BEING AROUND the New England Patriots, you get the feeling that they believe the postseason belongs to them. They have a confidence born of championship experience, of winning a league-record 10 straight playoff games. Their opponents pick up on it. "I watched them beat Jacksonville [on TV]," said Denver Broncos safety John Lynch, referring to New England's 28-3 win over the Jaguars in an AFC wild-card playoff last Saturday night. "They're so battle-tested. Nothing bothers them. They just have the sense that it's their time of year."
Maybe so, but in winning three of the past four Super Bowls, the Pats didn't have as hard a road as they do in trying to win the NFL title this season. They had a first-round bye in each of the last three trips and never had to play two road games in any one postseason. New England will have to do that this time if it beats the Broncos in an AFC divisional-round game this Saturday in Denver and then draws the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts in the conference championship.
The next test of the Patriots' playoff invincibility will come in trying to atone for a poor performance in a 28-20 loss to the Broncos on Oct. 16 at Invesco Field. It's hard to imagine a Bill Belichick--coached defense allowing three plays of more than 50 yards in one game, yet Denver pulled off all three in the second quarter. A 72-yard pass from Jake Plummer to wideout Rod Smith set up the first Broncos touchdown, a 55-yard pass to Ashley Lelie was the key play on the second TD drive, and Tatum Bell's 68-yard gallop up the middle led to the third touchdown. At halftime Denver led 21-3.
But these aren't the same Pats who gave up 247 yards in the second quarter and 432 for the day. Defensive end Richard Seymour (strained left knee) and inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi (recovering from a stroke) missed that game; both should play this weekend (though a strained calf kept Bruschi out of the Jaguars game). And New England held each of four December opponents to 183 yards or less. "Overall, we have improved across the board defensively," Belichick said on Monday. "Each player and coach has progressively done a better job over the second half of the season."
In particular, nosetackle Vince Wilfork has become a monster in the middle, bolstering the run defense. In their four December games the Patriots yielded but 31.3 rushing yards per outing and held Jacksonville to 87. (Ignore the stats in the regular-season finale, a 28-26 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Jan. 1, because New England rested most of its regulars for three quarters.) The Pats also have developed a keener edge with their pass rush, as evidenced by their six sacks against the Jaguars, including an NFL playoff-record 4 1/2 by linebacker Willie McGinest.
What makes stopping the Broncos so difficult for any opponent is that the offense, under the direction of coach Mike Shanahan, is so diversified. " Shanahan does as good a job as anybody in the league at attacking defenses," Belichick said. "Run, pass, inside, outside, short, deep, power, misdirection, multiple formations. There is no shortcut for us."
On the road to the Super Bowl, there never is.