It’s December 28, 2016, but judging by the AFC landscape, you’d swear it was 2011. Or 2007. Or 2004. Or 2001. The holiday season is generally a bevy of television marathons of reruns of all of your old favorites. It appears the NFL is no different.
There are so many questions I have. Like, why can’t any teams in the AFC outside of New England or Pittsburgh get their act together? That’s a question I’ve been asking for over a decade. Why can’t long-suffering franchises like the Raiders and Dolphins avoid the most bitter of luck, even in a fairytale season? And why can’t the Browns win football games? Notice I said games, plural, not game, singular.
At any rate, I would say “gear up for the NFL playoffs,” but the die has long been cast. The Patriots, who have often found their road to the big game quite unimpeded, could have their cushiest coast yet. Set your watch to a Jan. 22 AFC championship game in Foxborough between the Steelers and Patriots.
Derek Carr, he of the MVP-caliber season for the 12-3 Oakland Raiders, broke his leg throwing a pass up 19 points in the fourth quarter against the lowly Colts. One of the two teams possibly capable of saving football fans from another January of repeats on television just went from Cinderella to a dying pumpkin. This means a few things:
For starters, “gear up, football fans!” for a likely first-round playoff matchup of Matt McGloin’s Raiders and Tom Savage’s Texans. After that NIT consolation game, brace yourself for the Matt Moore-led, safety-less Dolphins going into rowdy Pittsburgh for a one-sided affair.
Still not sold? But wait, there’s more!
After that, tune in on January 14 or 15 to watch Ben Roethlisberger win his first road playoff game since 2005 against Alex Smith and the Chiefs, while Kansas City still decides it is too scared to let Smith throw the ball more than 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That very same weekend, if you have a little more time in your schedule, make sure to catch a public beating of either McGloin’s Raiders or Savage’s, J.J. Watt-less Texans by 39-year-old Tom Brady and his mighty Patriots.
Clearly, this is Must-Miss TV.
The good news (if there is really any) is that the NFC is sort of, kind of wide open. The Dallas Cowboys are really good, but can they really be the first team to reach the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback? And should they get there, can a rookie quarterback really beat Bill Belichick’s Patriots on such an epic stage? It may be a moot point, because the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, and New York Giants all want a piece of the action too.
Should New England or Pittsburgh come through on the 99% proposition that at least one of them will reach the Super Bowl, it will mark the 10th time in 16 years that one of those franchises has played on Super Sunday. It will also be the 14th time in 16 years that the AFC Super Bowl representative has been quarterbacked by either Brady, Roethlisberger, or Peyton Manning (thank you, Delaware alums Rich Gannon in 2002 and Joe Flacco in 2012).
This has me wondering what team, if any, has the best chance of knocking off New England on February 5 in Houston, the site of the Patriots’ Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over Carolina. My knee-jerk reaction is to say the Giants, because they’ve done it twice, but that was under Tom Coughlin, not Ben McAdoo. The Seahawks might be a decent bet since they already beat New England this year, on the road and with a healthy Rob Gronkowski, but the Hawks are missing safety Earl Thomas and wideout Tyler Lockett.
That realistically leaves the Cowboys, Packers, Falcons (sorry, Lions and Redskins fans). Dallas has a tremendous offensive line, a dominant rookie running back in Ezekiel Elliott, and the aforementioned rookie signal-caller in Dak Prescott. But is that defense capable of slowing down the mistake-free, unflappable Patriots’ offense? That’s a hard “no” on the Falcons, but like Dallas, Atlanta’s offense is so dynamic it’s hard not to think of them as a sexy pick to pull the upset. As for the Packers, their rise from 4-6 also-ran to potential NFC North champions is astounding, and Aaron Rodgers is starting to look elite again. Like with Dallas and Atlanta, the questions center more around the defense.
Most years, I would welcome criticism from people telling me I’m getting light years ahead of myself worrying about who can stop the Patriots or possibly the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but this is about as justified as I’ll ever be given the current sorry state of the AFC.
There are more worrisome stats that lead me to believe Brady will get his “one for the thumb” ring No. 5 this February. Primarily, one that doesn’t involve Brady, which is that New England has the best scoring defense in all of football at 236 points allowed (15.7). It is true that the Pats have played a large number of the league’s most pitiful offenses, but it looks like it will be the first time that the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring defense since 2003 – the year they won the Super Bowl down in Houston.
Clearly, Belichick knew what he was doing in trading linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns (talk about going from the penthouse to the outhouse). The defense hasn’t missed a beat under bushy-bearded defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
It also appears as if New England will become just the fourth team this century to finish the year unbeaten on the road at 8-0, joining the 2014 Cowboys, 2007 Patriots (16-0 overall), and 2001 Rams. What would be interesting is if the Pats do go unbeaten on the road, they will have some striking similarities to that 2001 Rams team who, ironically, lost Super Bowl XXXVI to the Patriots to kick off this New England dynasty.
The 2001 Rams, like this year’s Patriots, went 6-2 at home and 8-0 on the road. Like the 2016 Pats, they were two years removed from a Super Bowl win. The Rams won playoff home games against Green Bay and Philadelphia before losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots. If you’re wondering (you probably aren’t), the Rams were the desginated road team in that Super Bowl loss, as New England would be this year. St. Louis led the NFL in scoring offense in 2001, just as New England will finish 2016 with the top scoring defense. And if the Patriots lose to Dallas and rookie Prescott, just remember that the Rams lost to Brady, who while technically not a rookie, was in just his second year and didn’t even open 2001 as the starter.
Perhaps that is one NFL rerun we might all enjoy watching.