The Patriots may be the AFC's #1 seed heading into the 2010 NFL Playoffs, but that doesn't mean they should be booking flights to Dallas this February. The "experts" make it seem like New England is invincible and that Tom Brady will be mowing down his opponents like Rambo on a killing spree. The truth is that the Patriots are one errant pass, one botched kick, or one missed tackle away from having their entire season go up in smoke. You don't get second chances in the playoffs. You have sixty minutes to outlast your opponent, and if you fail to do so, you end up going home.
If you have any doubts, rewind the tape back three years to the last time that the Patriots looked this "unstoppable". If Vince Wilfork doesn't trip and botch a tackle, the Patriots win the Super Bowl. If Asante Samuel doesn't let an interception whiff through his hands, the Patriots win the Super Bowl. If Rodney Harrision prevents David Tyree from pinning the ball against his helmet, the Patriots win the Super Bowl. All were small mistakes, and if any one of those things doesn't happen, then history is re-written. It doesn't matter how good you've been in the past. When the playoffs begin, you're one play away from the house of cards collapsing around you.
The past sixteen games have simply been a tune-up to get ready for the real action that will take place over the next three weekends. The Patriots are fortunate enough to bypass the Wild Card Round and be hosting a game next week, but other than that, they have earned nothing and deserve nothing more. With that in mind, it's time to sift through the fantasy that the Patriots are "destined" for Super Bowl XLV, and focus on the reality that there are five other very good teams that are looking to hit New England with a knock out punch. The Pats could come across any of these five teams either next week or in the AFC title game, should they make it that far. They all pose a significant threat and none should be taken lightly, but in the spirit of making things interesting, I'll be ranking each of the AFC playoff contenders based on their "threat level" of eliminating the Patriots. Fresh from the Foxboro Department of Homeland Security is the New England Patriots' playoff risk assessment...
THREAT LEVEL: LOW
Reasons to Worry: If you look at Bill Belichick's track record, the teams that give him the most problems are the teams coached by his former disciples. Eric Mangini has now been fired as a head coach by two different organizations, but he's notched a couple of victories over Belichick both with the Jets and Browns. Josh McDaniels managed to pull out the W in his lone meeting with Belichick last season as well. This trend should give Patriots fans pause, considering that KC has not one, but two coordinators who know Belichick like the back of their hand in Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennell. The Chiefs might be the weakest AFC playoff team on paper, but they have more talent than Mangini's Browns. None of us has forgotten how the Cleveland game turned out yet.
Reasons Not to Worry: If you look at Belichick's track record against former marquee players, however, the mastermind tends to have the upper hand. Belichick went 5-1 against Drew Bledsoe after trading him to Buffalo, and we saw how he handled Randy Moss earlier this year when he returned with the Vikings. Chances are, the Genius would have a pretty good day matching wits with former-pupil Matt Cassel and his minimal playoff experience. Also, not to take anything away from the AFC West Champion Chiefs, but they notched their 10-6 record playing against the NFL's JV teams. They beat exactly one team that finished with a record above .500 and that was the 9-7 San Diego Chargers, seventeen weeks ago on Opening Night. "On any given Sunday" still rings true, but I do think the 14-2 Patriots represent a tall order for the Chiefs.
THREAT LEVEL: GUARDED
Reasons to Worry: The Steelers are the AFC's #2 seed for a reason. They are as tough as nails and know how to win. Over the past ten years, the only team that you could even mention in the same sentence as the Patriots, in terms of success, is Pittsburgh. They are playoff-tested and Ben Roethlisberger has a knack for rising to the occassion and winning big games. If anyone thinks that Pittsburgh will be an easy out in the playoffs, they're kidding themselves.
Reasons Not to Worry: History. Should Pittsburgh and New England meet in the AFC Championship, it would bring a lot of demons out of the Steelers closet and into the forefront. For whatever reason, the Patriots seem to have the Steelers' number, especially in games to determine which team goes to the Super Bowl. I fully believe that New England is the better of the two teams, so asking the Steelers to come into Gillette Stadium, where Tom Brady has lost exactly once in the past four seasons, and overcome all those bad memories is asking a lot. If the Patriots got two quick scores to go up 14-0, like they have a knack of doing, it would likely be lights out for the Steelers.
THREAT LEVEL: ELEVATED
Reasons Not to Worry: 45-3. Yeah, the score might not be as lopsided this next time around, but the Jets have a lot of ground to regain before they can even think about walking away with a win. The Patriots have enough weapons on offense to minimize the effect of New York's big-time defenders as they can simply go to Options #3, 4, and 5 if numbers #1 and 2 are covered. The quarterback discrepancy also tilts heavily in New England's favor. Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger are legitimate threats to hang enough points to outpace Tom Brady, but I'm not sure that Mark Sanchez gets the Jets' offense into the high 20's, which is almost certainly what it will take to knock off the Pats. Until proven otherwise, the Jets remaing the "little brother" in this rivalry. They'll likely get their punches in, but I like New England's chances of winning the fight.
THREAT LEVEL: HIGH
Reasons Not to Worry: Bill Simmons wrote a solid piece this week about the Brandy/Manning rivalry. He mentioned how early in the decade, the pendulum swung in Brady's favor, then shifted towards Manning in the mid-00's. Brady regained momentum in 2007, only to have Peyton regain it in '08 and '09. In 2010, Brady is the QB on top and in this rivalry, the dominant quarterback has almost universally come out the victor when the two teams met. The quarterback situation being basically equal, there's no question that the Patriots other 52 men on the roster are heads and shoulders above the Colts. If the Patriots take care of business, they should be able to take care of the Colts.
THREAT LEVEL: SEVERE
Reasons Not to Worry: The Ravens may believe that they're the better team, but it's simply not true. Baltimore has a dominant defense, but they also have a lot of hot-heads who make stupid mistakes when adversity strikes. The quarterback comparison is about as lop-sided as we'll see in these AFC playoffs. The Ravens corners are also very vulnerable and should have a tough time covering Welker and Branch. And when it comes to the X's and O's I'll still take Belichick anyday. I fully expect Baltimore to be making their way to Foxboro at some point during these playoffs, either next week, or if the Jets beat the Colts today, in the AFC Championship. The threat level will be raised to severe and all hands will be on deck, but in the end, I have to believe Brady and Belichick won't allow themselves to be beaten in the playoffs at home in consecutive years by the same opponent, and that the better of the two teams will ultimately win.