Not that our opinions actually mattered, but at the start of yesterdays overtime between the Steelers and Broncos, Patriots fans were faced with an interesting question:
Whom would they rather have the Pats play next?
Was it Pittsburgh, with its beaten down defense, no-name running game and quarterback who was now as immobile on the field as he was hide-your-daughters creepy off of it?
Or was it Denv Boom!
Before you could even finish the thought, Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard score to knock out the Steelers and render the whole argument insignificant. Although, we all wanted Denver anyway, right? Right?!
Of course we did.
Heading into this weekend, the Steelers were the only potential opponent to strike fear in New England's hopes to avoid a fourth straight playoff loss. The Bengals were a joke. Tebow Time had long run out. The Steelers, and only the Steelers, were the team who had a chance to come in and ruin another Patriots' season.
But after watching what Denver did yesterday, are you still that convinced that the Curse of David Tyree I've got copyrights on that, Shaughnessy. Don't even think about it! is ready to run out?
On one hand, you only need to look back as far as Week 15 to realize how capable the Pats are of dominating Denver. Outside of a frustrating first quarter which is the only way these Pats know how to play the opening frame they treated the Broncos like dirt. And that was in Denver, at the height of Tebow Mania, before they lost offensive lineman Chris Kuper for the season and now, very likely, Eric Decker. The Pats destroyed the Broncos when they were at their very best, so it's hard to imagine or expect anything less when the two reconvene on Saturday night.
Then again, regular season success hasn't really helped the Patriots much in recent years. As you know, they've now lost three straight playoff games, and all three came against teams that they'd already beaten that same season. They beat the Giants 38-35 in Week 17 of 2007, and lost in the Super Bowl, 17-14. They beat the Ravens 27-21 in Week 4 of 2009, and lost 33-14 in the playoffs. And most recently (and probably the most comparable situation to this one), the Pats beat the Jets 45-3 in Week 13 last season. You remember that? Remember how that's all anyone could talk about heading into the playoffs? How that game was proof positive that the Jets had absolutely no shot of coming in here and walking away with a win?
The Patriots were 9.5-point favorites heading into that game, and finished up as seven-point losers. On Saturday, they'll take the field as 14-point favorites, and will likely face a very different Denver team than the one they saw in December. The defense has been taken down a peg, the offense has taken a few major injury-related hits. Who knows how Willis McGahee's confidence is after that huge potential-season-ending fumble? And of course, Tebow Time isn't what it once was.
While he may have led his team to another improbable victory, it wasn't anything like those head scratchers from Denver's mid-season run. There were no onside kicks, two point conversions, phantom fumbles or idiots out of bounds. Instead, it was just a solid quarterback playing a relatively sound (and consistent) game against a very good (albeit beaten down) defense. Perhaps that makes him more apt to take on the Patriots, but if anything, the superhuman mystique has certainly worn off. There will be no question in the Pats minds that they're up against a mere mortal. But given recent history, there's also no question that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted. We've been here before. We've assumed too much and been burned in ways that haven't yet healed.
But still, while it might be dangerous to assume the Pats are in for a playoff cake walk against Denver, I'm sure as hell happy they're not playing Pittsburgh.