By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Tom Brady posted a little celebratory video to his Instagram page on Monday, the way he always does after victories. It followed the standard flow of most of his videos, starting with him looking into the camera, talking about a “good win,” and then saying he and the team are hungry for more.
Yet there was one unique addition to this week’s video that certainly stood out. After stating that the season is just beginning, Brady paused for a beat before uttering two simple words: “Still here.”
Those same words appeared on the screen following the highlight of Kyle Van Noy’s fumble return for a touchdown, fading out to black while Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” plays.
It may not be the most inspirational catchphrase, but for Brady and the Patriots, it speaks volumes. And it should serve as a reminder to the rest of the AFC playoff field that even though the Patriots may have looked vulnerable at times this season, and even though Brady himself may not be the MVP quarterback he was a year ago, and even though New England has some shaky losses on its record, the fact is that Bill Belichick’s team is back where it always is: playing meaningful football in January. The other five teams in the AFC playoff picture have to know that earning a win against New England will not come easy.
At the same time, the Patriots have to know that they’re likely to be met with more resistance in the playoffs this season than they have in years past. No matter which team earns the right to travel to Foxboro in mid-January, the Patriots will be presented with a formidable matchup. Unlike in years where the AFC boasts just two or three top teams, this year’s field is pretty even; in fact, the best team may be the five seed.
It’s truly anyone’s guess which team will emerge as the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl LIII.
For the time being, the Patriots will wait around, taking off wild card weekend for rest, recovery and preparation for the divisional round, where the team has gone 12-2 during the Belichick era, including 11-1 at home. Over the past seven seasons, the Patriots have gone 7-0 in the divisional round, winning by an average of 17 points per game. But, to reiterate, the days of breezing through the divisional round with ease don’t appear to apply to this year.
While we don’t yet know which team will be heading to Gillette for the divisional round, here’s an early look at what to expect from each potential opponent. (The Patriots won’t be able to play the sixth-seeded Colts or the top-seeded Chiefs until the conference championship.)
3. Houston Texans
The Patriots did defeat the Texans this season, but that was all the way back in Week 1 — a lifetime ago. The outcome of that game surely won’t have much, if any, bearing on a potential playoff rematch.
The Texans, at 11-5, represent the most likely opponent to make the trek to Gillette. Standing in their way will be the Colts, and while divisional matchups in the postseason can’t ever be taken for granted, the Texans are the superior team and should win this coming weekend, thus setting up the third postseason meeting between the Patriots and Texans.
How the Patriots can win: Ruining Deshaun Watson’s day.
In what can only be described as a beautiful homage to the David Carr era, the Texans have allowed their quarterback to get sacked a ridiculous 62 times this season. That comes out to an average of nearly four sacks per game, and it’s by far the most in the NFL. (Dak Prescott was second at 56, followed by Russell Wilson and Derek Carr at 51 each.)
Watson was sacked three or more times in a game 13 times; the Texans went just 8-5 in those games. When he was kept relatively clean with one or fewer sack, the Texans went 3-0.
The results of those games may not be nearly as relevant as the opportunity. Sacks — particularly well-timed sacks on third downs, or turnover-inducing strip sacks — can completely change the course of entire games. So the likes of Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Kyle Van Noy should have themselves plenty of opportunity to make such a play. Perhaps Adrian Clayborn, a healthy scratch for the final two weeks of the season, can make his presence known as well.
How the Texans can win: Win the turnover battle.
The Patriots don’t lose when they win the turnover battle. They really don’t. But if anyone figures to be capable of preventing that from playing in to this game, it would be the Texans.
The Houston defense finished this year with 29 takeaways — the most in the AFC. They did that with 15 fumble recoveries and 14 picks. Houston also had the fewest giveaways in the AFC — with nine picks and seven lost fumbles for a total of 16 giveaways — thus giving them a plus-13 turnover differential.
The Patriots, as always, were excellent in this regard themselves, with their plus-10 turnover differential coming behind 18 interceptions and 10 recovered fumbles. But if the Texans can come up with a timely interception or two — the way they did in Foxboro during a playoff game two years ago — then it could lead to some tense moments in Foxboro for the home team.
And unlike that playoff game, it won’t be the inept Brock Osweiler under center. It will be Watson, who — provided he’s protected — is much more capable of capitalizing on such opportunities.
4. Baltimore Ravens
After taking a three-year hiatus from playoff football, the Ravens are finally back in action in January. And while the names on the backs of the jerseys continue to change every year, the Patriots and their fans know that a visiting Baltimore Ravens team can never be taken lightly come playoff time. Whether it’s 2009, 2011, 2012, or 2014, the Ravens have regularly managed to be a thorn in the Patriots’ side during some memorable playoff matchups. This one would likely be no different.
How the Patriots can win: Force Lamar Jackson to pass.
Though the rookie has been very impressive in his stint as the starter, it’s not yet known if he can be a passer in the NFL. The early results have not been positive.
Since taking over as the starter, Jackson has attempted just under 23 passes per game. He’s completed just 58.2 percent of them. That completion rate would rank 31st in the NFL, if Jackson qualified. He’s averaged 7.05 yards per attempt (which would rank 25th) while throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating of 82.6 in those games is actually worse than that of Joe Flacco, the man whose job he took in order to become the starter.
Long story short: Jackson can’t really throw.
So of course, the Ravens are going to want to run the football. They led the AFC with over 150 rushing yards per game and 19 rushing touchdowns on the season. Jackson himself has been a dynamic rushing threat, as he’s run for 556 yards and four touchdowns on 117 carries (4.7-yard average) since taking over as the starter.
If the Patriots can utilize Kyle Van Noy and maybe even a defensive back like Patrick Chung to prevent Jackson from running free, then the duo of Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty — with Duron Harmon always lurking in the defensive backfield — should be enough to make life difficult for that Baltimore offense.
How the Ravens can win: Defense. Defense. Defense.
The Ravens have certainly lived up their reputation of being a defensive-minded football team this season. They ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed (293/game), second in points allowed (17.9/game), fourth in rushing yards allowed, fifth in passing yards allowed, third in third-down defense and second in opponent passer rating. They played nine games this season where they held opponents to 17 or fewer points. They held Kansas City — the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense — to just 27 points in a game that went to overtime. They allowed more than 30 points just twice. Over the final three weeks of the season, they allowed just 15.3 points per game.
Despite those numbers, though, the Ravens weren’t great in terms of sacks (32, tied for 26th in the NFL) or interceptions (nine, also tied for 26th), so it’s not a complete nightmare matchup for Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels. Still, a defense as potent as Baltimore’s figures to be a potential issue on a cold, windy winter day in Foxboro.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
The lowest seed may actually be the greatest threat, as the Chargers at 12-4 finished with the second-best record in the AFC. But of course, there can be only one division winner, so the Chargers have been relegated to wild-card status.
And if L.A. can go into Baltimore and pick up a win on wild card weekend, the Chargers just might be the best team in action during the divisional round.
The Chargers should get there, too, as their only road loss of the year came when they faced fellow Los Angelans in the Rams. When they’ve actually traveled to play (seven road games and a “home” game in London), they’re 8-0 this year.
Clearly, the Chargers won’t be intimidated by any team in any building.
How the Patriots can win: Playing their best game of the year.
Such a simple statement may seem like a cop-out, but that’s really what it’ll take for the Patriots to beat Los Angeles. The Chargers are simply good at just about everything.
The Chargers, as already mentioned, were beasts on the road this season, winning huge games in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Seattle before stomping the Broncos in Denver in Week 17. They’ve outscored opponents 130-90 in their five road games since their bye week.
The Chargers finished the year tied for sixth in points scored and eighth in points allowed. They finished 11th in yards gained and ninth in yards allowed. They had the 10th-best passing offense and the 15th-best rushing offense; they had the ninth-best pass defense and ninth-best rushing defense. There’s no real discernible weakness in that Chargers team, so the Patriots just won’t be able to get away with playing anything but their best game of the year if they want to advance past the Chargers.
How the Chargers can win: Running the football.
It may sound like an antiquated thought, but the Patriots are vulnerable against the run this season. And at least in theory, a team being able to sustain long, methodical scoring drives in Foxboro sounds like the recipe for success.
This would seemingly be an opportunity, as the Chargers ranked seventh in the league with 4.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile the Patriots ranked 29th in yards allowed per rush at 4.9. Provided Melvin Gordon is healthy, he and his 5.1-yard average figure to present a mighty challenge for New England.
Of course, the Chargers can’t rely entirely on the run, but Phillip Rivers — after one of the best regular seasons of his long career — is more than capable of delivering a dagger or two through the air.
Again, this may be the best team in the AFC playoff field. No team is more capable of pulling off some big road wins this month than the Chargers.