Start booking now and you can reserve your flight to Arizona next month for just under $800 apiece. Take an early winter vacation. Soak up the dry, desert sun and share a beach lounger with Shane Vereen, because there’s absolutely zero chance anyone will derail the New England Patriots on their path to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale.
It’s a done deal, but if by some chance you’re still uncertain, take a glance at the rest of the AFC. Guaranteeing a trip to the Super Bowl isn’t so much an endorsement of the Patriots and their championship-caliber defense – which still holds true to form despite a sluggish performance last weekend against the Jets – but more so an indictment of the rest of the playing field.
To put it bluntly, the AFC is garbage. Compost. Used panty liners and disposable razors sitting at the bottom of the trash barrel.
Now that the Patriots are guaranteed homefield advantage following the ever-so-clutch Peyton Manning’s gag job Monday night in Cincinnati (more on that later), who has the depth, intelligence and stones to come to Gillette Stadium and win a playoff game? The Bengals? The same Bengals who already made an appearance – and we use that term loosely – at Gillette in Week 5 and lost by three touchdowns?
What we already know about Cincinnati is enough to write it off as a legitimate Super Bowl contender despite its firm grip on the AFC’s No. 3 seed. Keep in mind the Bengals were a No. 3 seed last year with the same coach (Marvin Lewis) and quarterback (Andy Dalton) and were unceremoniously bounced Wild Card Weekend by the sixth-seeded Chargers, the same Chargers who might wind up as the No. 6 seed again this season and make another trip to Cincinnati for a playoff rematch.
That game will end up the same way last year’s did. Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers earns a significant nod over Dalton in the balls department. Rivers is a gamer who gave the unbeaten 2007 Patriots all they could handle on a torn ACL in the conference championship at Gillette. Dalton is a soulless, oafish ginger who threw two interceptions in last year’s woeful playoff performance and has yet to win a postseason game in three tries. In fact, he and Lewis are a combined 0-8 in the playoffs. That duo can’t win a playoff game at home, let alone a playoff game at Gillette.
Assuming we’re correct – aren’t we always? – another upset by San Diego on Wild Card Weekend would automatically set up a Chargers-Patriots rematch in the divisional round. As much as we admire Rivers’ testicular fortitude, he’s 1-6 lifetime against the Patriots, including two playoff loses, and the Patriots already beat the Chargers in Week 14 in San Diego.
In fact, they’ve already beaten everybody else in the playoff hunt, including the Indianapolis Colts, the No. 4 seed and AFC South champion, who haven’t beaten a single contender all year. In addition to losing to the Patriots, 42-20, at home in Week 11, the Colts got blown out by current No. 5 seed Pittsburgh, 51-34, and recently lost to the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys, 42-7. They also lost to the second-seeded Broncos in Week 1. Other than a win over Cincinnati, whom we already emasculated in just one short paragraph, the Colts have no quality wins on their schedule, and it’s not like they were close in those games, either. They got their teeth knocked out by the Steelers, Cowboys and Patriots. Are you prepared to wager anything on them winning a playoff game in Foxboro? Again, zero chance.
And how about those aforementioned Broncos, who for most of the year have been considered the lone threat to spoil New England’s Super Bowl plans? It’s been a while since a team has limped to the finish line the way this one has. Even in wins over Kansas City, Buffalo and San Diego, the Broncos didn’t look like the Broncos we’re used to seeing with Manning behind center. More specifically, Manning didn’t look right.
There’s a reason Broncos’ coach John Fox is leaning so heavily on running back C.J. Anderson. Manning isn’t the same Manning he was last year, let alone a decade ago at the peak of his excellent when he still couldn’t win a playoff game in Foxboro. Something’s just not right. For all the talk of Tom Brady’s supposed decline following a Week 4 loss in Kansas City, Manning’s decline has been far worse and far more noticeable. A lot of things went wrong in Denver’s Monday night loss to Cincinnati, but Manning was terrible, throwing four interceptions, including a critical pick six, which these days seems to be his trademark in big games.
We’ve been a staunch Manning defender through the years, but the wheels are falling off that bandwagon and there’s no donut in the trunk. He’s got that one ring from back in 2006, but some of his most recent cringe-worthy playoff losses make that seem like a distant memory. It’s been a while since Brady has won one, too, but Brady doesn’t have as lengthy a track record of playoff one-and-dones as Manning does in his illustrious career.
Given the way the Broncos played here in Week 9, a 43-21 loss in which Manning threw two interceptions, it’s hard to imagine them turning the tables with even more at stake in a potential AFC championship. That’s assuming they even get there.
A team like the Steelers poses the biggest threat for two reasons. For one, they haven’t played the Patriots yet, so we have no reference point to fall back on other than last year when they lost at Gillette by 24 points. Is that game relevant? Perhaps. Secondly, they have the best running game out of all the remaining playoff teams, led by the durable Le’Veon Bell, who’s rushed for 1,341 yards and eight touchdowns. The Patriots have so much depth at running back they tend to get a little nickel and dime heavy on defense, which leaves them susceptible to big runs. Chris Ivory tore this defense to shreds. There’s no reason to believe Bell can’t do the same.
The problem is the Steelers have a terrible track record against the Patriots in big games dating back to the Kordell Stewart days. Take it for what it’s worth. They’ve also been a terrific road team in the postseason, winning at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver in 2005 en route to their first Super Bowl title in 26 years.
The truth is no one can genuinely predict the outcome of playoff games without looking like a pompous fool, but with the way the Patriots have played against the “elite” competition in the AFC coupled with the overall mediocrity of the rest of the conference, picking the Patriots to rise to the top seems as sure a bet as any in recent years. Get your travel bags ready.
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