FOXBORO — The Patriots have not looked as breathtaking as the forecasts back in July, back before their medical tent filled up.
But geez, look at everyone else.
Relative to their inferiorly-coached and unreliable playoff competition, the Patriots are still the Patriots. Only a reckless fool bets against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick this time of year — especially this year, when eight of 12 teams in the NFL playoff field did not make the playoffs last year.
This includes long playoff droughts ended by the Buffalo Bills (first appearance since 1999, ending the longest active playoff drought in major team sports), Los Angeles Rams (2004), Jacksonville Jaguars (2007) and Tennessee Titans (2008).
Meanwhile, in New England, the train just keeps a-rolling. The Patriots of Brady and Belichick are in the playoffs for the 15th time in the last 17 years, soldiering through injuries in numbers and significance (Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Marcus Cannon) that would sink any team except Belichick’s.
Scrambling to find healthy front-seven defenders worthy to be suited up, these 2017 Patriots stared down a dizzying travel schedule of five road games (including one in Mexico City) during a six-week stretch in November and December, going 5-1.
“Obviously after Week One (a 42-27 loss to the Chiefs at Gillette), there was a lot of ‘sky is falling’ here (in the media),” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “And I think this building just stayed up. We just kept pushing forward.”
The regular season started amid a 2-2 panic. From there it wound its way back to where the Patriots always find themselves this time of year. New England cranked out a 13-3 record (that makes eight straight regular seasons of at least 12 victories), a ninth consecutive AFC East title and a first-round playoff bye for the eighth consecutive year.
With their 26-6 victory over the New York Jets in brutally cold conditions at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, the Patriots also locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs for the seventh time since 2003. Only once in their previous six times as the No. 1 seed did the Patriots fail to reach the Super Bowl. Vegas says the Patriots will get their again — and win.
New England’s postseason quest for a sixth title kicks off at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night, Jan. 13, at 8:15 versus the lowest remaining seed (Bills, Titans or Chiefs) from this upcoming AFC wildcard weekend. The reigning Super Bowl champs have won six straight home playoff games, and nine of 10 since those home wild-card losses to the Ravens and Jets during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
“We don’t know who we’re going to play (in the divisional round). We’re not going to know that until the weekend,” said coach Belichick on Sunday. “But in the meantime there are things that we can do that will help us no matter who we play. And those are some of the things that we’ll take a look at.”
What a few weeks ago looked to be an AFC playoff shaping up as a New England walkover to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis on Feb. 4 now looks a tad more challenging.
The Chiefs, who overran the Patriots in the fourth quarter on opening night in Foxboro, have rebounded from their 1-6 midseason slide, closing out the regular season with four straight victories. The Steelers have proven to be nearly as substantial as their 13-3 record.
And the young Jaguars can roll out the league’s No. 2 defense (No. 1 versus the pass).
“I think it’s a real advantage for us, just being here, practicing in it, understanding how it’s going to affect things,” Brady said after the victory over the Jets on Sunday — game-time temperature: 13 degrees.
If the seedings play out this coming wildcard weekend, it will be the No. 4 Chiefs (10-6) coming to Foxboro 11 days from now. Kansas City hosts No. 5 Tennessee (9-7) this Saturday. No. 6 Buffalo (9-7) plays at No. 3 Jacksonville (10-6) on Sunday in the other AFC wildcard game.
Besides the bye week’s healing benefits, the Patriots will meanwhile have time to fix problems. “Since I’ve been here, that’s been a huge week for us to fix some things,” said McCourty, who is in his eighth season with the Patriots. “Whatever we need to do, usually it finds a way to help us in one of these games in the playoffs, and that’s huge.”
There remains this overwhelming feeling that the AFC title will come down to a Patriots-Steelers rematch in Foxboro on Jan. 21 (3:05 p.m.) In last season’s AFC title game in Foxboro, Pittsburgh fizzled after its indispensable running back Le’Veon Bell early on went lame with a groin injury.
Despite Pittsburgh’s numerous failings versus the Patriots (Brady is 11-2 all-time versus Pittsburgh, including 3-0 in the playoffs, and with some big numbers), the Steelers remain a bit of a concern. Their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has two Super Bowl rings and he operates a weapons-galore offense capable of keeping up with Brady, and then some.
And really, the Steelers (7-1 on the road this season), did sort of/kind of beat the Patriots in Pittsburgh on Dec. 17, even though they lost. Ssome Patriots fans might worry that the football gods are about to even the score.