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January 02, 2011
Patriots Win, Now Await Next Opponent
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

FOXBOROUGH -- Honk if you think Danny Woodhead really has a headache.

His fumble in the first quarter was the only blemish on what was otherwise a perfect way for the top AFC seed Patriots to finish the regular season. In what was a meaningless game against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots were able to sidestep any horrific injuries like last year, get the regulars plenty of work to stay fresh and in sync going into a bye week, and still manage to blow out an inferior Dolphin team that is headed to an offseason of transition and change.

Only a late Miami touchdown ruined a shutout. Otherwise, the Patriots dominated the Dolphins, 38-7 Sunday at Gillette Stadium to finish at 14-2 for the regular season. Bill Belichick became the first head coach in NFL history to lead a team to 14 or more wins on four different occasions. The Dolphins didn't really play with a "get on the bus" mentality, as the team seemed to play hard all game long. Miami is a team in bad need of retooling, and they simply got beaten by a team with second stringers that are better than their first stringers, for the most part.

Winning didn't benefit the Patriots at all, but the game turned out to be a huge positive on several fronts. BenJarvus Green-Ellis became the first thousand-yard rusher for the Patriots since Corey Dillon in 2004. Julian Edelman returned a second quarter punt 94 yards for a touchdown, the longest in Patriot history, breaking the record of 89 yards set by Mike Haynes in 1976. Brian Hoyer threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Tate in the third quarter, the first touchdown pass of his career. Taylor Price, seeing his first NFL action ever, caught three passes for 41 yards.

Woodhead coughed up the ball with just under nine minutes left in the opening period, then came out of the game for good. He went to the locker room for observations, including a concussion test, then came out to the bench for the second half and was seen generally with a big grin on his face. The Patriots naturally gave no details regarding his injury status, but to look at him, one could easily assume that any future Patriot opponent might be already being misled by the great Belichick.

Now, speaking of future Patriot opponents...

The AFC playoff picture is now finally set, with some strange results abounding. The strangest of all happened in Kansas City, with the Chiefs gagging at home and losing to the Oakland Raiders, 31-10. The Raiders became the first team since the merger to go undefeated in their division yet miss the playoffs. Down in Houston, the Jacksonville Jaguars handed the AFC South division title to the Indianapolis Colts, losing to the Texans 34-17.

Because of this, it set up an interesting end to the Colts-Titans game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts needed a win to sew up the division title by themselves, but the Jacksonville loss made that a moot point. Tennessee played Indianapolis tough right down to the wire, and the teams traded fumbles in the final two minutes before Adam Vinatieri, the best kicker in Patriot history, nailed a 42-yard field goal as time ran out (shocker) to give the Colts a 23-20 walkoff win.

But did Indianapolis want to win? Knowing that Jacksonville had lost with two minutes left, the Colts could have easily tanked the end of the game if they had preferred to play Baltimore in the first round. But by winning, the Colts now get the Jets in the first round of the playoffs thanks to Kansas City losing. Indianapolis has won eight straight against Baltimore, while the Jets lost to the Colts in last year's AFC Championship Game. Baltimore now gets to go to Kansas City instead of Indianapolis, which has to make the Ravens thrilled to death. The Colts might also be happy in that, by nailing down the three seed instead of the four, they don't have to play the Patriots until the AFC Championship Game as a win next week against the Jets sends them automatically to Pittsburgh for the Divisional round.

So next week, you have the Jets at Indianapolis on Saturday, and Baltimore at Kansas City on Sunday. The Patriots draw the worst seed of the two winning teams, with the higher seed going to Pittsburgh. Belichick will now head for the film room, and his first job might be to dissect the January playoff loss to the Ravens, as they will likely be the favorite to oppose the Patriots in the Divisional round in two weeks.

The Ravens and Chiefs have met five times, with Kansas City holding a 3-2 edge. But the Ravens have won the last two meetings, in 2006 and 2009. Kansas City has not beaten Baltimore since 2004. Meanwhile, the Colts lead their former division rivals, 40-26 in the regular season all-time, but the Jets hold a 2-1 postseason edge. One of those Jet wins was Super Bowl III, but the other two games are both since Y2K with the teams trading wins. Since 2000, the Colts hold a slight 5-4 edge over the Jets in both the regular season and postseason. In terms of recent tendencies, the Ravens are a more convincing favorite over the Chiefs, while the Jets and Colts could be a crap shoot.

Kansas City is a tough road venue to play in, but the Chiefs have suffered some recent playoff embarrassments at home. Baltimore is both very beatable and physically strong enough to beat you into submission at the same time. If the Chiefs can slow down Ray Rice and find a way to upset Joe Flacco, they will have a chance to win the game with their home crowd behind them. But Baltimore has to be the favorite in this game if they play sound football as well as physical football.

The Colts have had a strange year, with several key players lost to injury and Peyton Manning having to literally carry the team all by himself. The Jets are perhaps a better team on paper, especially on defense, but have not finished particularly well. If Rex Ryan can come up with a good defensive game plan to choke off Manning's receivers and not let him beat them through the air, the Jets have a decent chance to win the game and punch their ticket to Foxborough for the second round of the playoffs. This game will come down to how well the Jets play defense, plain and simple.

If the Jets do win, what the Ravens do won't matter for at least one more week. Belichick will watch lots of Jet film as well as Ravens film. The Chiefs are the only other team who the Patriots could face in two weeks, and there is great familiarity where that team is concerned given that both of Todd Haley's coordinators were Belichick's coordinators for all three Patriot Super Bowl wins.

So, assuming that Woodhead really has a head made of wood, things are just dandy in Foxborough. The Patriots now get two weeks off, will enjoy next weekend, then finally get ready for their playoff odyssey which hopefully will result in the franchise's seventh Super Bowl, and its fourth Super Bowl win.

38-7. That's meaningless football, Patriot style.


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