Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. With the Patriots having a first-round playoff bye, Reiss and Bruschi instead look at all four wild-card matchups and what is of interest from a Patriots perspective.
Mike: Let's start with the Jets at the Colts on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET). This wasn't the expected matchup going into the final weekend of the regular season, but the Chiefs' surprising loss at home to the Raiders in the season finale shuffled the playoff seeds.
Tedy: Patriots fans can focus more on the Jets in this one, because if they win, they will be coming to Gillette Stadium next weekend. If the Colts win, they'd still have to go through Pittsburgh before a possible matchup with the Patriots. I look at the Jets as a team that is getting healthy at the right time. Safety Eric Smith is coming back from a concussion, safety James Ihedigbo is making strides and offensive tackle Damien Woody is supposed to be back. If the Jets are to win, I think Brad Smith has to be big in terms of kick returning and the packages they have for him offensively. I'll be watching closely how offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer calls this game. Is he going to put the ball in Mark Sanchez's hands now that Sanchez is back and healthy, and he has more weapons than he had last year? I don't think that's who Sanchez is; he's more of a game manager. They need to establish their running game and have safe throws for Sanchez -- slant routes, inside routes, those throws where he can quickly get the ball into his playmaker's hands and let them make big plays. Players like Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are big, strong receivers. They've made big plays all year by catching those quick slants and turning them into big gains. So that's the big thing from a Patriots perspective: What kind of playoff offense are the Jets implementing? Are they back to that ground-and-pound playoff formula they had last year? Or will they put it in Sanchez's hands?
Mike: From a defensive standpoint, the Jets have had some struggles late in the season, with the 45 points allowed to the Patriots and then 38 to the Bears. You have to be curious with that unit going up against Peyton Manning if they will be able to provide enough resistance.
Tedy: One thing to look at from a Patriots perspective is cornerback Darrelle Revis. He had the contract holdout, then a hamstring injury, and he didn't have an interception this season. He's had a really quiet year, in my opinion. But I've been around cornerbacks who knew how to turn it on at the right time. When we had Ty Law here, it seemed like he had impeccable timing for knowing when his services would be needed. Is Revis the same way? If he is, and he starts to make big plays, that could have a snowball effect into the next week. That can become contagious. If that happens, that's one of the first steps I think has to happen for them to possibly come into Gillette Stadium and have a chance to upset the Patriots.
Mike: I'm picking the Colts in this one. Maybe the Jets can build off last year's close loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, but I just don't see it. I see the Colts in a little bit of a higher class right now.
Tedy: I agree. I also picked the Colts to win. It's huge that linebacker Gary Brackett has returned from a toe injury. He's playing good football and when you have a layoff from an injury, you usually can't just jump right back into things and start playing the way you were when you left off. It takes a little time to get re-acclimated, to get your legs underneath you; sometimes it takes two to three games and now he's had that. The same thing with running back Joseph Addai, and now they're starting to run the ball well, and starting to stop the run well too. That has helped them gain some momentum.
Mike: The other AFC game has the Chiefs hosting the Ravens on Sunday (1 p.m. ET). The Chiefs stumble into the playoffs after a 31-10 loss at home to the Raiders in the season finale -- I put some blame at the feet of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for creating a distraction by announcing he was leaving to become offensive coordinator at University of Florida -- while the Ravens didn't exactly finish strong in a 13-7 win over the Bengals. If the Jets lose to the Colts, the winner of this game plays the Patriots in Foxborough next Sunday.
Tedy: I picked the Ravens in this game. I see a young Chiefs team that is learning how to do things the right way. For them to go from worst to first in the AFC West was a huge accomplishment. But there were some signs later in the season that would concern me with them -- they had some blowout wins, but also some blowout losses. Teams with those type of late-season results usually don't go deep into the playoffs, because it shows once they get behind, they don't have the ability to come back. Their experience in close games is also at a minimum and that's what the playoffs are all about, winning close games in pressure situations. They have some talented players, like running back Jamaal Charles, who fell just shy of Jim Brown's record for average yards per carry. Also, quarterback Matt Cassel, who had a great season with 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. This is Cassel's first trip to the playoffs, which is something to keep in mind, especially against a team like the Ravens. The Chiefs have the NFL's No. 1-rated rushing attack, but I think it's going to be tough to run against the Ravens. That defense is battle-hardened and experienced.
Mike: One of the interesting parts of this game from a Patriots perspective is that the Chiefs are the only AFC playoff team they haven't faced this season.
Tedy: For fans of the Patriots watching this game, the first thing I'd do is grab a roster, because the Chiefs have a lot of players you probably haven't heard of before. They have some talented young players, like safety Eric Berry, who was the AFC's defensive rookie of the month for December. Dexter McCluster, a second-round pick, is good with the ball in his hands, and outside linebacker Tamba Hali had 14.5 sacks. You can ask: How much of a problem might Hali give Patriots left tackle Matt Light or right tackle Sebastian Vollmer? Also, there aren't many coaches in the league that know the Patriots better than Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
Mike: Like you, I picked the Ravens. So if our AFC prediction plays out, that would mean they come to face the Patriots on Jan. 16 in a rematch of last year's playoff game, which was won by Baltimore in blowout fashion.
Tedy: The Ravens' offense is not too impressive right now. Quarterback Joe Flacco has playoff experience but his best postseason performance is 190 yards. He leans on his running game and his defense. So from a New England perspective, watch Flacco and see if he's taking that next step to be that quarterback who rises up in a playoff atmosphere, who the team can lean on and say "He'll win it for us." Another player to watch is running back Ray Rice. He came on strong toward the end of the year. He does everything for them; last year he was their leading rusher and receiver, so you know he can do it all. Another thing that impressed me with him is that he has no fumbles on the year. Overall, this is a battle-hardened, tough team. They would be a tough out for the Patriots.
Mike: Let's move on to the NFC side, where the Seahawks -- the first division winner with a losing record (7-9) -- host the Saints on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET).
Tedy: Everyone seems to be picking the Saints to win this game, so I'll look at it this way: If the Seahawks pull the upset, running back Marshawn Lynch has to be huge. They are 3-0 when he carries the ball 20-plus times. Leon Washington, their punt and kickoff returner, also has to have a huge day, scoring a touchdown and winning the field-position battle. From a Patriots perspective, I'd focus on the Saints and their defense. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can bring the house at times, and what will the Seahawks do? Will they try to spread them out? If they do, that would be somewhat similar to what the Patriots do, so you want to look at how New Orleans adjusts -- do they continue to bring the house with pressure or do they drop into coverage? That could apply to a possible Patriots matchup. On offense, you'll also see multiple formations from the Saints. As a game-plan defense, it would be a headache for the Patriots to be preparing for that.
Mike: Seattle has one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL, but I don't think it will be enough. I like the Saints to win. The final matchup has the Packers visiting the Eagles on Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET).
Tedy: I'm going with the Packers. One of the main reasons is that I feel like Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is borderline reckless right now. I think he was playing better football earlier in the year. Later in the year, it looked like he was trying to put up statistics to win the MVP. That's not the way to win games. So I'll be looking for whether he is out of that mode. Another thing that discourages me with the Eagles is that in the first nine games of the season they committed nine turnovers. In the last seven, they have 16. They turn the ball over and it's not by accident; all of their skill position players are ball-security targets. Watch the way Vick carries the ball. Watch receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy. They all carry the ball like it's a loaf of bread. It's similar with how Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had his issues going into the playoffs last year, and we all remember what happened in the NFC Championship Game. When you have ball-security issues going into the playoffs, the opposing defense knows it and they're coming after that ball because they know you'll give it up. Patriots fans will also see old friend Asante Samuel at cornerback for the Eagles, and he'll continue to take his chances just to get that interception. He's one of the biggest gamblers in the NFL.
Mike: It goes without saying that the Packers will have a different look than what New England fans saw Dec. 19.
Tedy: You'll see how different they look with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who missed that game because of a concussion. So you ask the question "How much would it have made a difference if Rodgers was playing instead of Matt Flynn on Dec. 19?" With Rodgers leading the Packers, you can think about how great a matchup it would be if the teams meet up in the Super Bowl. Playoff football is finally here!!