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Things could still change, of course. Technically speaking, the Patriots could lose to the Tank-Palooza Miami Dolphins at home next weekend. Lamar Jackson could get hurt if John Harbaugh allows the MVP to play against the Steelers in Week 17. And the Chiefs could lose a wild-card weekend home game against the Steelers or the Titans.
But probably not. In all likelihood, we now know what it’s going to take for the Patriots to get where they want to go.
In all likelihood, the Patriots will get their coveted, hard-earned, first-round bye. Then they’ll have to beat the Chiefs at home, and the Ravens on the road to get to Super Bowl LIV in Miami Gardens, just 73 miles south of Orchids of Asia.
This is the takeaway from Saturday’s entertaining 24-17 division-clinching victory over the no-longer-moribund Buffalo Bills.
In most years, the Patriots winning the AFC East has been a given, like signing up for Facebook or qualifying for your first credit card. The Patriots have won the odious East 11 straight times, and in 16 of the last 17 years. In the 18 seasons in which Tom Brady has played quarterback (2008 doesn’t count), the Pats have won the division 17 times.
This year was unlike most of the others because the Pats didn’t lock it up until the next-to-last game. The Bills made it tough. And the Bills are going to be in the playoffs, a formidable No. 5 seed.
There is no underestimating the importance of the bye week when it comes to Patriot Super Bowl prospects. The Belichick-Brady Pats have appeared in nine of the last 18 Super Bowls, none without the luxury of the bye week. They have never had to win three games to get to the Roman Numeral Game and they are not going to have to do it this season.
Look for the Patriots to play their first playoff game Saturday, Jan. 11. The NFL loves the Patriots on Saturday night. This is how everything began back in 2002 for the Tuck Rule Game. The Pats’ Tennessee divisional round game in the 2003 playoffs — the coldest game in the history of Gillette — was also a Saturday Night Special.
The Pats should act now and request press box credentials for a scout and (Kraft Sports Productions) video crew for wild-card weekend in Kansas City. New England’s first playoff game is almost certain to be a Foxborough rematch with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. This will be the fourth meeting between the Pats and Chiefs over the last two seasons. The Pats have won two of the three, including last year’s pulsating AFC Championship game in frosty Kansas City.
If the Patriots get by the Chiefs, we can expect an AFC Championship game Sunday, Jan. 19, at 3 p.m. against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. This would be another tremendous rematch. New England lost to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, 37-20, Nov. 3 on “Sunday Night Football.”
Remember that one? That was back in the early days of the 2019 season, when there was talk of New England running the table and having the greatest defense of all time.
The Patriots carried an 8-0 record into Baltimore. But Harbaugh and Jackson gave the Patriots fits with their “pistol” formation, making it difficult for the Pats to figure out which way plays were running. For a good part of the night, the Patriots couldn’t tell where the ball was. The Patriots were the ones seeing ghosts. Boogeymen Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower had little success containing Jackson. Still, it was only a 4-point game after three quarters.
The ideal path for the Patriots, of course, would be to avoid the road altogether. Last year’s win at KC in the AFC Championship was Belichick and Brady’s first road playoff win in more than 12 years. In the 20-year history of this dynasty, the Patriots are 4-4 as a playoff road team. Brady has the same number of playoff wins as Mark Sanchez.
The Patriots rarely win on the road in the playoffs because they put themselves in a position where they don’t have to do it. They know it’s better to be playing at home where you never know when the local clock operator might accidently keep the clock running after an incomplete pass when the Pats are trying to get the clock to 0.00 (this happened Saturday, but was corrected by vigilant officials).
Saturday’s win over the Bills was a tremendous gut-check victory for a Patriots team that’s been exposed over the second half of the season. It was a masterpiece of scheming and game-planning. Belichick pantsed Sean McDermott (now 0-5 vs. Bill and I’m still wondering why he didn’t challenge the bad spot on fourth and one in the first half). The Pats were able to disguise their weaknesses better than at any time all season. It was a testament to the grit of Julian Edelman and the eternal greatness of Brady.
And it put the Patriots on a path that could lead to a 10th Super Bowl appearance in 19 seasons.
This isn’t going to be easy. But after what we saw Saturday, it looks like it is going to be fun.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org