(NOTE TO BUSY READERS: If you're pressed for time this hectic holiday season I can tell you quickly that the answers to the questions asked in the headline are "No" and "No," and you can go on your way. But if you have time for the reasoning behind those answers, read on below).
How much do seedings and home field mean? In general, of course, it's better to play only two games instead of three to reach the Super Bowl, and it's also better to play those games at home. That said, we've seen plenty of examples in recent years of low-seeded teams (the 2007 and 2011 Giants and the 2010 Packers to name three) that have gone on the road to win games against higher-seeded competition and ended up as Super Bowl champions. We've also had in the same span a number of highly seeded teams (like the 2008 Titans, the 2010 Falcons, and the 2010 Patriots) who crashed and burned, at home, after a bye week, against a lower-seeded team in their first playoff matchup. How much does it really matter where a team is seeded?
These questions are particularly relevant to the Patriots this year because, maddeningly, the team has already beaten the Texans and the Broncos decisively yet may well finish behind them both in the #3 position. If that happens, New England would be home for wild card weekend but then face the possibility of playing at Denver in the divisional round and at Houston in the AFC championship game (assuming wins, obviously). With a #2 seed the Patriots would rest up wildcard weekend then play probably Denver at home while rooting for the Texans to be upset so the conference title game would be at Gillette as well. So seeding does matter, right?
Most years, I would be extremely worried about finishing with the third instead of the second seed. More time to rest and the more games at home would provide an extra bonus for a team that could use some help. This 2012 team, however, has me thinking differently and more hopefully. Because of the Patriots improved running game and improved defense to accomplany an offense that (as usual) can shred even the best defenses, I think this New England team can play and beat anybody, anywhere, any time.
Unlike in years past, these Patriots can run the ball to break big plays or move the chains and eat up clock. The defense has taken a step backwards in the past couple of weeks, but that might be the result of key injuries. Getting Brandon Spikes, Aquib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and others back healthy for the playoffs will give New England the chance to dictate to the opposing offenses, to cover well and bring pressure from various places, and to field effective sub-packages. It's amazing how a few simple moves--Talib and Dennard at corner, Devin McCourty to safety, Jermaine Cunningham as an interior pass rusher, Kyle Arrington relegated to slot duty only--have made such a huge difference. This defense completely shut down Houston. Against Jacksonville, a banged-up unit returned to their old pattern of bending (giving up tons of yards) but not breaking (end zone interceptions and field goals instead of touchdowns allowed).
An argument could be made (I might make it in a future essay) that in the non-Tom Brady category, Stevan Ridley and Aquib Talib might be the most valuable Patriots this year because their abilities to run the ball consistently and shut down opposing receivers, respectively, have had a huge trickle down effect on the rest of the team. Ridley as a running threat creates more openings for Patriots receivers and, on the other side of the ball, Talib gives pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback and allows other defensive backs to play where they can be most effective.
As for the teams New Engand will have to beat, Houston doesn't particularly scare me, even in Reliant Stadium. While they would have a lot to prove in a rematch with the Patriots, I think New England would still have considerable advantages in that game due to matchups. Denver is playing incredibly well right now, to be sure. But the Broncos winning streak has come against pretty weak competition. Sure, they did beat the Bengals who are good and they won at Baltimore--but the Ravens were in turmoil and still in the midst of a three game losing streak. Denver might be great. But they might also be simply a good team benefitting from some schedule luck. After all, they started the year 2-3 against better competition (including that 31-21 loss to the Patriots). And the Patriots have handled them easily three times in the past two seasons, scoring 41, 45, and 31 points.
Actually, the team Denver reminds me the most of right now is........the 2010 New England Patriots. The Patriots that year put up wicked offensive numbers, beat some really good teams, won at home and on the road. The entered the playoffs with a 14-2 record and an 8 game winning streak that seemed sure to end only with the team's fourth Super Bowl championship.
Need I remind anyone how that turned out? The top seed, a bye, and homefield advantage all disappeared in 60 minutes of inept football against the hated Jets, who figured out how to defense the Patriots and then took advantage of numerous, unforced New England errors to score the upset. Denver will enter the playoffs on the same seemingly inevitable roll the Pats did in 2010. They look invincible right now. But they're also WAY overdue for a bad game--one of those horrible messes where Manning throws interceptions, receivers drop the ball, special teams botch a fake punt, the defense gives up big plays at bad times--you know, sort of like what happened in that Patriots-Jets playoff game two years ago. As the Patriots have found out many painful times in recent years, it is incredibly hard to sustain long winning streaks in the NFL. The other teams are too good and bad luck tends to show up at the worst times in the form of turnovers, mistakes, and emotionally flat play. I say it again, Denver is overdue for a bad game.
So, I've talked myself into thinking that it really doesn't matter who New England plays or where they play them come playoff time. This looks like a team built to last and to go into opposing stadiums, take the home team's best shots, and emerge with victories. Unlike in years past, I don't think it matters if this Patriots team is seeded first or third or fourth. I like their chances.
One last thing. All this could become a moot point if the Pats win Sunday and the Texans and Broncos both lose and New England ends up with the #1 seed. Unlikely as it sounds, it could still happen. And if it does, I'll have to retract this column and write a new one with a completely different justification for why being the top seed is actually best for New England!