The NFL is rounding the far turn of the season now, nearly three-quarters of the way to the finish line. The Super Bowl is on the horizon, and all odds favor the 9-1 Patriots playing in it for a fourth consecutive time. While the rest of the country drops its head in collective frustration/boredom, New England fans would love to see 42-year-old Tom Brady & Co. get one more shot at a title.
It won’t be easy, not with the ongoing struggles of Brady’s offense, a lack of firepower that, at present, would make it difficult to keep pace with the high-flying Ravens or high-scoring Chiefs. But if the Patriots can hang onto the top seed in the AFC and map their road to Miami through Foxborough, that home-field advantage and experience edge have proved intimidating enough to melt many a good AFC team. Are you ready to bet against them?
The fun question that follows, then, is who will be there to greet them? Here are a few potential matchups to root for, ones with enough interesting story lines to captivate a national audience suffering from a decided case of Patriots fatigue.
■ Patriots vs. Cowboys
We’ll start here because the two teams face each other at Gillette Stadium this weekend. While the Patriots’ historic dominance of the AFC East is well-known (10 straight division titles and 16 of the last 18 have reduced the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills to rubble), it turns out that they don’t run roughshod just over their familiar conference foes. A win Sunday and New England would complete a sweep of its NFC counterparts this season, having already dispatched the Eagles, Giants, and Redskins.
Maybe the Cowboys won’t be the bruising test the Eagles were last weekend, and we know coach Jason Garrett has no résumé of winning against New England the way Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson had from the Super Bowl two years ago. The Patriots have won the last five meetings with the Cowboys, Bill Belichick is 5-1 against them, and Brady has thrown for at least two touchdowns in his last four starts against them.
This is no gimme though, not with Dak Prescott riding into town with an NFC Offensive Player of the Week award in his hands or with an Ezekiel Elliott-led running game that has to make the stagnant New England counterparts green with envy when they see the holes created by the offensive line.
So yes, Sunday’s game should be fun. But a rematch in the Super Bowl? That would be epic. America’s team vs. America’s best team? Imagine the ratings. Imagine Jerry Jones, the owner who is in the Hall of Fame, against Robert Kraft, the owner who wants desperately to be there too, holding court on media night.
The Cowboys consider themselves a cornerstone franchise that should be competing for a title every year, but in reality, they have not been to a Super Bowl this century, with no appearances since 1995. Sign me up now.
■ Patriots vs. 49ers
They were the league’s last remaining undefeated teams through Week 8, and this would be the chalk matchup if the playoffs started now. The 9-1 Niners have been as balanced a team as we’ve seen this season, but like the Patriots, their defense is the real foundation of the team. But with an offense anchored by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — the former Patriots draft pick traded back in 2017 despite Belichick preferring to keep him as the heir apparent to Brady — the intrigue is delicious.
■ Patriots vs. Saints
The Saints were shafted by a terrible non-call in last year’s NFC Championship game against the Rams, a call so egregious it spawned the replay system we have in place this year for pass interference. Getting back to the big game would be their best revenge, and with a quarterback/coach combo that has won a title together already, they have the talent and experience to do it.
Of course, Sean Payton didn’t have to beat Belichick in the Super Bowl (he outwitted the Colts’ Jim Caldwell), but perhaps the only QB matchup better than Drew Brees-Peyton Manning in the 2009 season would be Brees-Brady. If the era of the pocket passer is fading in favor of mobile RPO experts, this would be a heck of a sendoff, with the two elder statesmen of the position squaring off.
■ Patriots vs. Seahawks
New England’s stunning win over Seattle for the championship of the 2014 season was one of the most exhilarating Super Bowls ever, won on that crazy, last-second Malcolm Butler interception, a play that left Brady jumping up and down on the sidelines like a child on Christmas morning.
It prevented what seemed to be a budding Seahawks dynasty, denying Seattle of a second straight title. The subsequent years have seen the Legion of Boom defense dismantled, but coach Pete Carroll has rebuilt everything around the same quarterback. And Russell Wilson is playing like an MVP. This would be fun.
■ Patriots vs. Eagles
Since the awful Giants have no chance at being in Miami, this is Brady and Belichick’s only chance for a revenge bowl, and revenge story lines are always fun. Sure, the Patriots got the hard-fought win last weekend at the Linc, but they’d trade that in a second for a chance to avenge the stunning shootout loss in Minneapolis.
No one would be more motivated than Brady, whose offensive pyrotechnics were overshadowed by the one play he couldn’t make, dropping a wide-open pass on a trick play.
■ Patriots vs. Packers
The Packers are a fascinating team, with a first-year coach in Matt LaFleur who seems to be jelling well with veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers would be a captivating Super Bowl draw, and everyone knows a second title would elevate his status far beyond the respect he already has as perhaps the most physically gifted thrower in the game right now.
With the stars driving the engine, a Rodgers-Brady clash would be a headliner. And the Patriots defense, with its outstanding secondary, would be some compelling matchup against Rodgers’s arm.