PATRIOTS ON PATH TO BIG EASY
Shortly after the Patriots' 42-14 dismantling of the Texans on Monday night, I turned to a media colleague and said, "Think we should book those tickets to the Super Bowl?"
That was the gut reaction. The response was an affirmative nod.
This isn't to say the Patriots will definitely be there; I've been around long enough to know how fragile things are in the NFL and that things can change on a week-to-week basis, one injury dramatically altering the picture.
But if you don't think the Patriots are the AFC's best bet to advance to the Super Bowl after what we saw Monday night, and what we've seen over the season's first 13 games, I'm not sure what AFC you've been watching this year.
As quarterback Tom Brady said after the game, Monday was a measuring-stick type of night, a chance to see how the Patriots stacked up against the team with the conference's best record.
Now we know.
We also know that the Patriots handled the AFC West-leading Broncos at home on Oct. 7, blew out the wild-card leading Colts at home on Nov. 18 and lost by one point to the AFC North-leading Ravens in a Sept. 23 road game worked by overmatched replacement officials.
Teams evolve over the course of a season, so it's dangerous to read too much into those results, but they do provide a roadmap.
And what that roadmap tells me is that the AFC still runs through New England. Kind of like it's been over the past decade.
LET'S SEE HOW SUNDAY GOES
Seven consecutive wins, the most recent of which came in resounding fashion over the AFC's top team, serve as more than enough reason for optimism for the Patriots to make a run toward an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII.
But before fans survey restaurant reviews for local establishments in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Patriots need to take care of an important piece of business: win this Sunday at home against the 49ers.
The 49ers stand as the Patriots' toughest test during the final three weeks of the 2012 regular season, and a loss to San Francisco could derail the Patriots' chance at a top-two seed in the AFC and a first-round bye (not to mention a home game in the divisional round).
A win would push the Patriots closer to that desired top-two seed, and keep the pressure on the Texans in the race for the top overall seed, which secures home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. A loss could mean the third seed, and a possible divisional-round date with Peyton Manning and the Broncos -- in Denver.
While the Patriots have the look of the best team in football right now, going on the road in the playoffs is never an easy task. The team parlayed its top seed in 2011 into a trip to Super Bowl XLVI, and would benefit greatly from finding a way to climb atop the AFC standings this season.
A top-two seed, which would limit the number of road playoff games to one at maximum, should give Patriots fans confidence in this team racing to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. A Week 15 win would push the needle closer to that goal.