How The AFC Playoff Field Shapes Up
Route 6 is the “Grand Army of the Republic Highway”. Route 20 is the “United Spanish War Veterans Memorial Highway”. Route 1 is the “Boston Post Road”.
Correction. Route 1 has a name change.
It’s now called “The Road to the Super Bowl”.
The long and at times horridly congested iconic east coast Main Street, which begins in Fort Kent, Maine and ends in Key West, Florida, is actually the new road to NRG Stadium in Houston. Instead of following I-45 or I-10, you merely hop on this road and it will take you there. However, you have a much greater obstacle than incessant traffic jams, traffic lights and miles and miles of urban blight.
The obstacle lies somewhere on this long and exasperating road, between the towns of Norwood, Mass. and Wrentham, Mass. The obstacle is a huge edifice on the former site of a well-known harness racing track. The occupants of this huge edifice are so good that in addition to this edifice, there is an entire entertainment complex, which features a sports bar that is audaciously named after the television network that covers most of their games.
It’s just like old times. When the Celtics and Lakers met for the NBA Championship in 2008 for the first time since 1987. When you watch the 2017 Rose Bowl and for a few glorious moments, you see the great Keith Jackson in the broadcast booth. When Tony Bennett turns 90, gets serenaded in the city most identified with him, then turns up as a performer in the 2016 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
And the Patriots have home field for the playoffs. Just like old times.
The holidays can bring about very comforting feelings in most people. In New England, Christmas/Chanukkah/Kwanzaa make this part of the country feel incredibly cozy. Holiday lights and decorations, snow in the street and on the houses and trees, holiday movies and music, all combine to justify what made Currier and Ives so famous. Now, a week since Christmas and at the end of Chanukkah and Kwanzaa, you feel comfortable around here once again. The Patriots have the top playoff seed, a potentially easy road to the Super Bowl, and it feels just like the calendar went back instantly to December 24th.
The football gods have been kind to the Patriots since DeflateGate. First, they helped the Patriots to go 3-1 during the Tom Brady suspension. Second, they gave the Patriots a regular season schedule which would have harmed them only if strength of victory tiebreakers had to be applied (which is how they would have lost to Oakland if that came into play). Third, cruel fate intervened when the most serious playoff threat to the Patriots, the Raiders, lost their top two quarterbacks late in the season and now will probably see their season end next weekend at the hands of a weak Houston team.
Here is a look at the other five playoff teams in the AFC, and how they potentially shape up against the Patriots.
#2 seed – Kansas City
The Chiefs were an even bigger benefactor of the season-ending leg injury to Oakland quarterback Derek Carr than the Patriots were. Unexpectedly, it’s the Chiefs who get the other bye next weekend and not the Raiders, by virtue of their head-to-head sweep of the Silver and Black. This prospect helps the Patriots greatly, in an indirect way.
Kansas City cannot face the Patriots any earlier than the AFC Championship Game. They must face the #3 seed if it wins the Wild Card round. That will in all likelihood be Pittsburgh, who will be favored to take out #6 Miami at home next weekend. It will prevent the Patriots from having to play both Kansas City and Pittsburgh in successive weekends. It also, by forcing these two teams to have to play each other, helps the Patriots in that the winner of this game might be a little banged up when/if it has to go to Foxborough the week after.
Last season, the Patriots beat the Chiefs 27-20 at home in the Divisional round. Playing Kansas City at home instead of Arrowhead is huge. The 2014 blowout loss at Arrowhead punctuated how hard it is for the Patriots to win there (the Patriots went from 1964 to 2003 without a win in that city). The biggest concern for the Patriots is to not punt the ball to Tyreek Hill. Other than that, the potential matchup would largely hinge on Josh McDaniels coming up with a good enough game plan against their very good defense. Head coach Andy Reid is a game management liability, as evidenced by the last 5 minutes of Super Bowl XXXIX when he was the Eagles’ field boss, and the closing moments of last year’s Divisional game as well.
#3 seed – Pittsburgh
The Steelers, like the Chiefs, also cannot face the Patriots until the AFC Championship. They will take on Miami at home next Saturday. A nice cold snap does wonders in neutralizing the Dolphins, who still lost by three touchdowns to the Patriots in 79 degree weather at home. Miami historically does very poor in cold weather games, especially in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback who can slice and dice that suspect Miami secondary. The Dolphins can try and shut down Le’Veon Bell, but then have to deal with Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh should be a prohibitive favorite to win this one.
In Foxborough, Roethlisberger is 0-3 in his career. He is capable of lighting it up and could very well match Brady pass for pass. The Patriots beat Pittsburgh earlier this year at Heinz Field, but Big Ben did not play in that game. Pittsburgh represents the biggest challenge for the Patriots in their quest to advance to Super Bowl LI in Houston.
#4 seed – Houston; #5 seed — Oakland
The Texans are the same guys who came to Foxborough in Week 3 and got shut out by the Patriots who started a third string quarterback. They make the playoffs because they won the pitifully weak AFC South. They are clearly not the fourth best team in the conference.
Their game against Oakland at NRG Stadium (site of the Super Bowl) will be very interesting, but for the wrong reasons. Both teams will be without their starting quarterbacks, as Tom Savage suffered a possible concussion on Sunday against Tennessee. Brock Osweiler looked completely befuddled and lost in the Week 3 loss to the Patriots.
But how much better will Oakland fare? They may have to start Michigan State rookie Connor Cook at quarterback. The other offensive and defensive weapons are there for the Raiders, including putative Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. Most experts think Oakland is too wounded without Carr, never mind his replacement, Matt McGloin.
This game could go either way. The winner likely goes to Foxborough.
#6 seed – Miami
The only way Miami wins this game is if it is an unusually warm day in Pittsburgh and one of the Big B’s gets hurt. If it’s Roethlisberger that gets hurt, Miami can then load up and shut down Bell and dare Landry Jones to beat them through the air. If it’s Bell, the Dolphins can double team Brown and flood the secondary with nickel and dime packages. The down linemen can have their fun in trying to chase Big Ben down, but they are talented enough to have a chance to upset him and flush him from the pocket often.
Predictions: Pittsburgh over Miami, and whichever team makes fewer mistakes than the other in the other game. New England easily handles the winner, and Kansas City escapes with a close win at home against Pittsburgh. That’s no gimme, of course; Kansas City has a history of choking at home in the playoffs when seeded high, and Reid has postseason in-game coaching yips much like his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer.
So, enjoy a few more weeks of that nice, warm holiday feeling, and enjoy the playoffs, too. And good health also to the Green Bay Packers. Let’s hope the third time is the charm, and that they finally handle the Giants at Lambeau in January. Bad things happen to the Patriots when the Giants beat the Packers in the playoffs. Look it up, folks.
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