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Planning For Playoffs Has Already Begun

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Dec 28, 2003 at 5:00am ET

Bill Belichick, by his own admission, has a problem.

How can he prepare for a playoff opponent when he doesn't know whom that opponent will be? In an Associated Press report on Sunday, Belichick said, \"When you\'re the first seed, you don\'t know who you\'ll be playing.\" The Patriots coach went on to say, \"I think we are going to have to be prepared for all of them.\"

And you can bet that he will do just that. The team may have four days off upcoming, but it is unlikely that Belichick will take any such luxury for himself.

One might remember 1996, when the Patriots had the two seed and a first-round bye. The Patriots knew Buffalo, they knew Denver, they knew Indianapolis, they even knew Jacksonville. The team Bill Parcells prepared the most for was the team he knew the least about, Pittsburgh (though the Patriots did play them the year prior and lost, 41-27). Sure enough, after the bye week, it was the Steelers who came to Foxborough. With a major assist from a dense fog, the Patriots beat the Steelers 28-3, and then beat Jacksonville 20-6 to advance to Super Bowl XXXI.

Two years ago, when Belichick had a week off, it was a good bet that the Patriots would draw Oakland for their first game. The Raiders would play the Jets at home for the second consecutive week, and odds were good that they would avenge the 24-22 loss which gave the Patriots the two seed. Sure enough, the Raiders clobbered the Jets in the rematch, 38-24, and headed up to Foxborough to deal with the snow and the tuck rule.

Guess this means that some extreme weather phenomena will hit Foxborough on Saturday, January 10.

In this year where the Patriots are the top seed, Belichick does have some extensive game planning to do. Denver, Indianapolis and Tennessee do provide some familiarity, but Baltimore and Kansas City, especially the Ravens, do not. The Chiefs came to Gillette Stadium last year and nearly beat the Patriots before falling in overtime, but they exposed a lack of run stoppage in the Patriot defense which they never fully recovered from the rest of the year. As for Baltimore, their last meeting with the Patriots was the 1999 regular season finale at Foxborough. In what was Pete Carroll's final game as head coach, the Patriots sent Carroll out a 20-3 winner.

That's a coincidence. In both the most recent Chief and Raven game, Priest Holmes was the star running back for the Patriot opponent.

But Belichick will not pay all his attention to just Baltimore and Kansas City. If both home teams win next week, Baltimore heads to Foxborough. If Denver upsets Indianapolis at the RCA Dome for a second consecutive visit, Denver makes the pilgrimage to the great northeast regardless of what happens with Baltimore and Tennessee. Tennessee comes north if they win and Denver loses.

Let's examine all the potential Patriot playoff foes to see how they match up, and what it would take for them to advance to Houston.

Denver has the lowest seed, but they won't seem like it when you play them. Their impressive 31-17 win at Indianapolis last Sunday night was their fourth straight win and fifth in their last six weeks. It has sent a message to everyone out there that Denver is now the team nobody wants to play in the postseason, and that point was emphasized thanks to the Broncos getting a 100-plus rushing game on the road from someone not named Clinton Portis.

Denver is indeed dangerous, but not such that the Patriots won't be able to deal with. People refuse to believe that Indianapolis is basically an overrated team, but we'll deal with the Colts a bit later. Bronco fans will gleefully point out that the Patriots won in Denver only because Danny Kanell was at quarterback and not Jake Plummer. But what those fans don't comprehend is that the Patriots played that game without Richard Seymour, Ted Washington and Ted Johnson. What was left managed to hold Portis to 111 yards rushing and one touchdown.

To beat Denver, they will have to deal effectively with a key Bronco who was missing from the November 3rd contest. Ed McCaffrey has had some boffo games in years past against the Patriots, and last year's 21-16 win at Gillette Stadium was a shining example. If the Patriots are to beat Denver, assuming that Portis is contained, the Patriots need to prevent McCaffrey from making his patented big catches.

When a five seed is 12-4, watch out. Tennessee will give Baltimore all they can handle in the first round. Should they break through and make their way to Foxborough, it will set up a rematch of the 38-30 Patriot win back in October, when the home crowd was more into the Red Sox tying the ALDS with Oakland at two games apiece.

The key here is the status of Steve McNair. With Jevon Kearse back in good health to help stabilize the defense, the game may hinge on McNair's ability to play. The mere fact that the game is at Foxborough gives the Patriots a solid edge, but the Patriots will also once again remember the brutalization the Titans administered to the Patriots last December at Nashville. If McNair cannot play, or if he is below peak level, the Patriots will be at a decided advantage.

The team the Patriots should really watch out for is Baltimore. On Sunday night, Pittsburgh showed that Jamal Lewis can be stopped, not to mention Anthony Wright and the rest of the Raven offense. You can bet that Belichick will dissect this game with great fervor, to see exactly how the Steelers shut Lewis down and prevented him from breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.

What Belichick will also need to look at is what to do about Ray Lewis and his gang. The Baltimore defense is frequently compared to New England's, and a Patriot-Raven battle would tend to be extremely low scoring. One thing Belichick will examine is whether Pittsburgh was held to only ten points because of Baltimore's will, or because the Steelers didn't have the material or the coaching smarts to score more points.

Why so many people are afraid of Indianapolis is perplexing. This is a team that did not finish well at all. They got spanked at home by Denver, then nearly lost at Houston before the Texans' immaturity and inability to close out big games took over. Peyton Manning may win league MVP, and deservedly so, but he needs help.

The Colt defense remains its biggest Achilles heel, and Charlie Weis always seems to come up with something they cannot deal with. On offense, the Patriots can and should deal with Edgerrin James and need only be extremely concerned with Marvin Harrison, the only Colt the Patriots should be afraid of. As long as Tom Brady doesn't go into an interception funk, which is the only reason the game four weeks ago came down to the last play, the Patriots should handle Indianapolis well enough.

By the way, the Colts haven't won in Foxborough since 1995, and the Patriots are 8-3 in Foxborough against Indianapolis since 1990. It's not like the Colts are strangers, and there are many Patriot fans who are sorry that the Colts left the division.

If all the home teams win, the conference championship will come down to the Patriots and Kansas City. In this contest, Belichick would want to key on stopping Holmes, and run Antowain Smith on a Chief defense that, like the Patriots last year, has been exposed as weak against the run this year. If the Patriots can deal with Holmes, they should win and advance to the Super Bowl.

This assumes that Brad Seely and his kamikaze squad know full well about someone named Dante' Hall. This also assumes that Trent Green is not made to feel comfortable in trying to find Johnnie Morton or Eddie Kennison or Tony Gonzalez. The Chief offensive line could take over the game, but the Patriot defense is much better equipped this year to stop the Chiefs and seize control of the game for themselves.

Basically, the Patriots need only to listen to Belichick and ignore all those who think that any of their opponents stand a better chance of making it to Houston. None of the teams present an insurmountable challenge, and the Patriots have the security and imposing presence of their home field for both games. If the Patriots do not make it to Houston, it will only be because of unforeseen tragedies. It won't be due to lack of ability or the prospect of getting outcoached.

The latter prospect is already being addressed. Belichick still represents the Patriots' ticket to Houston.

And right this moment, he's already thinking about the tendencies of Portis and Griffin, and maybe has already figured out what to do. Sleep well, Patriot Nation.

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