BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots, on the strength of finishing the season on a 9-1 stretch, climbed out of their early-season hole and earned a first-round playoff bye. It’s all well and good for the team and the players, who now have a much easier path to the Super Bowl than if they had been forced to prepare for a playoff matchup with Cincinnati this weekend, but, well, it leaves us with a weekend of no football in New England.
So with no playoff game scheduled at Gillette for more than a week, and with a whole bunch of unknowns awaiting the Patriots, let’s get bold with 10 postseason predictions.
1. The Patriots will host and beat the Texans next weekend
The Texans will beat the mediocre Bengals on Saturday but still, they have looked utterly bewildered for the past month when it comes to knowing how to be a good NFL team. Between sporting their varsity letterman jackets on their way to the bus after getting embarrassed on national TV in New England, to dumping Gatorade on their coach after winning a division title, to getting smoked by the Vikings and then failing to show up with a first-round bye and home-field advantage on the line in Week 17, the Texans have no idea what they’re doing, and they have no clue how to put their best game together when they need it. A trip back to Gillette, a place with rather unfriendly memories, won’t help them get any better.
There will be some concerns locally of a repeat of 2010, when the Patriots dominated the Jets 45-3 on Monday Night Football in early December, only to lose 28-21 at home to the same Jets in the divisional round a month later. But fear not; that’s just not going to happen. And any fears you may have of that happening again should be assuaged once the TV cameras show a split-screen of Bill Belichick and Gary Kubiak.
2. Brady-Manning XIV
We’ve all loved watching the Colts rally around Chuck Pagano this season, because really, how could you not? Andrew Luck, too, has been fun to watch, to the point where football fans in New England may have already forgotten that they spent the previous decade hating the Colts with all of their football hearts. Sadly, though, the Colts’ remarkable journey will come to an end in Baltimore this weekend, as the Ravens are a better team and will have the benefit of home-field advantage. Remember the troubles suffered by another great Colts quarterback when he had to leave the comforts of an indoor stadium to play outdoors in January for much of his career?
And speaking of Peyton Manning, he and his Broncos have taken advantage of an incredibly soft schedule, so they have not been as dominant as the stats or their record necessarily indicate, and a victory over Baltimore is far from the sure thing many will surely make it out to be. Still, a week of rest and preparation, and the fact that it’ll be a Peyton Manning-Joe Flacco matchup, and the fact that the Ravens went 4-4 and were outscored 181-144 on the road (with losses to Philadelphia and 3-point victories over non-playoff teams like the Chiefs, Steelers and Chargers) all say the Broncos will be able to get it done in the divisional round.
Peyton and the Broncos will be waiting for Brady and the Patriots on Sunday, Jan. 20. Good luck in advance for getting anything done at work in the week leading up to that game.
3. Tom Brady will not be too terrific
He’s the quarterback, and he’s the star, so he gets plenty of credit, but still it feels as though Tom Brady’s work this season should be appreciated more. At 35 years old, he looked as good as ever. He completed 401 passes (tied for most in his career) for 4,827 yards (second-most), 34 touchdowns (fourth-most) and eight interceptions (second-fewest). For good measure, the not-so-mobile quarterback rushed for a career-high four touchdowns.
The guy is really good … but he may not be spectacular this postseason.
Now, that’s not to say he’s going to be bad, but considering how cold it already is in New England, the conditions there and in Denver won’t be ideal for a passing offense to be explosive, and expect the Patriots to rely on Stevan Ridley and the running game, as well as short passes to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, to sustain long scoring drives in the January cold.
Brady will be just fine, but don’t expect a repeat of his six-touchdown playoff game vs. Denver on a freezing-cold night last January. Tim Tebow won’t be in the stadium to let that miracle happen again.
4. Vince Wilfork, INT
It’s been far too long since we’ve seen Skinny Vinny rumbling and tumbling down the sideline, ball tucked high and tight, stiff arm at the ready, with defenders diving away from him to avoid the unwelcome fate of having No. 75 topple on top of their comparatively frail bodies.
Honestly, tell me this isn’t the greatest thing in the history of the planet, and I’ll call you a dirty, rotten liar:
While it may be considered a rarity for a 325-pound defensive tackle to intercept a pass, what better way is there for Wilfork to put an exclamation point at the end of an MVP-caliber season than dropping into coverage, fooling some QB like Matt Schaub, getting those hands up and hauling in another interception? I just hope that this time, we get to watch him plod his way to pay dirt.
5. Devin McCourty will have 3 INTs, Rob Ninkovich will force a fumble
These don’t tread quite as far into “bold” territory as the Wilfork pick, but they’re significant in that for the first time in a while, the Patriots’ defense can be relied upon to make a play. It’s a defense that relies heavily on forcing turnovers, and it’s one that’s proven capable of doing so when needed.
And nobody’s been better at it than Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich. McCourty’s five interceptions rank him in the top 10 in the league, as his move to safety was mutually beneficial for both player and team. Expect him to have a two-interception game, thanks in large part to the work done by Aqib Talib at corner.
Rob Ninkovich, meanwhile, simply knows how to get his hand on the football when he’s rushing the quarterback. He makes it look so easy on slow-motion replay, but his ability to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand is unparalleled. Provided his hip injury doesn’t slow him down (a reasonable expectation, according to reports), Ninkovich will be good for at least one of those game-changing strip sacks that have a way of completely changing a game.
6. Aaron Hernandez will lead the Patriots in receiving touchdowns
The season began with a Brady-to-Hernandez touchdown in Tennessee, and the end of the year is going to look rather similar. With Rob Gronkowski looking a little bit one-armed in Week 17, expectations might me slightly adjusted for his role in the offense this January. Instead of normally being Brady’s primary red-zone target, Gronkowski will instead be a massive decoy, thereby opening up space for the shifty Hernandez to get open and waltz into the end zone.
I’m not bold enough to try to predict what kind of new additions Hernandez has to his making-it-rain celebration, though. That’s out of my coverage zone.
7. Ridley will top 100 … and fumble
Of the many end-of-season stats that popped off the page, this figure stood out the most: 523. That’s the number of rushing attempts from the offense, which is just one shy of the most attempts in a season under Bill Belichick (2004). Clearly, Josh McDaniels and Belichick are comfortable enough to trust the rushing game, and Stevan Ridley is ripe for another 100-yard rushing game. He hasn’t done that since Oct. 28 in London, though he did pick up 97 yards on Thanksgiving. Either way, he’s overdue, and with the ground game to take an added importance in the cold playoff games, Ridley will gash someone along the way. Remember, the Patriots went 10-0 in games Ridley rushed for a touchdown, and 2-4 in games when he was kept out of the end zone, and they also went 3-0 when he topped the 100-yard mark.
Oh, and he’ll fumble late in a game that’s already in hand. It will bounce out of bounds and won’t hurt the Patriots, but it will happen, just because something always has to happen to fuel talk radio madness. A Ridley fumble will take care of that.
8. Stevie G … wide right
Speaking of talk radio madness … remember back in September, when every other caller screamed and shouted that Stephen Gostkowksi needed to be cut immediately? That was obviously a gross overreaction to a slow start, when Gostkowski missed three of his first 13 field-goal attempts, including a game-winner vs. Arizona. He’s since successfully booted 19 of his last 22 attempts, and he finished the year just 1.3 percentage points below his career mark of 84.2 percent.
However, Bill Belichick pulled a Super XLII last week against the Dolphins, opting to keep his kicker on the sidelines on a fourth down while in field-goal range. CBS showed footage of Gostkowski looking a little shaky during warmups due to the swirling winds, so the decision was understandable, but it may have exposed a bit of doubt the team may have toward the kicker.
So with games in New England and likely Denver (a grass field), conditions won’t exactly improve for Gostkowski going forward. Ready yourself for a shank job, followed by a close-up of Belichick looking sick to his stomach on the sideline.
9. Brandon Lloyd’s Ochocinco Impression
Brandon Lloyd had a very good season at wide receiver, besting Chad Ochocinco’s numbers from the previous season several times over. But in the playoffs, the new 85 may look like the old 85, aka nonexistent.
That’s not an indictment of Lloyd, but if the passing game is toned down in January, there has to be a statistical casualty, and that casualty’s name is Brandon. He’s shown that he can sometimes disappear, and his one-catch, 9-yard performance was the latest reminder.
10. Super Bowl XLVII
The loser of a Super Bowl has not returned to the big game the following season since the Buffalo Bills famously lost four straight in the early ’90s, but the Patriots will end that trend and earn themselves a trip to New Orleans.
What will happen there and who will they play? Some things are better off without bold predictions. I mean, if I tell you everything that’s going to happen, you won’t have any reason left to tune in, and I don’t want to rob you of that experience. That just wouldn’t be any fun.