Three things we know as the Patriots enter the playoffs with a surprise bye:
It’s not too late for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to send Houston Texans owner Bob McNair a holiday card. After all, the Patriots benefited more than any team from the Texans’ end-of-season implosion. Houston looked like a lock for not only a first-round bye, but also the No. 1 seed after jumping out to an 11-1 start to the year. But a blowout loss to the Patriots on MNF in Week 14 was the start of three losses in the final four weeks of the season. Houston needed to beat the Colts in Indianapolis Sunday to maintain its spot as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but instead it was Colts head coach Chuck Pagano’s return to the team that sparked the Colts to victory.
With Houston losing, the door was left open for the Patriots to earn a bye if they beat the Dolphins on Sunday. It was clear early on that it wouldn’t be an issue, as the Patriots led the 'Fins 21-0 at halftime, en route to the 28-0 win. With the Broncos beating up on the Chiefs Sunday, they take the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. That means that for the Patriots to go back to the Super Bowl, there’s a very good chance they’ll have to go to Denver and play the Peyton Manning-led Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Oh, the excitement!
Welcome back, Gronk
The Texans loss wasn’t the only good news for Patriots fans. The Pats welcomed back to the field Rob Gronkowski, their stud tight end and red zone beast, who missed the last five games with a broken forearm. Simply seeing him healthy enough to suit up – two weeks before the team’s next game – is a great sign, but it got even better. Gronkowski made a big 19-yard catch in the first quarter that set up a Wes Welker touchdown one play later. Later in the fourth, though, he got in on the action himself. Tom Brady found Gronk for a 23-yard touchdown strike to make it 28-0 Patriots. There’s no better way to test out the body than by actually playing – and Gronkowski got enough playing time (and didn’t re-injure the arm) so that he's not rusty for the postseason. With No. 87 presumably as healthy as he can be in the postseason, the Patriots offense gets a huge boost.
All eyes on . . .
There are two teams the Patriots cannot under any circumstances play in the AFC Divisional round: the Broncos and the Bengals. If they are to see either of those two teams, it’ll be in the AFC Championship game, either in Denver or against the Bengals, in Foxboro. While the Patriots relax on the couch, the Texans will host the Bengals, and the Ravens will host the Colts. The Texans and Bengals enter the postseason on opposite ends of the spectrum. While the Texans have backed into the three seed, the Bengals won seven of their last eight games to earn the No. 6 spot. Houston, who will still be favorites, wants a second crack at New England – which they’ll get if they can beat the Bengals. If Cincy wins, however, it’ll be the winner of Ravens/Colts on their way to Foxboro next – with Cincy heading to Denver. The Patriots lost to the Ravens, 31-30, in Baltimore back in Week 3 when kicker Justin Tucker kicked a field goal as time expired in regulation. New England beat up on the Colts in Week 11, 59-24.