It's stunning how, amidst all the talk of how classy the Saints are with Drew Brees firing away in the fourth quarter to surpass Dan Marino in passing yards, the sportsmanship of the New England Patriots in Week 16 was completely overlooked. How often does a No. 1 seeded team spot its hapless opponent 17 free points and an entire first half? The Patriots did precisely that on Saturday but with no publicity or accolades from the national media. That's just the kind of team they are.
The Patriots of 2011 are still evolving and carry an air of optimism that they just might pull this off. And it's not necessarily because of their overpowering or consistently stellar play, but because of their ability to dig themselves out of whatever hole they're in, adjust to the situation and find a way to win. They're exactly the kind of mentally tough, resilient players Belichick and Brady looked for but didn't find in 2009, and I'm just hoping the duct tape holds at least through the first game of the playoffs.
Week 17 against Buffalo will be nerve-wracking only because the memories are all too fresh of Wes Welker going down in 2009 and Rodney Harrison getting his knee blown out by Titans' Bobby Wade in 2006. My goal for Sunday is for everyone who plays to finish pretty much in the same condition they started in.
Most of the experts have New England ranked 3rd, unchanged from last week, and that's the mark of a regular season well-played. If they win Sunday, they'll be the top seed in the conference with home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. If they lose, they still have a bye week to heal up before what we hope will be a long post-season run. Not too shabby at all.
Brian Billick (Fox Sports) ranks them 2nd: The Patriots looked a little shell-shocked in the first half against the Dolphins on Saturday, but apparently Bill Belichick's halftime speech fired up the troops. The Pats came out in a no-huddle, up-tempo offense that accounted for 27 consecutive points and the win.
Vinnie Iyer (The Sporting News) ranks them 2nd: Gronkowski has 16 total touchdowns in just 15 games. It's not crazy to think he can break 20 against a Buffalo defense which struggles at covering tight ends.
Peter King (SI) ranks them 3rd: In a season of adversity -- the latest being the offensive line being strafed with injuries -- the Patriots have performed like champions.
Pro Football Weekly ranks them 3rd: "D" already was a concern; now O-line is banged up.
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 3rd: Here's the problem with facing New England in the playoffs: You hold down the offense, hold down the offense, then BAM! -- twenty-seven second-half points. Tom Brady went 20-for-27 for 217 yards in the money half. As I wrote late last week, this might end up being one season in which unstoppable offense overcomes crappy defense.
Pete Prisco (CBS Sports) ranks them 3rd: The offense keeps on bailing out the defense, but the question is whether it can do it come playoff time.
Don Banks (SI) ranks them 3rd: Every year we get caught up in the late-season race for homefield advantage in the playoffs, like it's some guarantee of January success. Not so much. New England and Atlanta earned the No. 1 seeds last season, and neither won a single playoff game. The same scenario unfolded in 2008, when the Titans and Giants were top-seeded, but winless in the tournament. True, form held in 2009, with both the Colts and Saints using their top seeds to get to the Super Bowl, but that was the first time both No. 1s made it since 1993. Just sayin'.
Cold Hard Football Facts ranks them 3rd: Wes Welker is one of 18 players all time with 100+ catches and 1,500+ yards, Rob Gronkowski is one of three tight ends with 1,200+ yards and 10+ TDs, and Tom Brady is one of five QBs all time with 4,750+ yards and 35+ TDs. Any of those dudes play defense?
NFL.com experts rank them 3rd
ESPN ranks them 4th: A win over Buffalo on Sunday gives the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Joel Thorman (SB Nation) ranks them 4th: The Pats are en route to another No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs but they're clearly flawed with that defense. Is Tom Brady and Co. enough to make a playoff run?
Michael Silver (Yahoo! Sports) ranks them 5th: How great would it be if, after the Pats re-sign him for the 473rd time, recently released safety Ross Ventrone were to go to the locker room with cramps in the first quarter of the AFC championship game, sneak out the back door and never return?
National Football Post
AVERAGE RANK: 3.1 (nc)