The Patriots went 12-4 on the year and, thanks to their dominant 43-21 victory over Denver in week 9, earned the top seed in the AFC playoffs. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC is now routed through Foxborough.
At one time, that was a death sentence to opponents. However, New England has lost a home playoff game in three of the past five seasons.
New England will play Baltimore, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis during their opening playoff game. The Pats offense is primarily pass-based, but their running game is capable if not spectacular. On defense, New England is top-ten against the run, but slightly below average against the pass, generally opting to take away big plays and give yards underneath.
New England’s losses to Kansas City and Green Bay demonstrate that the recipe for beating the Patriots is to control the clock, win time of possession, and pass the ball efficiently.
Who among the Patriots’ potential opponents can repeat that formula in the playoffs? There is no clear answer, which may speak as much to New England’s strengths as it does to the other teams’ weaknesses.
Baltimore won at Foxborough during the 2009 and 2012 playoffs. However, the Ravens are a below average squad when it comes to possessing the ball, and Joe Flacco ranks 22nd in the league in completion percentage. The Ravens are also playing some of their worst football lately, losing to Houston (who had Case Keenum at QB) in week 16 and barely edging out Cleveland (who had Connor Shaw at QB) in week 17.
The Bengals have held onto the ball for more than 35 minutes per game over the past three weeks, which would bode well heading into a Divisional game in New England. However, Cincinnati already got stomped by the Patriots in Foxborough earlier this year, 43-17. Andy Dalton, who played a great game against the Patriots at home in 2013, looked lost in their most recent meeting, as the Bengals failed to convert a single third-down.
Indianapolis was fourth in the league in time of possession this year and had the best passing offense in the NFL. On paper, Indy looks like the team that could give New England the most trouble. That said, Indy utilizes a big-play passing attack that isn’t always efficient, and New England won handily at Indianapolis in week 11, 42-20. New England also dominated the Colts in last year’s playoffs, 43-22.
Verdict: With the Patriots’ poor post-season performance against Baltimore, it’s likely that Tom Brady and company are hoping to see either Cincinnati or Indianapolis – two teams they have had little trouble dispatching – in the Divisional round. But this year’s Ravens are not the team of old, and all three would come into a game at Foxborough as heavy underdogs.
(Photo credit: Jack Newton (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdn/10556799426/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)