Patriots playoff preview: Five things to watch for in the postseason

Win McNamee

As the New England Patriots head to the playoffs for another shot at the Super Bowl, here's a look at their chances and the five most important things to keep an eye on.

After running away with the AFC East division for the fourth consecutive season, the New England Patriots are headed back to the postseason once again. A late-season collapse by the top-seeded Houston Texans has allowed the Pats to jump into the AFC’s No. 2 slot and secure a first round bye-week.

In the final edition of "five things to watch for", here are five key elements to keep an eye on during this year’s playoffs.

Who gets the bulk of the carries?

(Then) rookie Stevan Ridley caught headlines during last season’s playoffs when he was benched for both the AFC title game and the Super Bowl after making a key fumble against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. The former Louisiana State Tiger has been phenomenal this year, but struggled with his ball control as the season went on. Fellow sophomore tailback Shane Vereen has been spectacular on occasion – the 83-yard catch-and-run against the Jets on Thanksgiving night comes to mind – but hasn’t shown the necessary consistency to warrant much playing time in the postseason. Danny Woodhead has been almost the opposite of Vereen in the sense that he’s been the same steady presence in the New England lineup all season long. The only downside to No. 39 is that he isn’t nearly as effective in the traditional running attack as he is in sporadic draw plays and receptions out of the backfield.

At full health, can the offensive line remain steady?

Holding Texans’ monster pass-rusher J.J. Watt without a sack, tackle-for-loss or pass-deflection back in Week 14 was truly a remarkable achievement for the Patriots’ offensive line. However, just one week later, the O-line could not withstand the defensive front-seven of the San Francisco 49ers, allowing three sacks and five tackles for a loss. When they begin the playoffs next weekend, the Patriots will likely have all five of their original starters on the offensive line back at full health. This fact cannot be overlooked as potential playoff opponents in the AFC boast superstar pass-rushers like Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil (Denver), Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (Indianapolis), Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs (Baltimore) and Watt and Antonio Smith (Houston).

Can the defense make a play with the season on the line?

At the end of each of the last two Super Bowls, the Patriots defense had a shot to stop the Giants and claim an NFL championship. On both tries, they were unsuccessful. Whether it be the first round, the conference title game or the Super Bowl, the defense will likely be asked to make a stop like that with the season on the line. Whether or not this year will be different is anyone’s guess. Versatile lineman Rob Ninkovich, rookie defensive end Chandler Jones and ferocious middle linebacker Brandon Spikes have all shown the ability to make to make a big play in a key spot. This trio, along with defensive captains Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork will be heavily relied upon if the Patriots hope to stop some of the high-powered offenses that they will be up against in the postseason.

Patriots went 2-1 against their potential divisional round opponents

The only three teams that the Patriots could possibly play against on Sunday January 13 at Gillette Stadium are the Houston Texans (No. 3 seed), Baltimore Ravens (No. 4 seed) and Indianapolis Colts (No. 5 seed). New England bested both the Texans and the Colts on home-field this season by considerable margins while the Ravens got the better of the Pats early in the year down in Baltimore. On paper, New England looks to be a much stronger team than the Colts, but with head coach Chuck Pagano back from his battle with cancer, Indianapolis seems to be hitting their stride at the right time. The Texans still have an extraordinarily deep and balanced team, but have been in an utter tailspin since losing to the Patriots in early December. In this scribe’s opinion, the Ravens would present the Patriots with their toughest possible match-up in the second round during what would be a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game. With Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs both back and healthy, the Ravens are just as good as anyone in the NFL.

Patriots will return to the Super Bowl… IF …

Being able to secure the bye-week was of immense importance to the Patriots. Not only did they get the chance to get some key players back to full health, but they’ve also been set up with a lot easier of a path to the big game. No matter who the opponent is next week, I’d likely pick New England to win, as I firmly believe that they are better than the Texans, Ravens and Colts. However, the conference title game is where it gets real tricky. While I do believe that the Broncos may be overrated (especially on defense), I would find it awfully tough to pick the Patriots (or any team from the AFC, for that matter) to win on the road in Denver. Mile High has been a house of horrors for Tom Brady for as long as I can remember and Broncos’ signal caller Peyton Manning has seen just about every exotic defensive formation that Bill Belichick can throw at him from his days back in Indy. In conclusion, I’d like New England’s chances against every other AFC opponent, except the Broncos. If the game was to be played in Foxboro, it’d be a whole different story all together.

Thank you for a remarkable season

In my first year writing about the Patriots, I have been blessed to see yet another superb season from Bill Belichick’s bunch. It was a wonderful ride that hopefully won’t end until a parade cruises down the streets of Boston in the first week of February. However, with the recent renovations here at SB Nation, you will no longer be able to find me on the Boston regional site. Fortunately, it looks like I may have something else lined up to continue providing you all with the best Patriots coverage that I possibly can. Please stay tuned to my Twitter account (@_BWoodward) for more on this exciting new venture!

I urge you all to also follow along with my dear friend, the editor here at SB Nation Boston, Gethin Coolbaugh. I’d like to sincerely thank Mr. Coolbaugh for allowing me this opportunity to share my love of football with all of you during this season. Be sure to keep up with him and his top-notch work for the NBA on NBC!

It has been an absolute honor to provide you all, the great fans of New England football, with my thoughts and opinions on the Patriots all season long. It is your passion, commitment and dedication to the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox and Celtics that truly make Boston the greatest sports city on planet earth. I am eternally grateful for all of your support this season and hope to continue talking sports with you both now and into the future!

For more New England Patriots coverage, visit our team blog, Pats Pulpit.

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