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: LOWReasons 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.