Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why Patriots are going to the Super Bowl

Remember six weeks ago when I guaranteed the Patriots will win the AFC East? The statement sparked plenty of doubt and harsh criticism. Simply scan through the comments section of that blog and see for yourself.

Most readers thought this was the year the New York Jets would capture the division. Some even thought the Buffalo Bills had a shot. Well, we've seen how that turned out.

Now it's time to take it a step further. Here is another prediction you can take to the bank: The Patriots (11-3) will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI.

Sorry Steelers, Ravens, Texans, Broncos and Jets fans. This is the year New England runs through the AFC playoffs.
Reason No. 1: Tom Brady

When it comes to quarterbacking in the AFC, there's Brady and there's everyone else. Brady is the biggest trump card New England has. No team in the conference can match it.

Here are potential quarterbacks Brady could face in the playoffs: T.J. Yates, Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and an injured and gimpy Ben Roethlisberger.

Brady is 3-0 against Sanchez and Tebow this season by a combined score of 108-60. We've already seen how those scenarios play out. Those three games against the Jets and Broncos weren't close.

Houston's Yates is a rookie fifth-round draft pick and former third-string quarterback. Do you think Yates can out-duel Brady in Yates' first postseason? Flacco of Baltimore has been inconsistent this year and is notorious for not playing well in playoff games.

The Steelers' Roethlisberger is Brady's biggest competition at quarterback. Pittsburgh is the only AFC playoff team to beat New England this season. But Roethlisberger isn't the same player after suffering a high-ankle sprain. He had three interceptions and a fumble in Monday's loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Roethlisberger at 50 percent cannot beat Brady clicking on all cylinders. High-ankle sprains are serious injuries that take at least a month (if not more) to heal. It could be even longer for Roethlisberger if he continues to play on it leading up to the postseason.

The two playoff quarterbacks with the best chance of out-dueling Brady in the playoffs are Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. But both are in the NFC and have to deal with each other first. New England will only have to worry about one of those quarterbacks once the Patriots get to Indianapolis.

Reason No. 2: Home-field advantage

The road to the Super Bowl most likely goes through Gillette Stadium. All the Patriots have to do is beat a pair of AFC East bottom-feeders -- the Miami Dolphins (5-9) and the Bills (5-9) -- at home the next two weeks.

That will be a huge advantage for the Patriots in the playoffs. New England is 5-1 at home this season and 22-1 in its last 23 games at Gillette Stadium. (The Patriots did drop of pair of playoff games, but we will get to that later.)

With two home games to finish the regular season and probably home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Patriots won't play on the road until they reach the Super Bowl. At that point, it will be a neutral site against the best team from the NFC.

Teams like the Jets (2-5) and Ravens (3-4) have looked awful on the road this year. The Steelers (4-3) have been slightly above average away from Heinz Field. That could come into play if those teams travel to New England in January.

Also, for all the criticism New England's defense has received, the group plays its best football at home. New England is allowing just 18.2 points per game at Gillette Stadium, versus 23.5 points per game on the road. The Patriots' offense will score plenty of points. Therefore, New England will be very tough to beat if its defense maintains its home scoring average in the postseason.

Reason No. 3: Patriots are hottest team in the AFC

Remember the Packers last year? They got hot toward the end of the season and rode the wave all the way to the Super Bowl.

This year's New England team is even hotter than the Packers were in 2010. The Patriots have won six in a row and most likely will enter the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak.

Momentum means a lot this time of year. The Patriots have it. No other team in the AFC can make that claim. The Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Broncos and Jets are all coming off losses. Behind the Patriots, the hottest team in the AFC is the San Diego Chargers (7-7), who have won three in a row but may not make the playoffs.

Overall, the AFC is a flawed conference this year. The Steelers have a horrid offensive line and a gimpy quarterback playing on one leg. The Ravens are an enigma on the road. The Texans are trying to win playoff games with a rookie at quarterback. And the Jets and Broncos don't have enough offensive firepower and simply aren't good enough to make a title run.

There are no complete teams in the AFC and that leaves it wide open for a hot team with home-field advantage like the Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl.

Reason No. 4: Motivation not to be one-and-done

As hard as it is to believe, the Patriots haven't won a playoff game since the 2007 season. That will change this year when a focused and motivated New England team takes the field in January.

Brady and coach Bill Belichick will not allow the Patriots to be one-and-done for the third year in a row. The stakes are too high.

Their legacies are on the line. The Hall of Fame pair do not want to be remembered for losing early-round playoff games in the second half of their Patriot careers as much as their three Super Bowls in the first half. It's starting to get to that point, especially if the Patriots suffer another early exit this season.

It's been four years since New England last experienced playoff success. That's an eternity for Brady and Belichick, who are accustomed to winning big games. Time also is running out for Brady to make another Super Bowl run. He's 34 and only has a few elite years left. The Patriots will not squander this opportunity.

Expect to see Brady versus Brees or Brady versus Rodgers in Super Bowl XLVI.

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