The regular season comes to a close this weekend, and it's been a wild one for the Patriots, who have a chance to win 13 games for the fifth time in the last nine seasons. New England's five 13-win seasons would be the second-most since the 1970 merger (the 49ers have eight seasons with at least 13 wins).
That's a bonus stat. For more notes and obscure figures, please read on.
1. Let's get it started with the simple stuff. The Patriots have already clinched a first-round bye, which means they'll play a home game in the divisional round. They'll lock up the No. 1 seed with a victory against the Bills or losses from both the Ravens (at Cincinnati) and Steelers (at Cleveland).
2. I want to look ahead to the Patriots' potential divisional round opponent, so let's first run through the rest of the playoff seeds. The Ravens will be the No. 2 seed if they beat the Bengals. Otherwise, the Steelers will claim the second seed with a win and a Baltimore loss. If Baltimore takes the No. 2 seed, the Steelers will be the fifth seed, and vice versa. The Texans have clinched the third seed, and the fourth seed is between the Broncos (who clinch with a win at home against Kansas City) and Raiders (who need to win at home against the Chargers and have the Broncos lose).
3. The sixth seed comes down to the Bengals, Raiders, Titans (at Houston) and Jets (at Miami). The Bengals are in with a win or losses by the Jets and the Broncos or Raiders. If the Raiders don't win the AFC West, they can take the wild card with a win and losses by the Bengals and Titans, or a win and a Bengals loss and Jets win. The Jets will be in with a win, and a Bengals loss, and a Titans loss and a Raiders loss or Broncos loss. The Titans will be in with a win and a Bengals loss, and a Jets win, and a Raiders loss or Broncos loss. The Titans can also get in with a win, and a Bengals loss, and a Jets loss, and a Raiders win and a Broncos win.
4. Obviously, that stuff is pretty mind-numbing. It's also amazing how far the Jets have fallen, as they had a chance in Week 10 to take over the AFC East lead. Instead, they got bombed by the Patriots at home and have lost four of their last seven games. Clearly, it's not unrealistic to see them getting in, even as a long shot. The Jets could easily beat the Dolphins while the Bengals could lose to the Ravens, the Titans could lose to the Texans, the Broncos could lose to the Chiefs and the Raiders could lose to the Chargers.
5. So, here's what I'm getting at. If the Patriots have the top seed, they'll play the lowest remaining seed of the fourth, fifth and sixth seeds in the divisional round. Since I'd expect the Ravens or Steelers (the fifth seed that belongs to the AFC North loser) to beat the Broncos or Raiders (the fourth seed that belongs to the AFC West champion), I think the Patriots would be best served to root for the sixth seed to beat the third-seeded Texans because New England would like to avoid an AFC North team for as long as possible.
6. The Texans have been a mess without quarterback Matt Schaub, but they'll have three things working to their advantage in the wild-card round — home field, a very solid defense and a really good running game. They can be had, but they won't be an easy out. I wouldn't trust the Raiders or Titans to beat Houston — and let's be real, it's a miracle either of those teams is even in contention at this point, but I digress — so I think the Patriots need to root for the Bengals or Jets to get that sixth seed because they've got a better chance to knock off Houston.
7. Now, I understand the sentiment from Patriots fans who don't want the Jets to get into the playoffs, especially after what happened last year. But what's a more appealing playoff road — the Jets/Bengals, followed by Ravens/Steelers, or both the Ravens and Steelers? I'd go with the former.
8. Even with the Patriots' recent string of injuries, there won't be any temptation to rest their starters unless the outcome is in hand in the second half. After all, the Patriots need to win to get that top seed, and both the Steelers and Ravens play later in the afternoon, so there won't be any scoreboard watching from Gillette Stadium.
9. It also wouldn't really be Bill Belichick's style to sit his players right before a bye week anyway because it's important for them to keep their foot on the gas. Obviously, that strategy didn't work last year, but that was an aberration, not the rule.
10. Now, I think Belichick will be more cautious when handling some of his injured players, particularly left guard Logan Mankins, and maybe even left tackle Matt Light. And who knows if Belichick will decide to give safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes one more week of rest.
11. Without having any extensive knowledge on the severity of Spikes' knee injury, I think it's really important for him to get a game under his belt before the playoffs if he's healthy enough to play. Remember, Belichick wasn't happy with Spikes' play in practice last January after he returned from the suspension, and Spikes was almost a non-factor in the playoff loss, too. He also took a minute to get into the swing of things this season after missing time in training camp. Spikes can be a serious asset, as he started to prove before his knee injury, but he's also someone who truly benefits from game experience to get back into the swing of things.
12. After the Patriots earned a first-round bye with Saturday's victory, several players noted the bye won't mean a thing if they play like they did last year against the Jets. They alluded to changing some things, though no one got into specifics. So it's proof that the players feel the same way about their recent postseason performances as everyone on the outside, which is a good thing. They know they've got to prove themselves.
13. Quarterback Tom Brady needs 188 passing yards to reach 5,085 for the season and surpass Dan Marino's mark from 1984, but Brady also trails Saints quarterback Drew Brees by 190 yards. Since the Saints are still trying to overtake San Francisco for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, Brees will likely play the majority, if not the entirety, of Sunday's game against Carolina, which has the league's 21st-ranked pass defense. Brady will likely need 450-500 yards against the Bills (15th against the pass) to claim the new single-season record.
14. Brady, who has 36 touchdown passes, needs four touchdowns against the Bills to join Marino as the only quarterbacks in history with two seasons with at least 40 touchdowns. That's a pretty cool record. Maybe Brady should air it out a little more rather than sneaking it to death down by the goal line.
15. Wide receiver Wes Welker is already the only person in history with four seasons with at least 110 receptions. If he catches four passes Sunday, he'll join Cris Carter as the only players with at least 120 catches in two seasons.
16. Rob Gronkowski has 82 receptions, which is tied for the 25th most by a tight end in one season in history. He needs eight catches Sunday to become the 13th tight end to reach 90 catches in a season, but Gronkowski would need 21 receptions to break Tony Gonzalez's record from 2004. Gronkowski's 1,219 yards are ranked fourth among tight ends in a single season, and he needs 72 yards Sunday to break Kellen Winslow's single-season mark from 1980.
17. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis leads the Patriots with 645 rushing yards. If he gains fewer than 58 yards Sunday, he'd have the fourth fewest rushing yards by a Patriots single-season rushing leader since 1990 (Antowain Smith, 642 yards in 2003; Kevin Faulk, 570 in 2000; Jon Vaughn, 451 in 1992).
18. It's that time again. Safety Ross Ventrone was released from the Patriots' active roster Monday, which served as his 26th transaction with the team since April 2010. When he's inevitably re-signed to the practice squad, it'll be his 27th transaction. But what was once a punch line is starting to get real. Ventrone has been active for eight games, and players lose practice squad eligibility once they play in their ninth regular-season game. Demoting Ventrone this week might have extended his career. After all, it's extremely common for NFL careers to come to an end once players lose their practice squad eligibility.
19. The Patriots' 17-point comeback Saturday was keyed, in part, by two forced turnovers, which gave them an AFC-leading 30 takeaways this season. They're also extremely careful with the football, turning it over an AFC-low 16 times, which also ranks third in the NFL. After leading the NFL in turnover differential in 2010, the Patriots are third this season. If that holds true, they'll finish in the top three in turnover differential in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1961-62.
20. The Patriots are very well-represented on the Pro Bowl roster, but the selection of Matthew Slater as a special teamer deserves a little extra attention. The Patriots' other seven selectees are stars to various degrees, but Slater's selection comes straight from the players. That shows how respected he's become across the league. Even more fitting, this was also Slater's first season as a captain with New England.
Have questions for Jeff Howe’s mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.
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