The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Foxborough, Mass.
Which would seem to make it somewhere between likely and very likely that the New England Patriots will be headed to Minneapolis for their eighth Super Bowl appearance with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback, seeking their sixth Super Bowl triumph.
The Patriots took care of their final bit of regular season business Sunday by beating the New York Jets, 26-6, at home. That clinched the conference’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots will play a conference semifinal at home. If there is a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC title game, as so many expect, it will be played in New England.
The Steelers could not come close to winning in Foxborough in last season’s AFC championship game. They could not beat the Patriots in Pittsburgh earlier this month. There is no tangible reason to believe they will go to Foxborough and beat the Patriots during this postseason.
That’s why the Patriots-Steelers clash during this regular season mattered so much. And it’s why Jets-Patriots on Sunday mattered quite a bit.
The Patriots avoided the sort of misstep they made two years ago. Then, they lost the regular season finale to the Miami Dolphins and the AFC’s top seed slipped from their grasp. That season’s AFC title game was played in Denver, not in Foxborough. The Patriots could not block Von Miller and the Broncos’ other pass rushers. It was the Broncos, not the Patriots, who advanced to the Super Bowl and dominated the overmatched Carolina Panthers. That was a bitterly disappointing ending to a season for the Patriots amid their astounding run of sustained excellence.
There was no repeat Sunday. Brady was good, with two touchdown passes, but not great. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was healthy and on the field but all but absent from the offense, with no catches. Tailback Dion Lewis was productive, and the New England defense took advantage of the deficiencies of Jets quarterback Bryce Petty and the New York offense. Linebacker James Harrison, just signed after being released by the Patriots, had two sacks in his Patriots debut.
Belichick, never missing a trick, reportedly had large thermometers placed prominently near the Jets’ locker room, so that New York’s players were sure to be reminded just how cold and miserable the conditions were. Accordingly, the Jets’ offense remained in a deep freeze.
The Jets finished their season with five victories, about five more than some had expected from them when the season began, and they already have made the decision to retain Coach Todd Bowles and General Manager Mike Maccagnan by announcing Friday they’d extended the duo’s contracts.
But the Jets could not create the same problem for the Patriots that the Dolphins created for them two years ago. There will be a distinct feeling of inevitability to the AFC playoffs when they begin.
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