BOSTON (CBS) — Everything went the Patriots’ way on the final Sunday of the NFL’s regular season.
New England had very few issues with the Miami Dolphins in their 35-14 victory, finishing the season with a 14-2 record and the top seed in the AFC. That means barring a catastrophic upset in the AFC Divisional Round, the road to Super Bowl LI goes through Foxboro.
Looking at the crop of potential opponents for the Patriots on January 14, “catastrophic” is really the only adjective to describe an upset that won’t happen. That’s not overconfidence, it’s just a clear look at the reality of the AFC. The trio of teams who could travel to Gillette certainly fall under that “Tomato Can” description that local scribes have trolled the Patriots and their fans with over the last several seasons. That phrase does have merit though, as each of New England’s three potential foes are on their second or third option at the most important position.
But really, this is just the benefit of claiming the No. 1 seed in your conference. That, and the fact the NFL is littered with mediocre teams, a handful of which made the playoffs because 12 teams had to make the playoffs.
Here’s a quick breakdown of who could be coming to Gillette Stadium on January 14, facing an all-but-certain fate in the Divisional Round.
No. 4 seed — 9-7 record in regular season to win AFC North
Houston is the highest seed the Patriots could see in the Divisional Round, and the likeliest of foes to make the trip to Gillette. It would be their second visit to Gillette this season, as the Patriots (with third-stringer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo) shut down Bill O’Brien and his Texans to the tune of 27-0 on Thursday Night Football back in Week 3.
LeGarrette Blount rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns, including a 41-yard scoring scamper where he ran past nearly the entire Houston defense:
The Patriots ran for 185 yards as a team, though their offensive game plan would be much different this time around with Brady back under center.
As for their D, the Patriots pitched a shutout as they were still trying to figure out who they were. Logan Ryan played phenomenally, holding DeAndre Hopkins to just four catches for 56 yards on eight targets, and Malcolm Butler didn’t allow Will Fuller to catch a pass when he covered the rookie, who finished with three receptions for just 31 yards. Brock Osweiler was frustrated all evening, finishing with 196 yards and was picked off once, by Jamie Collins.
Obviously, Collins is no longer playing football in New England (or at all, at the moment), but the Texans are a bit of a mess at the quarterback position. Houston’s big-money signing of the offseason, Osweiler was benched for Tom Savage down the stretch. He found his way back into the lineup on Sunday when Savage went down with a concussion, leaving the Texans’ QB situation up in the air for Wild Card weekend. Osweiler appeared in 15 games, tossing 15 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. That’s what Houston paid $12 million for this season.
UPDATE: Bill O’Brien has announced that Osweiler will start against the Raiders
As for the Houston D, J.J. Watt appeared in just three games this season, leaving a giant void on that side of the ball. Whitney Mercilus (7.5 sacks) and Jadaveon Clowney (six sacks) were able to cause the occasional ruckus along the defensive line, and Quintin Demps picked off six passes throughout the season. There’s also a giant human named Vince Wilfork to occasionally clog up the middle. But it’s a defense that Tom Brady and company should be able to pick apart with relative ease.
Someone had to win the AFC South, and the Texans benefited greatly from Tennessee’s late surge getting derailed by an injury to quarterback Marcus Mariota in Week 16. Barring a Brian Hoyer-like performance from their quarterback (whoever it may be), Houston will likely beat the Raiders on Saturday, once again benefiting from a team losing their star quarterback.
No. 5 seed — 12-4 record in regular season to earn Wild Card spot
Like the Texans, the Raiders also have a giant question mark at the quarterback position. With Derek Carr leading the way, Oakland was seen as a legit threat to the Patriots in claiming the No. 1 seed, and even a threat to New England making the Super Bowl. But he went down in Week 15, and now even Oakland’s backup, Matt McGloin, is hurt. That could leave Connor Cook taking snaps in Houston. The rookie out of Michigan State has thrown all of 21 passes in his career.
With the loss of Carr, the Raiders fell from the two-seed (enjoying a bye week and then hosting a Divisional Round game) to a road team on Wild Card weekend. Which is too bad, because Oakland had a great season led by their dynamic offense. Carr had great weapons to throw to in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, with Latavius Murray leading the way on the ground. Now with McGloin or Cook under center, and a serviceable but questionable defense, they probably won’t be adding a postseason win to their impressive 2016 resume.
If they do advance over Houston, their best-case scenario against the Patriots is having McGloin back at QB and letting Khalil Mack loose on defense. They may give the Patriots a game for a stretch, but pulling off a victory would be one monumental task.
But we should be rooting for the Raiders, because then we’d likely see this guy hitting up the local P.F. Changs:
No. 6 seed — 10-6 record in regular season to earn Wild Card spot
The Patriots are plenty familiar with the Dolphins, having swept them in the regular season for the sixth time under Bill Belichick. They spent New Year’s Day together, and while the Dolphins had a chance to make things interesting in the second half, the Patriots’ D came up with a big play when it mattered most. That’s been an ongoing trend for the unit to close the season.
Beating a team three times in a season is usually a tough task, and Miami has a defense that can get to Brady. But as the six-seed, it’s not going to be easy getting to New England.
The Dolphins will have a tough matchup against the three-seeded Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon and not many are giving them a chance to advance. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has missed the last three games with a knee injury, and while there’s a chance he could return to practice this week, leaving a small possibility of his suiting up in Pittsburgh, Miami will likely have to turn to veteran Matt Moore once again. He wasn’t necessarily terrible in his fill-in duties, completing 63 percent of his passes while throwing eight touchdowns to three interceptions, but this would be his first go in the playoffs. Even with Jay Ajayi running all over the place and Jarvis Landry a threat to take it to the house on any play, Moore would have a tough time keeping up with the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
What is scary about Miami is their defense. Not that they can stop opposing offenses, as was evident by the Pats hanging 35 points on them on Sunday, but the fact Ndamukong Suh could take out just about anyone on any given play. He’s got a beef with LeGarrette Blount from last weekend, and he’s never one to shy away from a shot at a quarterback’s legs. That is kind of terrifying.
But that’s about the biggest threat they’d pose to the Patriots if they’re lucky enough to continue their season after this weekend.
No matter which of these three teams come to Gillette in two weeks, they shouldn’t pose much of a threat to a Patriots squad that has hit their stride and (feverishly knock on some wood right now) remained relatively healthy. If you point to New England’s weak schedule to close the season, this trio would all fall into that category, even with a playoff win under their belt.
But that’s the beauty of securing the top seed in the AFC. The top dog in the conference gets the benefit of an easier path in the playoffs, and while the bottom seeds can sometimes be a legit threat, that won’t the case this time around.