Who's gonna beat 'em?
Laying odds for the Patriots' foes in the AFC playoffs
Posted: Sunday December 23, 2007 11:09PM; Updated: Monday December 24, 2007 2:26AM
FOXBORO, Mass. -- With New England's second dismantling of the Dolphins this season in the books, and the AFC playoff field nearly complete, there's only one question that matters at this point in the conference's proceedings: Can anybody beat them? Can the Patriots' perfect season be ruined by the other five teams that make the AFC playoffs?
In order of the level of threat they pose to New England's march to history, here's how we break down the Patriots' looming AFC postseason opponents (and no, we didn't forget that Bill Belichick and Co. have to finish things up next Saturday night with a date against the Giants in the Meadowlands):
1. Indianapolis (13-2)
Heat index: If it's possible for the defending Super Bowl champion to fly under the radar screen, the Colts have somehow done this in the season's second half, beginning with their two-game losing streak in Weeks 9-10. But Indy has very quietly won six in a row since that last-second loss at San Diego; and on Sunday at home against Houston, the Colts scored on six of their eight possessions, rolled up a season-high 458 yards of offense, tied a franchise record with 33 first downs and scored 38 consecutive points at one point.
Intangible: More than any other Patriots opponent, the Colts can rely on muscle memory when it comes to beating New England. Before losing in Week 9 to the Patriots at home, Indy had beaten them three consecutive times in the series, including regular-season wins at Gillette Stadium in both 2005 and 2006. More so than any other Patriots playoff foe, the Colts do not fear a trip to Foxboro in the dead of winter.
Potential trouble-maker: He has missed the past nine games with that troublesome bruised knee; but when he comes back to Indy's lineup, Marvin Harrsion adds a Hall of Fame threat to the Colts' offense. His presence also discourages defenses from double-teaming fellow receiver Reggie Wayne and opens up more room in the middle of the field for tight end Dallas Clark.
Upset probability: 45 percent -- The Colts are playoff tested, superbly coached and would enter any game against New England secure in the knowledge they could have very easily beaten the Patriots in early November, were it not for a lousy 10-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.
2. Jacksonville (11-4)
Heat index: Since losing 29-7 at home to division-winning Indianapolis in Week 7, the Jags are 7-2. Jacksonville is 4-1 in its last five games, with the red-hot offense averaging 35.2 points per game. By comparison, the Patriots are 5-0 in their past five games but averaging just 28 points per game -- or a touchdown less than the Jags. Jacksonville has topped 400 yards of offense in all five of those games, a team record streak, and its 49 points against Oakland on Sunday was good for another franchise record.
Intangible: This isn't the Jaguars' first blush of success. Jacksonville is an impressive 40-23 since the start of 2004, the NFL's sixth-best record during that span. In addition, the Jaguars are in the playoffs for the second time in three years, having lost 28-3 at New England in 2005's first round. They looked like a playoff newbie in that game, but that experience would undoubtedly help them prepare for the Gillette atmosphere, if they earn a return trip.
Potential trouble-maker: Fred Taylor is running like a man possessed. Taylor had 111 yards on just seven carries against Oakland on Sunday, including a 62-yard touchdown burst on the first play from scrimmage. It was his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, his best such streak since 2000. If the Patriots defense has had a weak link of late, it has come against the run, with Baltimore's Willis McGahee gouging them for 138 yards three weeks ago and Miami gaining 108 yards on 22 carries (4.9 average) on Sunday. Jacksonville has topped 200 yards rushing two weeks in a row and cleared 150 yards on the ground eight times this season.
Upset probability: 35 percent -- The Jaguars are a physical, tough-minded team that rarely beats itself with offensive mistakes and has the ability to wear down an opponent as the game unwinds. With a two-headed power running game that's led by Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville is a very dangerous opponent for a Patriots defense that can have trouble with opponents who pound away on the ground.
3. San Diego (9-5)
Heat index: The Chargers take a four-game winning streak into their Monday date with visiting Denver, and San Diego is 8-2 since starting the season with a sky-is-falling 1-3 record. After losing four of its first five road games, San Diego has won consecutive games away from home, which at least bodes well for a club that will probably enter the playoffs with a No. 4 seed. The Chargers have finally begun to fire all their offensive guns, and that 51-spot they hung on Detroit last week could be the start of a season-ending scoring burst.
Intangible: San Diego has all the motivation it'll ever need if its postseason brings them to Foxboro. It was the Patriots, of course, who ended the Chargers dream season of 2006, upsetting the AFC's top-seeded team in the divisional round. San Diego went down mostly by its own hand, but it was one of the most bitter losses in franchise history; and the memory of the Patriots dancing on the Chargers' logo still rankles everyone who wears the lightning bolt.
Potential trouble-maker: Nobody took San Diego's playoff defeat harder than running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who had his MVP season rendered rather empty by that loss. Tomlinson is one of the league's truly great players, and great players usually get their revenge on the field, doing great things in the process. It's hard to imagine the Chargers knocking off the vaunted Patriots without a monster game from L.T.
Upset probability: 33 percent -- San Diego offered New England little competition in Week 2, losing 38-14 in Foxboro. But that was then, and this would be now. The Chargers began a three-week descent into disarray with that game, but they've been at least a reasonable facsimile of their 2006 selves in the past month, beating their last four opponents by an average of 19 points.