By: Bob George/
December 27, 2010

No Brady or Gronk, but plenty of storylines at Patriots OTAs
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski not at the start of the team's OTA's today
NFL notes: Don't be surprised if Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers rise up for Patriots
New Patriots DL Danny Shelton preps to hit the hill
Patriots center David Andrews excited with his new Georgia Bulldog teammates

Keep your calendars in early February open, especially your Sundays.

That's what all of you should be thinking, if you know and root for the Patriots. Your favorite football team has been the one or two seed six times, counting 2010. In each of the previous five instances of having the Wild Card week off, the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl all five times, winning three and losing two. Of course, they wrap fish in yesterday's newspapers, as January's brutal playoff loss to Baltimore showed us all, but things are certainly looking up for the Patriots these days.

The Patriots started 2010 off on the wrong foot, as they lost only the second home playoff game in team history, the other one coming 32 years prior. This reinforces the fact that the Patriots could still stumble on their way to Arlington, Texas and Super Bowl XLV. The Patriots need only win two home games to punch their ticket to Big D, and then somehow avoid the abomination that happened four seasons ago in Glendale, Arizona to return to the pinnacle of the pro football world.

The Patriots have one meaningless home game left, against Miami next weekend. Mindful of what happened to Wes Welker last year in Houston on the final weekend of the 2009 regular season, Bill Belichick may want to rest regulars and just get through the game still healthy. Or, Belichick may want to shore up the run defense and third down situations, as suggested in this column earlier.

Whatever the case, here is a synopsis of how the next month and a half might go.

Assuming that there is no repeat of the Welker injury, the Patriots will have two weeks to heal up and be completely ready for the Divisional Playoff round. The defense will get rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes back, who has served 75% of his substance abuse suspension. Dan Connolly should be over the concussion he suffered from his epic kickoff return against Green Bay. Aaron Hernandez should be back, fully recovered from the flu.

Five of the six AFC playoff teams have been locked up, but complete seeding will have to wait one more week. Kansas City won the AFC West on Sunday when they beat Tennessee, and San Diego was upset later that afternoon in Cincinnati. The Chiefs will be the three seed, and will not slip to fourth. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will decide the AFC North next week, the division winner being the two seed and the loser a Wild Card. The Jets are locked in as a Wild Card and could be the five seed if Baltimore wins the AFC North, but will be the six seed if Pittsburgh does. Indianapolis looks like a good bet to lock up the AFC South; a win at home against Tennessee next week does the trick. But a Jacksonville win and Indianapolis loss gives that division to the Jaguars.

Let's assume that the seeds go like this: New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Baltimore and the Jets. The Wild Card weekend in the AFC would have the Jets travelling to Kansas City, with Baltimore heading to Indianapolis. Kansas City is a tough home field to win at, and they no longer have playoff liability Marty Schottenheimer as head coach. The Chiefs are playing well right now, while the Jets are finishing poorly. Meanwhile, Baltimore looked tough in Foxborough eleven months ago, but against the Colts they look like an FCS team. Either road team could win, but look for both home teams to win and advance, which would send Kansas City to Pittsburgh and the Colts to Foxborough.

Patriot fans dread a rematch with Peyton Manning, and now Joseph Addai is back in the lineup. The Patriots barely survived a November battle at home with the Colts, 31-28. In the playoffs, the Patriots are 2-0 against the Colts at Gillette Stadium, with Manning playing very poorly in snowy weather in both games. It is for this potential matchup that the Patriots need to do something with their young defense in the Miami regular season finale which prepares them for this expected rematch. While Chad Henne is no Manning, the Patriots can be creative and work on situations which may arise in the Colts game.

And don't expect any drop kicks in this game.

If the Patriots can rise up and knock off Manning and the Colts, this sets up a real tasty AFC Championship Game. And we don't mean a rematch with Pittsburgh. Look for the Chiefs to rise up and upset Pittsburgh at home, the Steelers being a team known for gagging in home playoff games. Imagine the likes of Matt Cassel, Mike Vrabel, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel coming back home to play for a trip to the Super Bowl. The pregame buildup would go through the roof. Between Weis and Cassel, these guys would be able to come up with a decent offensive game plan. And who better to gameplan defensively against Belichick than Crennel, with brainiac Vrabel there to provide veteran insight and leadership in both how to beat the Patriots and how to play in a conference championship game.

What the Patriots have to do at present is to get the defense ready to play championship football. Perhaps the most key individual is Vince Wilfork, the only Patriot starter on defense with prior Super Bowl experience and an A-1 clubhouse guy. The defense has gotten a lot better in some areas, but they are still vulnerable in spots and could crack under playoff pressure if Belichick and Wilfork don't do their jobs. The Patriots cannot afford to pin their whole season on players like Jerod Mayo, Spikes and Devin McCourty, though they will be relied upon to play well. The season can and should come down to how well Tom Brady does; the defense should at the very least prevent the Patriots from getting into shootouts.

And it will in all likelihood begin with the Colts. The Patriots did barely enough to get past them in November. Something like that will probably have to do in three weeks. This defense is good, but it is not great. The Patriot defenses of 2003 and 2004 were great, and they still gave up a combined 50 points in the two Super Bowls they won.

If the Patriots are to at least get to the Super Bowl, never mind winning it, the road to Dallas has to begin with getting the defense ready to play championship defense. While it has been good enough up to this point, it will not be good enough in January. Belichick spoke wisely when he said that if they play like they did against Green Bay, their season won't last much longer.

So, what will it be next weekend? Prepare for February or avoid another Welker injury? Simple. Trust Belichick to come up with a way to do both.