It's a conundrum, to be sure. Just look at the picks. They're all over the place. The line averages out to Pats -3, but that's far from being based on a unanimous vote. A very convincing case can be built for both teams. Lots of people (myself included, I'll admit), have been looking ahead to a possible Colts-Pats rematch in the AFC Championship and in so doing, overlooking this game.
But the more I read about it, the more I've started to think this might be the matchup of the postseason. If the Broncos win it, they'll have gotten as much of a monkey off their backs as the Colts--not in beating the Patriots, but in simply winning at all. They're at home in front of a passionate fan base. The Patriots are hardly coming off a 14-2 season, and as Fox Sports pointed out,
Overhyped: New England's 10 straight postseason wins. The three Super Bowl titles are impressive, not the 10 straight postseason wins. The Patriots only have 10 straight postseason wins because the Green Bay Packers lay down like dogs to the Jets in the last week of 2002, which created a three-way tie atop the AFC East which the Jets won on a tiebreaker. If the Jets had gone 8-8, the Patriots would have won the tiebreaker over Miami, but there's no way they would have beaten Oakland, Tennessee, and Tampa Bay to win the title.
Ask any of the Patriots and they'll give you a variation on the same--it doesn't matter what their record is from past seasons. What matters is what they do right now, this time, this year.
And there are a couple of further points to note.
First, though the Broncos boast the 2nd run defense in the league, the Patriots crushed the Jaguars last week virtually without a running game; leading rusher Corey Dillon posted 40 measly yards on 17 carries when all was said and done.
Meanwhile, (and this is where it comes down to pure opinion and conjecture) many football experts believe Jake Plummer's improvement is largely based on cutting down his interceptions this season, from 20 to 7. Moreover, there's strong evidence that this improvement may have been based on the Broncos' strong running game, and a move by Shanahan toward using that running game more to take the pressure off Plummer, a smart move, to be sure--Shanahan is a smart coach, no doubt about that.
But Bill Belichick is smarter (again, opinion--but that's the whole point of this post, and, well, I'm entitled). And Belichick's strategy is based not on beating the opposing team at its strength but, as I have just read repeatedly in his biography, taking that strength away from them.
So here's the important number. Last week, the Jaguars, a strong running team (ranked 11th in the league coming into last weekend's game), ended up with 47 yards on 12 carries. Belichick made them try to beat the Patriots in the air rather than on the ground, where they felt more comfortable. The results speak for themselves.
And while the Patriots may be ranked in the formal numbers in the number-8 slot against the run, they may actually be better. That ranking takes into account the struggles of earlier this season--what if it were adjusted for the second half of the season? The past four weeks? Who's to say the power rankings are pronouncements of God written in stone, anyway?
It's not something, in the end, that mathematical formulas can easily be applied to, but most everyone acknowledges it: the Patriots have been a different team in the last few weeks than they were at the beginning of the season, or mid-season. The Patriots have seemed to improve every week, and while it may not be known exactly how they've done it, most people would not argue with that premise.
Also worth noting: Belichick's 2-7 lifetime record against Denver looks dismal, but take into account that four of those losses came when he coached the miserable Cleveland Browns.
In the end, though, I'll let a Colts fan take 'er home:
Oooh, just read the Doctor Z column ... “Pats looked so ripe for an upset”…? Is Mike Vanderjagt now ghost-writing the column for him? Doesn’t he watch the Pats very often? That IS their MO, right? Pats fans back me up on this…. I vaguely recall the root-canalesque Colt playoff game last year which was 6-3 at halftime, no? Colt fan that I am, I thought, hey, it shouldn’t be this close, but it is and now we have a chance. Man, was I wrong then, and so is Dr. Z, at least about the Jax game. Pats were NOT ripe for the upset, and even if they lose this weekend, it won’t be because they are ripe for the upset. A heavily favored team that had a lot of luck in getting their seed, THEY’RE ripe for the upset.
Will it be easy? Never. Will it be a rout? Absolutely not. Could I be wrong? Heck yes. Obviously, this opinion is based on the underlying opinion that Plummer has not truly been rehabilitated--that he will not, as yesterday's Denver source claimed, pick apart the Patriots' secondary if given a chance by the Patriots' focus on the run game. Such an opinion is obviously one of Patriots' bias. Luckily for me, I have hardly claimed to be unbiased.
But, really: I believe in the Patriots. There's no shame in believing in the Patriots, after what we've seen so far this decade. It will be a tough game--perhaps the Patriots' toughest matchup yet. But it's possible, and you can bet that Belichick will have a fantastic game plan, and that a team that pulled itself up by its bootstraps from a 4-4 record halfway through the season isn't giving up any time soon. My opinion: the Patriots have a great chance to win this game.
Only one way to find out. Tonight at 8 o'clock ET, on CBS.