By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 03, 2011

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Yes, the road to Dallas goes through Foxborough. But after last year, will that matter?

Patriot Nation is still reeling from only the second home playoff defeat in team history about a year ago, when Baltimore came into Gillette Stadium and blistered the Patriots, 33-14. It put a dent into the aura of invincibility of the Patriots at home in the playoffs, and it gives any team coming into Foxborough hope in overcoming this year's top playoff seed.

And that especially includes Baltimore. They're in the dance once again. And they could very well be coming to Foxborough next week.

For that to happen, Indianapolis needs to beat the Jets and Baltimore needs to win at Kansas City. That sends the Colts to Pittsburgh automatically, and Baltimore then gets its second straight January visit to Gillette Stadium. With Wes Welker available for this game, the Patriots will have a better chance to make some hay offensively, but if they allow guys like Ray Rice, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to take over the game, you might be looking at another disappointing end to a season, and this one would be far worse than last year given that the Patriots are perceived by many as a favorite to be playing in Dallas in about a month or so.

Most experts think that the Patriots should try to avoid both Baltimore and Indianapolis if they want to advance to Super Bowl XLV. The Patriots are good enough to beat anyone in the AFC playoff field this year, and with the exception of Kansas City, they have done just that. But both wins over the Colts and Ravens were three-point nailbiters at home, and only a late pick by James Sanders prevented a Colt win in that game. The Ravens game went into overtime before the Patriots finally prevailed.

So, how do you avoid these two potential land mines?

There are two scenarios which might happen that could make for a palatable Super Bowl journey for the Patriots. In both cases they wind up playing Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship, and the Patriots historically do well against the Steelers in both the regular season and the playoffs. The Patriots are 2-0 against the Steelers in AFC Championship Games, with both wins coming at Heinz Field. This one would be at Gillette Stadium; the last time the Steelers came here for a playoff game, the Patriots won in the Fog Bowl of 1996, 28-3.

Path #1: Indianapolis beats the Jets, Kansas City beats Baltimore

For this to happen, the Chiefs need to grow up quick and play the best football game they have played since they had Joe Montana. Kansas City is a 2½-point home dog to the Ravens, and rightfully so. Arrowhead Stadium may be all the Chiefs have going for them, as the 38-year-old stadium has always been one of the loudest places in the NFL, and a very tough road venue for any team. Otherwise, Baltimore is far more physical and more experienced. Matt Cassel did win 11 games in his fill-in year of 2008 here in Foxborough, but the five losses were to all the wrong teams, and the Patriots did not make the playoffs thanks to losing every imaginable tiebreaker.

The one variable here is that sometimes Baltimore can look sick in the playoffs. They are still a one-dimensional offense for the most part. Joe Flacco is better than they have had at quarterback (they won their one Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer, if you recall) in recent years, and they have Anquan Boldin, who has previous Super Bowl experience with Arizona. But Baltimore's bread and butter is the run, with La'Ron McClain plowing open holes for Rice. If Kansas City can find a way to stop Rice and force Flacco to win the game with his arm, the Chiefs have a chance to win the game at home.

This would then send the Chiefs to Foxborough, and the Colts to Pittsburgh. Tom Brady would be hell bent on exacting revenge on the team that put him out of the 2008 season, and Bill Belichick probably wouldn't have any problem with sticking it to his former top lieutenants, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. As for the Colts, their record over Pittsburgh reads like their record used to read against New England. Since 1985, the Steelers are 10-2 overall against the Colts, and since the merger are a perfect 5-0 in the playoffs. Pittsburgh went into Indianapolis in 2005 and won a playoff game against the Colts, 21-18 on their way to a win in Super Bowl XL. The Colts won the most recent meeting, 24-20 at Heinz Field. Both the Patriots and Steelers would be favored to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

Path #2: Jets beat Indianapolis, Baltimore beats Kansas City (or vice versa)

This is a more likely scenario, but Rex Ryan would have to make good on a vow he made on Monday. Ryan's defenses are 1-5 against Peyton Manning, and that includes a 30-17 loss at Lucas Oil Stadium in last year's AFC Championship Game. Good as Manning can still be, this year's Colt offense has not been as invincible as it has been in past years. If Ryan can dial up the right defensive formula to bewilder Manning and to induce a few interceptions, the Jets could very well snatch a win here. Manning, like Baltimore, is capable of playoff stinkers, as Patriot fans well know.

This would automatically send the Jets to Foxborough, with the winner of the other game going to Pittsburgh. Baltimore and Pittsburgh form one of the most intense divisional grudge rivalries in the league, and the winner of this game would be physically spent going into the AFC Championship Game. In the playoffs, Pittsburgh has a 2-0 record against the Ravens, with both wins coming at Heinz Field. The Chiefs and Steelers have an interesting record: both teams have alternated five wins for each since 1992. In their one previous playoff meeting, Kansas City won at home in OT in 1993. If the Jets win, it would seem more advantageous for Patriot fans to root for Baltimore, and watch the teams slug it out the next week at Heinz Field with Pittsburgh hopefully prevailing.

Now, if there is one scenario that Patriot Nation would love not to see, it would be the one mentioned at the top of this article, that being Indianapolis over the Jets and Baltimore over Kansas City. That would send Baltimore to New England and Indianapolis to Pittsburgh. That would keep both danger teams alive, and set up a rematch with Baltimore. One extra incentive last year is that Baltimore also lost in the regular season to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, a game where Lewis was extremely vocal in insisting that his team was the better team and should have won that game. In January, Lewis got his revenge. And so in 2010, the Patriots once again won a close home game against Baltimore in the regular season. It would set up still another payback game for the Ravens.

Of course, the best scenario is that it doesn't matter who the Patriots play. The only reason the Patriots haven't beaten Kansas City is because they didn't play them. The Patriots have been playing out of their minds since the Week 9 loss at Cleveland. As long as the Patriots don't come up with a stinker like last year against Baltimore or in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots should be okay no matter who they play. They get a path to the Big Show that in the past they have never failed to complete. Two games to the Super Bowl has been automatic for the Patriots over the years.

Still, this is New England. Go Jets. Go Chiefs.


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