By: Bob George/
December 20, 2011

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Bad defense didn't bother the 2004 Red Sox, who made eight errors combined in the first two games of the World Series that year and still swept the Cardinals without ever falling behind in any of the games.

It looks like it won't bother the 2011 Patriots either, as far as the regular season goes.

Sooner or later, the Patriots will come to grips with what has to be one of the most porous defenses since the days of Sandy Durko, George Hoey and Ron Bolton. But for now, believe it or not, the Patriots have the inside track for the number one playoff seed in the AFC. It would be the second top seed in a row for the Patriots, who can nail down the top seed if they can win their final two games, home dates with Miami and Buffalo.

Three games which greatly helped the Patriots took place this weekend to help bring this about.

First of all, Carolina went into Houston and knocked off the AFC South champion Texans, 28-13. The win by Carolina ensured that if the Patriots win out, they will get no worse than the two seed and a first round bye. Houston, who earned the first playoff berth in franchise history, continues to operate with third string quarterback T.J. Yates, while Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton is threatening Peyton Manning's rookie record for most passing yards in a season by a newcomer.

Later Sunday evening, Baltimore, who clinched a playoff berth when Oakland lost at home to Detroit, cut a stinker out in San Diego. The Chargers, who are still alive in the AFC West (as are all four teams), took it to the Ravens and their normally stiff defense, coming away with a 34-14 win in Ray Lewis' first game back from injury. It was a dominating win for the Chargers, who manhandled the strong Ravens defense both on the ground and through the air.

The loss by Baltimore was important for the Patriots, in that if both teams had finished at 13-3, the Ravens win the tiebreaker thanks to a better record among common opponents. The Patriots can now finish a game ahead of Baltimore if they win out.

Then on Monday night, Pittsburgh went into San Francisco and faced a 49ers team which could still get the top seed in the NFC. Green Bay failed to clinch home field throughout the NFC playoffs by suffering a 19-14 loss at Kansas City, spoiling their perfect season and setting off champagne parties all over Miami. Should the Packers lose out and the 49ers win out, the 49ers would get the one seed over the Packers.

Given their zeal to earn at least a first round bye, and given in part to Ben Roethlisberger nursing a bad ankle, the 49ers parlayed four Pittsburgh turnovers into a 20-3 victory on a night where Candlestick Park resembled old Foxborough Stadium circa January 1997. On two separate occasions the 51-year-old stadium went into complete darkness thanks to a transformer which was seen exploding from an overhead blimp camera shot, causing delays of roughly 20 minutes each. This was similar to the 1996 AFC Championship Game where a transformer malfunctioned at Foxborough Stadium, though on that evening only some of the lights went out, and the scoreboard was seen flickering.

What is now flickering, in the eyes of the Steelers, is the chance to be not only the number one seed in the conference, but also not being able to secure even a first round bye. If Baltimore and New England both win out, the Patriots will secure the top seed in the conference for the second year in a row, and the Ravens will secure the AFC North title and the other first round bye thanks to a head-to-head sweep of the Steelers.

Both the Ravens and Patriots end with division opponents the rest of the way. The Patriots host Miami next Saturday on Christmas Eve, then finish the season with a chance to avenge an earlier loss, to a Buffalo team which finally did regress to the norm after a terrific start which included a win over the Patriots back on September 25. Baltimore hosts Cleveland this Saturday, then finishes the season at Cincinnati on New Year's Day. Baltimore will be a solid favorite over Cleveland at home, but Cincinnati might be a tough finish on the road. Pittsburgh will have to hope that the Bengals can do what San Diego did Sunday night to the Ravens.

Despite being alive for the top seed in the NFC, the 49ers are likely looking at a two seed if they can hold off New Orleans and at least remain tied with them. Green Bay did suffer their first loss of the season on Sunday at Kansas City, but the Packers don't figure to tank the rest of the regular season.

As for the Patriots, assuming they can protect their house, they can once again make the road to Indianapolis go through the Boston Post Road. But that was the case last year, and the Jets made the Patriots look silly and exposed. The Jets, who right now would be the six seed and would go to Foxborough if they won their playoff opener (against Houston in all likelihood), have already fired salvos at the Patriots.

"We would love to play the Patriots again!", Rex Ryan was quoted as saying. "If we get into the playoffs, watch out!" And that warning cannot be taken lightly.

The Patriots are looking at a similar scenario to last year, but at least this year they will be ready. The Patriots haven't really played a solid playoff game since the Divisional Round game in 2007 against Jacksonville, as Tom Brady had a substandard game against San Diego in the game that sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XLII, and three playoff losses ensued.

Despite the defense being what it is, many of the players from last year will return with a year's experience under their belt, and in a position to prepare to win better than last year. The loss of Andre Carter on defense will be huge, but if somehow Patrick Chung can come back and provide his leadership and play-calling skills in the secondary, the Patriots have a chance to let their offense carry them to the Super Bowl.

But it is nice at least that the Patriots are two home wins away from home field throughout the playoffs. The Patriots got some nice early Christmas presents from the Chargers and the 49ers. Now it is up to the Patriots to take these gifts and parlay them into something really special.