This article ranks the eight possible teams the Patriots could face in the playoffs in order of the most favorable matchup to the least.
If Oakland were to make the playoffs it would not mean good things for the Patriots first round draft pick they got from the Raiders for Richard Seymour. The Raiders have been much better this season than in recent years, and the rise of running back Darren McFadden has had a lot to do with that. Speedy rookie wide receiver and return man Jacoby Ford has also made some big plays including two kickoff returns for touchdowns. The problem for the Raiders is their quarterback situation. Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski have both been inconsistent. Campbell has had some good games, but he is not a quarterback that defenses fear. Oakland has lived and died by the sack this season, allowing 37 on offense (8th most in the league), and sacking opposing QBs 40 times (tied with Pittsburgh and Green Bay for the third most). I think the biggest advantage the Patriots would have in the unlikely event these two teams were to meet in the playoffs would be coaching. Bill Belichick is 15-4 in the postseason, while Tom Cable has yet to step into that arena.
Maurice Jones-Drew is a terrific runner capable of putting up huge yards-from-scrimmage numbers. He plays hard and is very tough to bring down. He is the main threat for a Jacksonville team that seemed poised to knock the faltering Colts of their perch atop the AFC South before their loss in Indianapolis last week. Quarterback David Gerrard can pick up first downs and score by running. He is accurate, posting a 65.2% completion rate this season, but has not always taken care of the ball. He has 13 interceptions and 9 fumbles (4 lost). Jacksonville’s defense has given up a lot of big passing plays this season, including 12 completions of over 40 yards which is the second most in the NFL behind Houston. Opponents are averaging 255.6 passing yards per game, and have racked up 26 touchdowns through the air. Tom Brady would like the sound of that. The Jaguars are not causing many turnovers either, notching only 12 interceptions and forcing 8 fumbles (5 recovered). If the Patriots were to focus on the run and keep Jones-Drew from breaking out I think they would simply score too many points for Jacksonville to keep up.
Matt Cassel has 25 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions this season. He also has only two fumbles (1 lost), so he has done a great job of protecting the football and making smart decisions. Jamal Charles is third in the league with1,303 rushing yards. Together with Thomas Jones, he has formed a ferocious tandem good for 2,131 yards and 10 touchdowns combined. This one-two punch is similar to the Jones/Leon Washington combination that worked so well for the Jets last year. Especially in a game where the elements are a factor, the Chiefs could dominate on the ground. Receiver Dwayne Bowe has hauled in 14 touchdown passes, and has 941 receiving yards. He seems to have developed a good understanding with Cassel, but there is not much depth behind him. Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki both have over 400 receiving yards, but the next best wide receiver is Chris Chambers with 17 catches for 174 yards. It is unlikely the Chiefs would be able to spread the field against New England, which would allow the Patriots to load the box and focus on stopping the run. Granted, this would not be an easy task, but the main reason Kansas City does not scare me as much as other possible opponents is that Matt Cassel learned the game under Bill Belichick. He has progressed since then, but that gives the Patriots a huge advantage when it comes to preparation.
I hold no illusions that a repeat matchup against the Jets would go the same way as the 45-3 stomping in Week 13. New York would not enter the game as overconfident and unprepared, and would likely focus on the fundamentals and try to pound the ball on the ground. Their defense is very good, and unlikely to be as badly embarrassed again. The two reasons I don’t trust the Jets to go far in the playoffs are 1) Mark Sanchez and 2) LaDainian Tomlinson. LT is notorious for missing playoff games due to injury, and wearing down towards the end of the year. In 2007 he rushed twice for five yards, then sat out the rest of the game as the Patriots beat San Diego 21-12 to advance to the Super Bowl. He played sparingly again in the 2008 postseason, with Darren Sproles surpassing him as the lead back, and in the Chargers only playoff game last year he rushed 12 times for a mere 24 yards. The Jets do have Shonn Greene who shone last year during their improbable two-game playoff run, so the loss of LT would not completely doom them. However, Mark Sanchez and his predilection for throwing multiple interceptions in Foxboro(assuming the Patriots secure home field advantage witha win this week or next) could. Mark came alive last year in the playoffs, but he has struggled with his confidence at times in his young career. Revisiting the site of some of his most horrific games won’t exactly make him feel invincible. The Jets deserve credit for their resiliency as they have overcome a lot of distractions and been able to move past some crushing defeats this season. They will not have the element of surprise this time though, and I'm not convinced their offense has what it takes to beat the elite teams in the conference.
Philip Rivers has been exceptional this year. He is second in the league in passing yards and has a 295.8 yards per game average. The return of Vincent Jackson to the lineup adds some punch to their offense, but that could be offset if Antonio Gates is unable to return. Rivers is capable of putting the team on his shoulders and racking up ridiculous passing numbers, but San Diego can become overreliant on the pass, especially if they fall behind. It is hard for teams that are more one-dimensional team to win in the playoffs. Smart opponents plan to take away what you do best, and if you don’thave a backup plan then you could be dead in the water. The Chargers do have a good pass-rush. They lead the league in sacks and their pressure caused problems for the Patriots earlier in the year. They are not a team I would look forward to facing again. This matchup would likely result in a shootout, but bad weather could be a boost for New England. The Patriots offensive line would be the key to winning this matchup. If they can give Brady time, and open up holes in the running game, the Chargers could be in for more playoff agony.
Tom Brady is 6-1 against the Steelers and won again in Pittsburgh earlier this season. In their two recent Super Bowl winning campaigns, the Steelersdid not have to face the Patriots in the playoffs. These teams are both excellent in cold weather, and would seem to be evenly matched, but the Patriots have had their number recently. Rashard Mendenhall is a great ballcarrier, and both Hines Ward and Mike Wallace are dangerous receivers that compliment each other well. Everyone knows the Steelers defense is their strength. They have a knack for finding the end zone, especially when Troy Polamalu is in the lineup. This matchup would likely be a grind-it-out slugfest with both sides looking to capitalize on turnovers and make big plays. Fortunately, if the current playoff rankings hold, they would not meet until the AFC Championship game, where homefield advantage and the promise of a fifth Super Bowl appearance in a decade could help propel the Patriots to victory.
Peyton Manning seems to have gotten over his bout with interceptionitis. He has not thrown a pick the last two games, after throwing eleven in the three games before. Without James Sanders’ game-sealing interception the Colts may well have beaten the Patriots in Week 11, and Indy has dominated the matchup recently. I am not exactly surprised, but Manning has impressed me by dragged this team back into contention and on top of the AFC South, despite a large number of injuries. Both Dallas Clark and Austin Collie are out for the season. The defensive mismatch that Clark routinely provides is one that has been a game-changer in past playoff games.The Colts running game has come back to life lately, after going missing for much of the year, but with Peyton under center this is not as big of a concern as it would be for other teams. Brady and Manning went blow-for-blow earlier in the year, and it is always exciting to watch these two masters at work. As per usual, this game would likely come down to the final seconds. Manning would be looking for revenge, but 2010 just doesn’t feel like his year. If he throws multiple interceptions again I think it would be very difficult for the Colts to leave Foxboro with a victory.
Both the Ravens and the Jets have deemed this year a Super-Bowl-or-Bust campaign. I see the Ravens as the only one capable of accomplishing this mission. Ray Rice is the key to their offense, and if he is having a big day they are very hard to stop. Rice is the type of runner the Patriots have had problems against recently. He can beat you to the edge, and if he sees daylight, he can take it all the way for the score. He is also dangerous on screen passes. Rice can make guys miss in space, as well as put his head down and drive the ball forward. Baltimore has a good receiving corps, lead by the sure-handed and tough Anquan Boldin. Joe Flacco plays with a greater feel for the game than his experience would indicate, but he is still prone to mistakes such as the strip-sack against the Steelers that turned what looked like a AFC North clinching victory for Baltimore into a loss that will likely force them to settle for a wild card berth. Fortunately for New England it is unlikely they would have to face bothIndianapolis and Baltimore, so perhaps these two can beat each other up, and the Patriots can play the survivor after an extra week of rest. What makes me most afraid of the Ravens is that homefield advantage means nothing against them, as evidenced by the beat-down they handed the Patriots last year in the playoffs. Aside from that, the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick combination has an excellent record against Baltimore, including a home victory in Week 6.
The Patriots organization remembers how last season ended all too well. They will make sure they put in every last drop of effort to make sure there is no repeat. Tom Brady’s laser-like focus and ruthless determination this season has rallied the entire squad behind him. Bill Belichick and the coaching staff are taking care of the details, and this team has gone from being labeled a fading giant in a rebuilding year to a well-oiled machine that has rolled over numerous AFC heavyweights. New England has positioned themselves nicely, however anything can happen in the playoffs, especially in the Super Bowl. The toughest and most important battles lie ahead, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it just may be reflecting off the Lombardi trophy.