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Contenders and Pretenders: Sizing up Patriots against the AFC playoff field
The 2012 NFL season provides further proof that parity is little more than a media buzzword and not a real phenomenon: 10 of 12 playoff spots are already wrapped up entering Week 17, while 12 of 16 games in the final slate feature at least one team playing out the string. Six games pit two teams with nothing to play for.
And the NFL’s decision starting in 2010 to pit only division foes in Week 17 has clearly not paid off, at least in 2012.
The AFC has been especially immune to parity: Five of six teams that reached the playoffs last year are back again this year, with only the perennial power Colts, after their highly successful “Suck for Luck” campaign in 2011, replacing fellow AFC power Pittsburgh in the 2012 postseason.
The Patriots have known since Dec. 2 that they’re in the playoffs. The rest of the AFC field is already secure, too, no matter what happens Sunday. The only issue yet to be decided is playoff seeding. The Patriots right now are the No. 3 seed and likely to play on wildcard weekend.
They still have a shot at a first-round bye, if either the Broncos or Texans lose, and would capture the No. 1 seed in the off chance that both should falter.
Regardless, the only thing important now is not so much how the Patriots size up against the Dolphins in the regular-season finale, but how they shape up against the already-known AFC playoff field.
Here’s a quick look at the other five teams in the AFC playoff field, with their strengths and weaknesses based upon performance in the all-important Quality Stats we use to rate teams at Cold, Hard Football Facts.
The good news is that the Patriots went 3-1 against the AFC field this year, dominating the Broncos, Colts and Texans while losing only by a single point at Baltimore early in the season.
Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
Last meeting: Ravens 31, Patriots 30 (Week 3 2012)
CHFF Power Rankings: No. 9
Strength: No. 7 Scoreability (13.9 Yards Per Point Scored), our measure of offensive efficiency
Weakness: No. 18 Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (6.20)
Overview: The Ravens right now are an average team posing as a contender. Joe Flacco is merely an average quarterback by every measure of passing efficiency – those indicators that so often separate champs from chumps. They also give up 21.4 PPG on defense (12th). For a little perspective, the famous 2000 Ravens surrendered fewer than half as many points (10.3 PPG).
Status: Pretender. They beat the Patriots back in Week 3 at home. They don’t appear equipped at quarterback or on defense to do it for a second time in the same season.
Overview: Young offensive stars Andy Dalton and A.J. Green get the headlines but the Bengals are a playoff team on the strength of the defense: No. 5 on the Defensive Hog Index, No. 6 pressuring the passer, No. 7 in Defensive Real QB Rating, No. 8 in Defensive Real Passing YPA and No. 8 in scoring defense (20.2 PPG).
Status: Pretender. The defense is good enough to give the Patriots offense a challenge, but it’s hard to see a scenario in which Andy Dalton can go toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and the historically good New England offense.
Denver Broncos (12-3)
Last meeting: Patriots 31, Broncos 21 (Week 5 2012)
CHFF Power Rankings: No. 2
Strength: No. 1 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (7.32); No. 1 Defensive Hog Index (2.7); No. 1 Third-Down Defense (30.7%)
Weakness: No. 25 Rushing Yards Per Attempt (3.79)
Overview: The Broncos present a deadly combination of Hall of Fame quarterback paired with the NFL’s top defensive front. Super Bowl champions almost always have a great quarterback or a great defensive front. The Broncos have both.
Status: Contender. The only hope for the Patriots is that the Texans lose to the Colts this week and the Patriots steal the first-round bye, or, hope that somebody knocks off the Broncos along the way. Otherwise, Denver is the total package of great offense and great defensive front that can slow down the Patriots. New England is not likely to win that game in Denver.
Houston Texans (12-3)
Last meeting: Patriots 42, Texans 14 (Week 14 2012)
CHFF Power Rankings: No. 6
Strength: No. 2 Defensive Hog Index (7.3), No. 2 Third-Down Defense (31.0%)
Weakness: No. 20 Rush YPA (4.12), No. 20 Third-Down Offense (37.1%)
Overview: Houston dominated the NFL statistically for much of the year but clearly peaked earlier in the season. The defensive line, led by sack-master J.J. Watt, is still legit – only the Broncos are better on the defensive front. But the offense right now, even though it has scored 400 points through 15 games, is merely ordinary in many measures of efficiency. For example, most people don’t realize Arian Foster & Co. have a pedestrian average per rush attempt. This team could struggle to score points in the postseason.
Status: Contender. The reality, though, is that the Texans don’t have the horses on offense to keep up with the Patriots in a playoff rematch – even in Houston.
Overview: The Colts are the 2011 Broncos of the 2012 season. Remember the Broncos last year? They were largely a poor team defensively and otherwise (No. 24 in scoring defense). In fact, the 2011 Broncos were No. 28 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings; the 2012 Colts are No. 27. But both teams reached the playoffs thanks to plenty of late-game magic from their young quarterbacks. The 2011 Broncos stole a win in a home playoff game against the Steelers. The 2012 Colts will not be so lucky; they will not get a home game (they are 6-1 at home).
Status: Pretender. This overmatched team is Luck-y to be in the playoffs and will likely be one-and-done.