AFC Playoffs: Are The Patriots Still Super Bowl Favorites?

December 19, 2015 • Joe Messineo • AFC East, Features, Front Page, New England Patriots

Going into this weekend, the Patriots had had a rough couple of weeks. They’d gone from being the undefeated darlings of the NFL to being the third seed in the AFC playoffs. They’d lost two consecutive games, the first to their most important competition (the Denver Broncos, who still have that tiebreaker in hand, should they need it) and the second to what was then presumed to be a terrible team (the Philadelphia Eagles, though they won again last week and are starting to look decent).

Then, as quickly as they’d lost their mojo, the Patriots seemed to regain it. Hot on the heels of their two losses, the Patriots put on a dominating performance against exactly the type of team that’s supposed to be their kryptonite. In the face of the tough Houston Texans pass rush, the Patriots put up 27 points and waltzed out of the stadium with a victory. They are once again the number one seed in the AFC playoffs, and they are once again favorites to win the Super Bowl. Are they really back? Is it time to believe again?

The Return of the Gronk

Perhaps the biggest factor in the Patriots’ return to form was the return of TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is the best tight end in the history of football, and it’s just about impossible to understate the effect he has on this team. Gronkowski forces opposing teams to change their coverage schemes to accommodate him. He gives Brady a reliable short-range end zone option as well as an explosive threat. He’s tall, breaks tackles, and can line up as either a tight end or a receiver. Don’t get us wrong––not every quarterback could use Gronkowski as effectively as Brady, an all-time great, does––but there’s no denying that Gronkowski is the most essential non-quarterback on the Patriots’ team.

We saw how Brady struggled without his starting tight end and two of his receivers. Even all-time greats need people to throw to. But with even just one of his receivers back, Brady can be marginally effective; give him back his tight end, and he can score practically at will even against elite pass rushes. Patriots fans will wait for the return of their other injured stars, but the most important injured playmaker is back.

What Weaknesses?

The best plan for beating the Patriots is the same plan that works against any team built around a great quarterback: a vicious pass rush and strong secondary play. That’s why teams like the Bills and Broncos can give the Patriots so much trouble. But the Texans are exactly that type of team––and the Patriots just proved that they could beat them anyway.

With fewer of his key receiving options injured, Brady is simply too good to be contained forever. He will score, as he did against the Texans, and then many defensive-minded teams will find themselves without the offense to keep up. Poor Brian Hoyer looked completely outclassed on Sunday night.

Causes for Concern Remain

The Patriots look a lot better with Gronkowski back in the lineup, but they’re still dealing with a ton of injuries – including some key ones that were suffered in Sunday’s game. Safety Devin McCourty may be the most crucial loss, as the Patriots are already pretty weak against the pass. Running back LaGarrette Blount’s injury is a close competitor, though, as the Patriots are already very thin at his position. Defensive linesman Dominique Easley and LB Jonathan Freeny also went down in Sunday’s game.

The good news is that none of these injuries appear to threaten playoff status for the players involved. The bad news, of course, is that the Patriots still have regular-season games left to play that these guys might miss.

Even with these injuries, though, there is more reason for hope than despair in New England. The Patriots are rolling once more, and they’ve shown a great ability to work through injuries that don’t involve their key pass-catching threats. With Gronkowski back already and most other important players scheduled to return in time for the playoffs, the Patriots look like favorites to win it all.

Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

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