|The Patriots can't do anything but stand by and watch this weekend.|
With a convincing last regular season victory over the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots earned a second seed in the AFC Bracket of the 2012 playoffs. Because of the Houston Texans' final day loss to the Indianapolis Colts, both the Patriots and Denver Broncos were able to jump ahead of the AFC South side at the last second in order to claim the top two seeds. That guarantees the Patriots a home tie in the divisional round, but will have to travel to Denver should both sides reach the championship game.
Of course, that is a long way away as of yet because the Patriots don't even know who they will play in the divisional round just yet. The Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens face off this weekend in the wildcard round, but the Patriots are unable to play the Bengals in the next round no matter what happens. As the second seed, the Patriots will face the higher seed of the two teams who win this weekend.
That guarantees that the Patriots will play a team that they have already beaten at home this year, the Colts or Texans, or one that they suffered a close loss to away, the Ravens. The Patriots beat the Colts 59-24 in Week 11 and the Texans 42-14 in Week 14, while the Ravens won out in Baltimore in Week 3 by a scoreline of 31-30 with a last minute field goal. That field goal was one of the last games officiated by the replacement referees who were heavily questioned by Bill Belichick at the end of the game.
Belichick doesn't need to blame the refs in order to justify their chances against the Ravens. The Ravens are a shadow of the team they were last year when the Patriots beat them in the AFC Championship after that infamous missed field goal from Billy Cundiff. By the time those two could potentially face off, the Ravens would likely return Ray Lewis to the lineup. However, even prior to his torn triceps injury he was having a poor season, so that wouldn't be something that could turn the tie in his team's favor.
The Patriots will undoubtedly be intently watching this weekend's AFC wildcard matchups, but they have absolutely no reason to fear any of the teams in the playoff picture. Their preference would likely be to avoid the Houston Texans, as top wildcard seed and clearly the most talented unit on their list of potential opponents. Even though the Patriots convincingly beat the Texans, they did so through a very specific gameplan that likely caught the Texans off guard and they were able to shut down the offense in a way that the defense likely couldn't replicate.
JJ Watt was neutralized with a very specific playcalling regime as well as focused attention throughout the game. Watt hasn't been held in check like that by any other team in the league and is too talented for the Patriots to presume that he won't adapt to the same gameplan. Of course that could lead to the Patriots mixing up their approach, but that is always a difficult thing to do at this point in the season and a risky way to approach any game of football.
Defensively, Arian Foster will be the focus in any second matchup, like he was in the first. Foster started well against the Patriots last time out, but finished the game with a limited impact. Much like the way Watt would be expected to adapt on defense, the Texans' offense should change to a spread attack in order to take advantage of the Patriots' weaknesses this time around. Last time the Texans tried to use their best to overcome the Patriots' strengths on defense instead of targeting their weak spots.
Even though the Patriots won't be able to face the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend no matter what happens, they will likely be supporting them all the way in advancing this weekend. Andrew Luck may be a superstar quarterback who could decimate the Patriots on second viewing, but the Indianapolis Colts' defense would be severely overwhelmed in a second matchup. The Ravens have plenty of playoff experience, but are fortunate to even be in this postseason, nevermind beat one of then best teams in the league.