It's never a good thing to get too cocky, but let's face it: this is the Patriots' easiest path to the Super Bowl ever.
Based on the current playoff schedule, here is New England's playoff picture:
AFC Divisional Round - Gillette Stadium (Saturday, Jan. 14; 8:25 pm - FOX): vs. No. 4 Houston/No. 5 Oakland/No. 6 Miami
AFC Conference Championship - Gillette Stadium (Sunday, Jan. 22; 6:40 pm - CBS): vs. No. 2 Kansas City/No. 3 Pittsburgh/No. 4 Houston/No. 5 Oakland
Super Bowl LI - NRG Stadium (Houston, TX) (Sunday, Feb. 5; 6:30 pm - FOX)
It's tough to determine which of the three possible opponents would scare the Patriots the most. Is it the Texans, an essentially quarterback-less team who got throttled 27-0 in Gillette back in Week 3 with Jacoby Brissett at the helm? Could it be the Raiders, who collapsed faster and more violently than Derek Carr's leg once their MVP candidate signal caller went down? Perhaps its the Dolphins, who lost by 21 points to this very Patriots roster last Sunday in one of the few stadiums that has truly baffled Brady.
If that doesn't convince you, maybe this will: Each of those three teams hasn't the slightest idea which of their quarterbacks would start against New England due to injuries.
The Texans aren't sure whether concussed Tom Savage or $72 million dumpster fire Brock Osweiler will start. Oakland must pick between Matt McGloin (shoulder injury) or rookie Connor Cook, who likely still hasn't fully recovered from the beating he took against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl playoff semifinal game last year while at Michigan State. Likewise, Miami has no idea if Ryan Tannehill (ACL and MCL sprain) will start over Matt Moore.
You know things are good when the biggest question is whether the Patriots will sustain any significant injuries heading into the AFC Championship Game.
AFC Championship Game
Here, the real playoffs begin for the Patriots.
Mathematically, New England can play any of the other AFC playoff teams except for Miami. However, barring something completely unforeseen, the Patriots will host either Kansas City or Pittsburgh for the right to advance to Super Bowl LI.
It's tough to say which team would give New England the tougher game; the Chiefs defense has surged lately, while the Steelers boast an offense that the Patriots really haven't faced at all this season.
The Patriots faced the Chiefs in last year's Divisional Round game at Gillette, and even with their significant injuries controlled the game well. However, it would be unwise to assess this matchup based on that previous one. The Chiefs defense looks healthy sans Derrick Johnson, and rookie phenom Tyreek Hill is a nightmare both on special teams and offense. But New England has a few "new faces" as well; even though Rob Gronkowski is out this time, Solder, Cannon, Lewis, Blount, Hogan, Bennett, Mitchell, Flowers and Floyd (among others) were not active for that matchup. New England still has a significant advantage in this game, especially if they can shut down the Chiefs streaky offense and force Alex Smith to make big plays from the pocket.
The possibility of a Patriots-Steelers rematch, which I predicted in the aftermath of that Patriots' 27-16 Week 7 victory at Heinz Field, brings two thoughts to mind. First, Ben Roethlisberger was inactive for that game, and although Landry Jones played fairly well in his place (29-of-47, 287 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), Big Ben's return is far more difficult to plan for. Second, the Patriots invoked a very run-heavy gameplan featuring LeGarrette Blount, which was incredibly successful. Blount's 24 carries, 127 yards (5.3 YPC) and 2 touchdowns kept the game much more lopsided than the score indicated.
Brady was selective and brilliant (19-for-26 (73 percent), 222 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT), and the team was able to overcome Chris Hogan's opening drive, first-play fumble. Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass intended for Antonio Brown in the end zone that next Steelers drive, and the offensive line didn't allow a single sack on Brady (although the Patriots pass rush didn't notch any sacks of their own either).
The likely Chiefs-Steelers divisional round matchup, which would take place Sunday, Jan. 15 at 1:05 pm from Arrowhead Stadium, will be a very interesting game to watch for New England...provided they take care of their own business the previous night.
Super Bowl LI
It's way, way too early to get into the NFC playoff picture, especially given how opaque it truly is. We'll be able to get a much better look at it in a few weeks, if the Patriots find themselves needing to know their Super Bowl opponent.
The phrase "any given Sunday" describes the NFL well; guarantees are non-existent. But if the Patriots continue their regular season play, this looks to be a very successful postseason for New England.
By Will Brabrook