Parity is the preferred goal of the National Football League, and every other professional sports league, for that matter. If every team has a chance, then fans from 32 cities can enter a new season with hope.
Cleveland Browns fans know better, of course. You cannot win it all if you cannot win at all. Quarterbacks they should have taken in the draft (Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garappolo, Derek Carr, etc.) are playing in other cities, and a coach they let go (Bill Belichick) has become the Vince Lombardi of the 21st century.
If it’s any consolation to Clevelanders, at least they do not have to go through the fruitless exercise of pretending that their Browns could be the team this season to take down Belichick’s New England Patriots.
The cold, hard fact is this: A dozen NFL teams, including the NFC’s top-seeded Eagles, are still alive as wild-card weekend opens Saturday in Kansas City and Los Angeles, but the smart money in Las Vegas is once again being placed on the team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls and five in the last 16 seasons.
Vegas made the Patriots the 2-1 favorite to win it all, which seems about right until you consider that the Minnesota Vikings are the favorite to win the NFC. In that scenario, the Vikings would become the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in its home stadium, and even though tickets will be available to Patriots fans, it is likely that the crowd inside U.S. Bank Stadium would be overwhelmingly on Minnesota’s side.
That said, the Patriots once again head into the postseason looking very much like the best team in football. For the eighth time in the last 15 years, the Patriots are the top-seeded team in the AFC. Six of the previous seven times, they at least reached the Super Bowl. Only the New York Giants, for some reason that defies logic, have been able to beat the Pats once they get there.
The reasons to like the Patriots this year go well beyond that. A year ago, the Patriots went into the postseason with Julian Edelman as their top wide receiver and without tight end Rob Gronkowski. LeGarrette Blount was their top running back after rushing for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he was mostly ineffective in New England’s three playoff games, averaging just 3.1 yards on 35 carries.
It did not matter. Brady and Belichick still found a way to win it all even after trailing by 25 points in the second half of the Super Bowl.
This Patriots team is better than that team. It did not appear that would be the case at the start of the season when New England surrendered 128 points and 457 yards per game while splitting its first four games. The Patriots even lost twice at home.
Predictably, Belichick, Brady and the Patriots turned things around. They finished the year on an 11-1 run and squeezed out a win in Pittsburgh with home-field advantage on the line. The Patriots allowed 17 points or fewer in 10 of their final 12 games and allowed an average of just 14 points during that stretch. It could be argued that they are going into the playoffs with the best defense in football, just as they did a year ago.
Brady’s top receiver this year is Brandin Cooks, an upgrade over Edelman because he is more of a deep threat. Brady will also have the Gronk monster for this playoff run. Gronkowski and Cooks give the 40-year-old quarterback two targets who had more than 1,000 receiving yards this season. The Patriots did not have a 1,000-yard rusher, but Dion Lewis was one of only two running backs in the league to average 5-plus yards per carry.
As for Brady, he had an MVP season at 40, leading the league in passing yards while finishing third in TD passes. If the other 11 playoff teams are looking for some kind of chink in his armor, he did struggle a bit down the stretch, completing just 59.4 percent of his passes for six TDs and four interceptions in New England’s final four games.
There’s some thought that this could be the swan song for arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote this week that the relationship among Brady, Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft has become strained and that the head coach might want to move forward with a different quarterback after next season.
It’s also possible that the Patriots could lose offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, both of whom have been in place the last six seasons. That’s unheard of in an age when opposing teams are always trying to copy from the best. McDaniels and Patricia reportedly have interviewed for multiple head-coaching jobs this week, including the Giants’.
Maybe it is all about to fall apart for the Patriots. Know this: It would be foolish to bet against Brady, Belichick and the Patriots during this postseason.
With a win at Seattle on Sunday, the Cardinals’ Bruce Arians became the winningest coach in franchise history. He announced his retirement the following day. It is somewhat sad and amazing that a franchise that has been around since 1920 never had a coach win more than Arians’ 49 victories in his five seasons, but the former Temple coach has always been a class act and his presence in the NFL will be missed.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) January 1, 2018
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis seems like a nice guy and has been a good coach who took a moribund franchise to the playoffs seven times in 15 years after Cincinnati failed to post a winning record in the 12 years before his arrival. But it’s unfathomable that he will remain in his job for a 16th season after posting consecutive losing seasons to go along with the fact that he has never won a playoff game.
Tennessee at Kansas City, 4:35 p.m. (ABC/ESPN)
Andy Reid is 1-3 in the playoffs with the Chiefs and 1-6 in his last seven playoff games, dating to the NFC championship game against Arizona in 2009. After going through a 1-6 stretch in the middle of the season, the Chiefs go into the playoffs with a four-game winning streak. The Titans are making their first playoff appearance since 2008 and have not won a playoff game since 2003.
Atlanta at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
The Rams opted to sit their starters in the season finale against the 49ers, so it will be interesting to see how they respond in what is the first playoff game for the vast majority of their players. In the 15 games he played, Rams running back Todd Gurley accounted for 38 percent of his team’s yards from scrimmage and 43 percent of his team’s rushing and receiving touchdowns.
Buffalo at Jacksonville, 1:05 p.m. (CBS)
Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette ran for 596 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his first six games of the season, but had only 444 yards at a 3.2-yard clip in seven games after returning from a quad injury. The Bills ended their 17-year playoff drought and now will attempt to win a playoff game for the first time since 1995.
Carolina at New Orleans, 4:40 p.m. (Fox)
The Saints won both meetings between the teams this season by a combined score of 65-34, including a 31-21 win in New Orleans on Dec. 3. Drew Brees completed 47 of 63 passes with four TDs and no interceptions in the two games and is 4-0 at home in the postseason with the Saints. Cam Newton was intercepted three times in the two games, all in the first meeting.
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