The New England Patriots are the clear-cut favorites in the AFC, but are they unstoppable? A bigger question is, does it matter if they are? The latter isn’t a hard “no,” but it’s not far off. One of the weakest playoff fields in recent memory makes the Patriots’ margin for error greater than ever, even in the absence of all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
If there’s one possible knock on the Patriots, who finished 2016 with the NFL’s top scoring defense at less than 16 points per game, it’s their soft schedule that seemed to be filled with “yeah, but” games, if you will.
New England has only faced one NFC playoff team, and that resulted in a 31-24 home loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10. Tom Brady threw one of his two interceptions on the season in that game, and was unable to lead the Pats back at the end despite Gronkowski’s presence. All told, the Pats are 5-1 against playoff teams and 6-1 against teams above .500, but it still might raise a few eyebrows.
Consider that of the league’s top 12 offenses in terms of yards per game (which includes the Patriots), New England faced only one of those clubs with its starting quarterback. That also happened to be a sub-.500 Cardinals team, although in fairness to the Patriots it was Jimmy Garoppolo’s first career start. The other team in that grouping is the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it was with Landry Jones in the one game that Ben Roethlisberger missed due to injury all year.
More astonishingly, 12 of the Patriots 16 games came against teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring offense (including the Seahawks, who were tied for 18th). Six of their 16 games were against the league’s six worst scoring offenses, including two against the pitiful New York Jets. So is holding the San Francisco 49ers (27th) to 17 points, the Houston Texans (T-28th) scoreless, the Jets (30th) to an average of 10 points, the Cleveland Browns (31st) to 13 points, or Los Angeles Rams (32nd) to 10 points really all that impressive?
Again, it doesn’t need to be, because New England is going to face either said Texans, the Matt Moore-led Miami Dolphins, or Connor Cook-led Oakland Raiders in the divisional round.
If this seems unfair or unjust, trust me, it is. Sports, and life, aren’t fair, and neither is the New England Patriots’ success, their ability to escape severe punishment amid cheating allegations, nor their year-in, year-out cupcake schedule. If you thought getting to face Tim Tebow in the 2011 postseason was a break, wait until you watch the AFC divisional round this year.
Any potential silver lining and hope for a happy ending likely rests solely on the shoulders of the NFC. Will the Patriots’ revamped, “No-Name” 2016 defense be able to keep up its excellence against a team like the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, or Green Bay Packers? Shutting down a quarterback like Matt Ryan or Aaron Rodgers is a monumental task in comparison to game-planning for Cody Kessler, Bryce Petty, Jared Goff, Brock Osweiler, or Trevor Siemian.
If the Patriots are rusty out of their playoff bye, it won’t matter. In the end, whether they are “unstoppable” or not will be determined only by a team capable of actually doing it.