By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 30, 2012

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FOXBOROUGH -- Someone up in NFL's Valhalla must have been craving for another Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning playoff matchup.

Three weeks from now, that might just happen.

A lot can happen between now and conference championship weekend, but one thing that is certain is that the preordination of the road to Super Bowl XLVII going through Houston will not happen. It won't go through Foxborough either. Unbelievably, the road to New Orleans will now go through Denver, an unlikely top AFC seed which seemingly was in transition with the addition of Manning, a quarterback for the ages but recovering from a neck ailment which ended his long career in Indianapolis.

As fates would have it, both Denver and Indianapolis are in the AFC playoffs, and both are currently riding hot streaks. Denver has benefitted from an easy finishing schedule and Indianapolis is bolstered by the return of their beloved head coach, Chuck Pagano, as he completed his comeback from his long battle with leukemia to coach his first game on Sunday. Indianapolis did both Denver and New England a huge favor on Sunday, handing both teams shots at first round byes with their 28-16 win at home over the struggling Houston Texans, relegating the former lock for the top seed to the three seed and having to play a home game next weekend.

Meanwhile, the Patriots had destiny back in their own hands as far as a first round bye was concerned. And they were able to hold up their end of the bargain on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, defeating the Miami Dolphins 28-0 to claim at least the two seed with Houston losing. But with Denver defeating Kansas City at home, 38-3, the Broncos claim the top seed and the Patriots holding at two. With Baltimore losing its season finale at Cincinnati, the Ravens locked up the four seed and Houston the three.

The matchups next weekend in the Wild Card games will have Cincinnati heading to Reliant Stadium to play the Texans in Houston, while the Colts will head to M&T Bank Stadium to face off against Baltimore. The Broncos will take on the lower seeded survivor of these battles, while the Patriots will host the other higher seeded team. The Divisional round will take place one week after the Wild Card weekend.

As sluggish as the Patriots looked early on in their last two games, they pretty much handled their business against Miami with only the wind as their biggest nemesis. Stevan Ridley ran for two touchdowns and Brady hit Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski for touchdown passes. The wind (30 mph gusts) meant no field goal attempts for Stephen Gostkowski, as the game had a high school feel with very few kicks and punts and lots of going for it on fourth down. But the Patriots defense handcuffed Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphin offense all game long, giving Brady and the Patriot offense lots of wiggle room, not that much was needed in the first place. The shutout of Miami was their first whitewash since the 59-0 win over Tennessee in the snow in 2009.

As for Houston, one can conjecture as to how they managed to let a one seed turn into a three seed. All they had to do was to win on Sunday and the one seed was theirs. Was it Houston simply being exposed as not as good as everyone thought they were? Or was it the emotion regarding Pagano's return to the sidelines that uplifted the Colts? Or was it a combination of the two? One might say that Matt Schaub is not the quarterback everyone thinks he is; recall that it was T.J. Yates that led Houston in the playoffs last year, not Schaub. One could also conclude that beyond J.J. Watt, the Houston defense is overrated and that Watt, who should win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award going away, is being asked to do too much on his own.

Pagano notwithstanding, the fact that the Colts are in the playoffs with rookie Andrew Luck at the helm is also quite amazing and uplifting. Luck, who was pulverized a few weeks back at Gillette Stadium by the Patriots who dropped 59 points on his team's defense, appears ready to take his team into the playoffs, not to the degree of his Colt predecessor, but he should do well against a Ravens team who, like the Texans, are in a downslide as well. The football gods want Brady and Manning to meet, but what if it's Luck and Manning? If both road teams win next weekend, Cincinnati would have to go to Denver for the Divisional round. Denver versus Indianapolis could happen, but it might mean that Luck went through the Patriots to make that happen.

Denver figured to improve when it replaced Tim Tebow with Manning, but few people, even those in the Mile High City, could have figured on the Broncos being the top AFC playoff seed. The Broncos will be tested once the playoffs begin, as their run of prosperity has come largely at the expense of bottom-tier teams. Their last loss was at Foxborough back in October, but a rematch would have to be in Denver.

The Patriots somewhat negated that jarring loss at home to San Francisco two weeks ago with their win against Miami in that they still managed to cop a playoff bye. But had they managed to defeat the 49ers, they would be the top seed and not the Broncos. Having the Broncos at home (like last year) is so much different than having to go to a city they historically do poorly in (0-2 in the playoffs all time for the Patriots in Denver). Add to that having to play against Manning, who since 2004 has figured the Patriots out after having been tormented by the Patriots for years, and you have the ingredients for a disappointing end to the season for the Patriots. If these teams do meet in three weeks, the Patriots will have to play the best game they have played in years to make it back to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII.

But for now, it's time to rest up, watch the Wild Card round, and get everyone healthy for the Divisional round. With Chicago defeating Detroit, it eliminated the Giants from the playoffs and ensured that the Patriots would not see Peyton's little brother again in February if they get that far. Other than that, it isn't prudent to look that far ahead and make assumptions that might not pan out. Right now, it's about Cincinnati at Houston and Indianapolis at Baltimore next week, nothing more.

But you can just hear the football gods buzzing. Brady and Manning. Brady and Manning. Brady and Manning. Bring it on. Make it happen.


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