It’s about kicking back, reading the Sports Illustrated issue with Vince Wilfork on the cover and living with the comfort of knowing your team will survive this weekend without even breaking a sweat.
It’s also about trying to figure out who you want the Patriots to play.
Ideally, you’d want them to have the easiest possible path. The problem is there isn’t really an easy path. The Chiefs, who haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since Week 1, are the weakest playoff team, but going against Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel in the playoffs isn’t all that fun (though the Todd Haley Effect works to neutralize that). Plus, if the Pats were to play the Chiefs in the divisional round, that would mean either the Colts or Steelers would await for the AFC Championship Game, both of which present obvious problems. If they didn’t get the Chiefs, then it’d be either the Jets (one of just two teams to have beaten the Pats this year) or the Ravens (the team that had a stranglehold on its Week 6 matchup with the Pats before giving the game away in the fourth).
In short, there’s no easy road to Dallas.
As an observer, then, why not root for what will be the most entertaining?
Though the Steelers, with their quest for a third Super Bowl since 2006, and the Colts, with the always-captivating Peyton Manning–Tom Brady rivalary, provide plenty of intrigue, Patriots fans should be rooting to see Rex Ryan and Ray Lewis this month.
The Jets matchup is captivating for obvious reasons. New York’s other team went to Foxboro in early December as the best team in the NFL, and it left with its tail between its legs. After the game, the foot-sniffing head coach said he’d love another crack at the Pats.
“I’ll play them right now if they’ll go out and do it again,” Ryan said moments after the game. “That’s the only way I know how to respond. I’ll sit back out there and stick my chin out again.”
Unfortunately for him, NFL rules state that when a team beats you 45-3, you are not given the chance for an immediate rematch. However, the playoffs make it possible.
Ryan wasn’t alone in wanting another chance. Bart Scott wasn’t embarrassed by the defense’s no-show, saying, “Hopefully we’ll see these guys again and we’ll get another opportunity.” Braylon Edwards, a complete non-factor in that game, said “Hat’s off to ’em, but we’ll see them again.” Former Patriot Damien Woody offered this premonition: “Me personally, I have a feeling we’ll see these guys again.”
We can only hope so.
A matchup with the Jets gives the Patriots a chance to silence the crew from New York that’s been yapping about a Super Bowl since Hard Knocks premiered in August. It’d be a chance to prove that the Week 2 loss was a fluke, a chance to chip away at the Jets’ pride after they have just beaten the Colts and a chance to send the Jets into an offseason of disarray and anger.
Then comes, if the Pats are fortunate enough to win, the AFC Championship Game, where you have to be hoping for the Ravens to make another trip to Gillette.
For starters, the Ravens were even more giddy than the Jets after their loss at New England this season. Terrell Suggs seemed indifferent that his team had just blown a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, offering this threat to Brady: “He just better hope he don’t see us again.”
Lewis said he and the Ravens would be ready if the teams meet up again, prompting Brady to jab back with the following: “We play those guys a lot and they’ve only beat us once. They talk a lot for only beating us once in nine years.”
As far as Patriot trash talk goes, that’s as bad as it gets.
Suggs has never really stopped talking about Brady, saying he left the quarterback off his Pro Bowl ballot and claiming the reason he punched an opposing player in the face last week was that the player had just said Tom Brady was his favorite quarterback. Clearly, Suggs is somewhat obsessed with No. 12, and seeing the two go facemask-to-facemask again would be must-watch stuff.
Then, there is the even more relevant bit, which is that little blowout victory the Ravens had last January in New England. You know, that game in which the Ravens led 21-0 before most of the fans had even found their seats? That was not exactly a bright spot in Patriots history, and you can bet nobody in that locker room has forgotten the collective feeling after losing 33-14 on Jan. 10, 2010.
A win this year won’t take that away, but it sure would feel good for a fan base that hasn’t seen a playoff victory since January 2008 — a gap that feels like decades in a region where parades were held almost annually not too long ago.
If the Patriots are able to make it through the Jets and Ravens, the six NFC teams offer little in the juice department. The Bears? New England demolished them on their home turf last month. There’s no reason to except anything different. Preventing the Saints from joining the Patriots’ company as back-to-back Super Bowl champs would be fun, but even a guy with a Patriots head tattoo would have trouble conjuring up hatred for Drew Brees‘ team.
If Atlanta or Green Bay were the Pats’ opponent, you’d see the media really reaching for storylines. “Former Boston College quarterback has fans in Chestnut Hill split on Super Bowl!” “Mike McCarthy and Bill Belichick are actually interesting … sometimes.” There’s just not a lot there.
Given that there’s no chance the Seahawks make it anywhere, there is but one obvious choice: Philadephia.
With the Eagles, you have a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX, but that’s really not the point. The point is that Michael Vick would make this the most polarizing matchup imaginable. Half the country would be rooting for redemption, while the other half would temporarily cheer for the Patriots if it meant Vick would lose. Since his return in ’09 and his resurgence this year, Vick has inspired every emotion on the list from football fans. His appearance in the biggest game in the world would multiply that by a thousand.
With all that attention on Vick, the Patriots could quietly go about their business — well, as quietly as a team can in the weeks leading up to a Super Bowl. Seventy-five percent of the talk leading up to the game would be centered around the opponent, which is the exact opposite of the Super Bowl Which Need Not Be Named.
That fateful week in 2008, the Patriots faced endless questions about a 19-0 record and football immortality. They came out flat and got run over in the only game that mattered that season.
The chance to face the Eagles would provide a chance to get back to the top of the NFL heap, and with the Brady-Vick matchup, it would promise to the most exciting game possible. Now, if Vick were to torch the Pats for 400 total yards, it’ll all be for naught, but seeing what Belichick could cook up to slow down him and DeSean Jackson would be a sight to see.
Of course, at this point, it’s all speculation and guessing, as nothing is guaranteed and there’s a lot of football to be played. But isn’t that what this week is all about?
What matchups do you want to see the Patriots have in the playoffs? Share your thoughts below.
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