The New England Patriots. It seems like they are always there at the end. Actually, seven Super Bowls have passed since the Patriots won pro football’s ultimate prize.
The Patriots resume their quest for the fourth Super Bowl championship of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era today against the Houston Texans, a team many predicted would represent the AFC in New Orleans on Feb. 3. That was before the Texans lost three of their last four games and were unimpressive in defeating Cincinnati last week.
Besides trying to make up for an embarrassing 42-14 loss at New England last month, the Texans are in a stew over being dissed by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who wrote that by facing Houston:
“The 2012-13 New England Patriots just became the first team in NFL history to get back-to-back byes before advancing to the conference championship game. Could this get any easier?”
Atlanta, another popular pick to compete for the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans, will begin its postseason campaign against the hottest team in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks.
The Falcons will be trying to overcome a recent history of postseason failure and a 6-11 playoff record overall. They’ve are 0-3 since 2008 in the postseason with QB Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith despite a 56-24 overall record in the regular season.
Seahawks (12-5) at Falcons (13-3)
TV: Ch. 29, 1 p.m.
The line: Falcons (-2½)
The scoop on the Seahawks: After their 24-14 win at Washington, the Seattle team flew home to the Northwest, then had to make its third cross-country trip in a week to play in Atlanta. ... The win over the Redskins was Seattle’s eight in its last nine games, with the loss coming at Miami on Nov. 25 (24-21). The Seahawks took off after an overtime win at Chicago. Last week’s road win was the first in postseason for Seattle since Chuck Knox’s 1983 team won at Miami. ... There are three main chapters to this year’s Seattle story – defense (they allowed 25 TDs, fewest in the league), rookie QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch. Wilson has been a reliable passer (100 rating) and a dangerous runner (489 yards). Lynch ran for a career-best 1,590 yards. ... The Seattle defense took a hit when DE Chris Clemons suffered a season-ending knee injury in Washington. Rookie Bruce Irvin will start in his place. Clemons’ place on the roster was taken by free agent Patrick Chukwurah, a 33-year old former UFL player who last played in an NFL game in 2007. Clemons led Seattle with 11.5 sacks, while Irvin had eight. Seattle also signed veteran kicker Ryan Longwell for this game because Steven Hauschka suffered a calf injury.
The scoop on the Falcons: There’s a ton of pressure on the Atlanta team because of its playoff failure, especially the home loss two years ago when the top-seeded Falcons were routed by the Packers, 48-21. ... The Falcons started this season with eight straight wins before a loss at New Orleans. Their only other loss in a meaningful game came at Carolina (30-20). Atlanta was unbeaten at home until a 22-17 loss to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan had a record-breaking season, setting team records for passing yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and a 68.6 completion percentage. ... Atlanta’s receiving corps is right up with Green Bay’s with veteran TE Tony Gonzalez (93 catches) and WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Outlook: Rested Falcons and travel load weighing against Seahawks. Falcons, 27-17.
Texans (13-4) at Patriots (12-4)
TV: Ch. 4, 4:30 p.m.
The line: Patriots (-9½)
The scoop on the Texans: Best season in franchise history was marred by late season slump, which included a 42-14 rout at New England. A lot of fans and media jumped off the Texans bandwagon after that and losses to Minnesota at home and at Indianapolis. ... Houston advanced through the wild-card round with a 19-13 victory over the lackluster Cincinnati Bengals. Aside from RB Arian Foster, who ran for 1,424 yards and 15 TDs in the regular season, and TE Owen Daniels, who had nine receptions and a touchdown, the Houston offense was not that impressive. ... Defensively, the Texans ranked seventh in the league, although they did give up 29 passing touchdowns, that was even more than the Bills’ 25. Houston will need huge games from DE J.J. Watt, the NFL leader with 20.5 sacks, LB Brooks Reed and DE Connor Barwin.
The scoop on the Patriots: Patriots have a 13-3 record at home in the postseason. Their only home playoff losses in the Belichick era were to the Jets (28-21) two years ago and Baltimore (33-14) in the 2009 season. ... A win for Brady would break a tie with Joe Montana at 13 for most wins in postseason play. ... Under Belichick, the Pats have lost only once in six playoff games after a bye week. The loss, again, was to the Jets in 2010. ... The Patriots led the league in offense, averaging 427.9 yards per game and scored a league-high 66 touchdowns. Brady threw for 34 scores. Stevan Ridley, the best running back you never hear about, led New England in rushing with 1,263 yards for a 4.4 average and 12 touchdowns. Wes Welker topped the receivers with 118 catches for an 11.5 average and six touchdowns. Having TE Rob Gronkowski healthy again will make the New England attack even more dangerous. Without Gronkowski, the Pats routed the Texans.
Outlook: Houston will try to keep Brady off the field with a time-consuming ground game. They may only succeed in avoiding a blowout. Patriots, 30-24.