make it 21-6 at the half. Ballgame.
Bring on Houston. Letterman jackets and all. The Texans cannot win a playoff game in Foxborough and they know it.
The Patriots will certainly be well-rested when they start the playoffs Jan. 13. They will be the first playoff team in history coming off three consecutive bye weeks (yes, that’s a shot at the AFC East).
It gets more difficult now. But the work of being a Patriots fan never stops. Sit on your couch and root for the Texans and Chargers this weekend. Then buy your ticket to Atlanta.