The Patriots wrapped up their 12th division championship with Sunday’s 35-7 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they’re assured the No. 3 or 4 seed, along with at least one home game in the playoffs, as a result. New England’s list of wounded warriors — Tom Brady (ribs), Randy Moss (back), Wes Welker (something somewhere has to hurt with the hits he takes), Vince Wilfork (foot), Ty Warren (ankle) and Jerod Mayo (knee), to name a few — should receive a paid vacation next week in Houston.
Before the Patriots worried about the regular-season finale against the Texans, though, they preferred to relish in their first division title since 2007.
“I think it’s good the division is back here in New England,” said Moss, who had four receptions Sunday for 45 yards and three touchdowns. “Two out of my three years [with the Patriots], we have had the division. Last year was very disappointing, but we got the hat and T-shirts [in 2009].”
The Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers have locked up the top-two spots, respectively, for the AFC playoffs, and the Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals will jockey it out for the third and fourth seeds. The Pats and Bengals are each 10-5 heading into the final week, when the Bengals will visit the New York Jets.
If New England and Cincinnati remain tied after regular-season play, their first tiebreaker would be based on strength of victory since they’ll have identical conference records (7-4 as of Sunday), as well as records against common opponents (2-2 as of Sunday, with common opponents on the slate in Week 17, too). Since the ensuing tiebreakers (strength of victory, strength of schedule, etc.) rely on the outcomes of so many other games, and there are at least six teams alive in the race for the fifth and sixth seeds, it’s nearly impossible to project who the Patriots’ first-round opponent could be.
Surely, it’s a dizzying explanation, but the overall philosophy should be this: It’s much more sensible for the Patriots to rest their key players against the Texans, and they should just let fate take its course when determining their first-round opponent. Not to mention, the Patriots could go all-out next week to beat Houston, still wind up with the fourth seed and wind up with a more difficult matchup. Or, they could lose next week, land the third seed and fall upon an easier matchup.
Basically, the only thing we know is that we don’t know anything at all.
“Right now, it means that our season goes on,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said when asked what the division title meant to him. “We’ll figure out exactly what that means later.”
In 2005, the Patriots essentially threw their regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins to set themselves up with the Jaguars in the first round instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2001, the Patriots knocked out the Carolina Panthers to secure a first-round bye. The scenarios were fairly cut and dry during those seasons, which is anything but the case this year.
All things considered, though, the Patriots are excited to get another shot in the postseason after that one-year dry spell. It’s been a long year for all involved, particularly Brady, who recovered from the knee injury and reemerged in an offense that lost its coordinator and hasn’t always been able to find its way. Knowing how badly they need to rest their players before the playoffs — although, Belichick wouldn’t tip his hand Sunday regarding next week’s plan — this was a must-win situation for the Patriots, and they can temporarily lower the stress level after accomplishing their first major goal of 2009.
“Believe me, it’s been a long journey for us,” Brady said. “You start out at the beginning of January last year not making the playoffs, and then how you’re going to prepare the team through the offseason program, the minicamps, the training camp, to have the opportunity to play for this. Well, last year, you’re hoping for people to lose to have the opportunity to make the playoffs. There’s no greater opportunity for us as athletes with two games remaining to synch up the division with the win. We put a lot into it over the course of these 12 months, and it really pays off when it goes the way that you hope it does.”