The Denver Broncos aren’t the most blessed franchise entering Saturday night’s second-round AFC playoff game.
Not to blaspheme what Tebow and his overachieving teammates have accomplished or the subsequent hysteria steeped in religious overtones.
But the New England Patriots are the true team of destiny in the AFC Super Bowl race.
This isn’t just because New England (13-3) has the conference’s best record, home-field advantage throughout the postseason and one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses. Nor solely because it enters Saturday’s contest as a two-touchdown favorite after drumming the Tebow-led Broncos, 41-23, on the road four weeks ago.
The Patriots have an element entering the playoffs that was missing the past three seasons. It’s nothing that Bill Belichick can coach, Robert Kraft can buy or Tom Brady can harness like command of New England’s high-powered passing attack.
A simple, honest-to-goodness roll of the dice that keeps coming up sevens and elevens for a franchise with a recent history of crapping out in the end.
The postseason pieces haven’t fallen into place this nicely for New England since its last Super Bowl appearance. Back then, the 2007 Patriots were healthy and clicking on all cylinders following a 16-0 regular-season record.
They also had the benefit of favorable playoff matchups. Rather than a divisional-round game against the battle-tested Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots got to host Jacksonville thanks to a Jaguars upset the previous weekend. New England then got another boost when Indianapolis — the club that had beaten the Patriots in the previous AFC title game en route to winning Super Bowl XLI — was upset at home by San Diego.
After dispatching the overmatched Jaguars, the Patriots did the same to San Diego in the AFC title game. The Chargers proved a tougher test but couldn’t overcome the loss of running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who left with an injury after two carries, or the fact Philip Rivers wasn’t at full strength because of a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament.
New England’s good fortune finally expired with a loss to the underdog New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since.
Some might call it karma from Spygate or comeuppance from the 2002 “tuck rule” playoff game against Oakland. Regardless, consider the cruel blows of fate dealt to New England’s past three teams:
1. The 2008 Patriots lost Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Kansas City. New England then became the first 11-5 club to miss the playoffs since 1985, when they were edged for a wild-card berth.
2. The 2009 Patriots lost wide receiver Wes Welker — the key cog in their passing game that year — to a major knee injury during the regular-season finale at Houston. The remaining Patriots joined Welker at home following a first-round loss to visiting Baltimore.
3. The 2010 Patriots were the best squad on paper since New England’s last Super Bowl entrant. They rolled to a 14-2 record and drew what seemed a favorable rematch against the New York Jets after that team’s first-round upset win in Indianapolis.
As it turned out, New England would have been better off had the Colts won to send Baltimore into Gillette Stadium.
In a far cry from the 45-3 loss suffered six weeks earlier, Jets head coach Rex Ryan developed a masterful defensive game plan to stymie Brady. He also got into the head of Patriots players with his bluster. Belichick benched Welker for the game’s first series because of mocking comments made about Ryan’s foot fetish scandal. New England’s offense never got into a rhythm, and the defense couldn’t carry the load in a 28-21 loss.
“It’s horrible,” Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said Thursday of his team’s recent playoff losses. “We were in good situations. To come up short like that was very difficult. It stays with you for a while.”
That’s the most revealing thing Patriots players were going to say about couldas, wouldas and shouldas. The roster has followed Belichick’s lead the past two weeks by deflecting questions about past failings to defuse the negative and keep focus on the task at hand.
“This is a different team than we’ve had the past few years,” said Mankins, who joined the Patriots in 2005. “There are a lot of different guys, and every year I think a team’s mindset is different.”
So are New England’s Super Bowl prospects thanks to some help from forces that can’t be controlled?
The Patriots were able to procure the AFC’s No. 1 seed after playing a soft regular-season schedule that included only three eventual playoff teams as well as no opponents that finished with winning records in the final eight games. Just as important, New England was able to avoid major injuries along the way.
A former Patriots assistant coach then fell into the team’s lap to help for playoff preparation. After firing the rest of their coaching staff, the St. Louis Rams allowed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels out of his contract to rejoin New England for its playoff run. McDaniels spent most of the 2010 season personally coaching Tebow in Denver, giving him added insight into the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. He also provides another set of expert eyes in devising a game plan to attack Denver’s staunch defense.
And the final sign that the kavorka is lifted: A potentially messy second-round rematch against Pittsburgh — which picked apart New England’s pass defense and kept Brady on the sideline for most of a 25-17 home victory in October — was averted when Denver pulled last week’s 29-23 upset of the Steelers.
A victory over the Broncos (9-8) guarantees a home AFC title game matchup against the winner of Sunday’s Houston-Baltimore game. New England would be favored against either. The Texans are reduced to starting a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates — which is usually bad news against a Belichick-coached team — while the Ravens had a .500 road record in 2011.
Mind you, this is a far more flawed Patriots squad than the one that came so close to perfection. The defense ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed. New England also can’t fall behind by 17 or more points and expect to win like in its final two regular-season home games against Miami and Buffalo.
Mankins, though, believes such resiliency bodes well for the future.
“We’ve had a few games where we’ve come out the first quarter and played horrible but guys never gave up,” he said. “We knew if we kept playing hard that guys would make some plays, get us back in the game, and we’d have a chance to win.
“In years past, I don’t know if we had that all the time. But this year we’ve been tough.”
And blessed in their own way.
“Luck is part of all sports – always,” Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork told FOXSports.com. “Sometimes, you have to be lucky. I’d rather be lucky than unlucky.”