After the first day of Wild Card Weekend, the AFC matchups for next week are set. The Pittsburgh Steelers, possibly without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — who has an injured shoulder — will head to Denver to take on the Broncos, while the New England Patriots will host the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs won convincingly against the Houston Texans, but they have an uphill battle against the Patriots.
The Patriots have a whole lot of things going for them heading into this game — and a whole lot of things going for them in general. Sure, their running backs have experienced a few injuries and they have a lot of players on the injured reserve. But the majority of their important players are healthy. There are several reasons to believe that the Patriots and their star quarterback, Tom Brady, not only have the best road to the Super Bowl, but they have the best shot at winning it too.
Matchup with the Chiefs
The Patriots will face the Chiefs next week after having two weeks of rest at home. At this stage in the season, their opportunity to rest is a huge factor. But there’s more to it than just that. The Chiefs looked better than they may be in their win over Houston, beating the banged up Texans 30-0.
Not only were the Texans forced to start reserve players at important positions, such as Brian Hoyer at quarterback and Alfred Blue at running back, but you can also factor in that they were a 9-7 division winner and fairly undeserving of their playoff spot. The Chiefs took an early 13-0 lead that was heavily predicated on an opening kickoff return touchdown and two short drives that amassed a total of 67 offensive yards between them. They put the game away late, but it’s clear that Kansas City isn’t nearly as dominant as they looked.
Brady is 4-2 in his career against Kansas City and 3-0 against them at Gillette Stadium, where the game will be played. In fact, Brady is 14-3 at home in the playoffs in his career and has a .853 winning percentage at home when you include the regular season and playoffs. The Pats were also 7-1 at home this season. In short, it’s really, really hard to beat Brady and the Patriots in their home stadium.
Brady has been a man on a mission this year after the deflated football scandal of the AFC Championship Game last season against the Indianapolis Colts. He has thrown 36 touchdowns, which is the most he’s thrown in a season since 2010, leading the NFL this season. On the flip side, he has thrown only seven interceptions, which was the fewest he’s thrown in a season since 2010 as well.
The AFC Championship Game
Should the Patriots dispatch the Chiefs, their next game will be against either the Denver Broncos or the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Steelers go into Denver and beat the Broncos, which is certainly not out of the question, then the Patriots would enjoy all the advantages of their home field. In his career, Brady is 4-0 against the Steelers at home, 6-2 against them in the regular season overall, and 2-0 against them in the playoffs. That includes a stat line of 22 touchdowns to just three interceptions and a 113.4 quarterback rating. The Patriots have already beaten the Steelers once this season, a 28-21 victory in Week one.
The Broncos are a completely different task. They would have the home-field advantage in such a matchup, and it would feature yet another classic showdown between Brady and Peyton Manning in the playoffs. They’ve split their four meetings in the postseason, but the overall head-to-head record is heavily slanted in Brady’s favor. They’ve played each other 16 times overall, with Brady holding an 11-5 edge. In those games, Brady has 4,013 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
A major factor is Manning’s decline; the 39-year-old missed games due to injury for the second time in his career. He started nine games, threw just nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions, and had career lows in passer rating and passing yards while having the lowest completion percentage since his rookie year in 1998.
The Arizona Cardinals have had a good season with a 13-3 record, but it’s hard to imagine them going into a Super Bowl with quarterback Carson Palmer — who’s had a very good year to his credit — and a running game that has been inconsistent at times and beating the New England Patriots. The same goes for the Green Bay Packers, who were 4-6 in their final 10 games of the regular season and are suffering through the worst year of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ career. Rodgers set career lows in rating, yards per attempt, and completion percentage.
The Seattle Seahawks have been to the Super Bowl for two consecutive years, and were one play away from making it two consecutive Super Bowl victories. But the Seahawks are a fairly different team this year, with Marshawn Lynch recovering from hernia surgery and tight end Jimmy Graham out for the season.
While the Carolina Panthers are really good, they were dealt a massive blow in the final week of the year when they lost cornerback Charles Tillman to a season-ending injury. While they have a great quarterback in Cam Newton, they also have an extremely young, inexperienced roster. As it stands, expect the Patriots to be a slight favorite over the Panthers if both teams reach the Super Bowl. That’s not to say that these teams aren’t capable of beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Any of these teams would have a chance against a Patriots team that is far from perfect. But that leads us to our final point.
Bill Belichick, the head coach of the Patriots, will do whatever it takes to ensure victory. He’s at his best when he’s on the biggest stage, holding a 4-2 record in the Super Bowl overall. Those two losses were both against the New York Giants, who incidentally are not in the playoffs — another notch for the Patriots as to why they have the advantage over the NFC if they reach the Super Bowl.
New England has struggled the last few games of the year, which included two losses on the road to end the season. They’ve lost their starting running back and backup running back, as well as several other players, to injuries. But Brady has been excellent this season and is extremely difficult to beat at home in the playoffs. If there is a team that has the best chance of being the Super Bowl Champion at the end of the season, it’s the Patriots.
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