Pats await Broncos, Steelers or Bengals in playoffs

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Pats await Broncos, Steelers or Bengals in playoffs

FOXBORO -- So now we know who the Patriots can't play in their first-round playoff game two weeks from now at Gillette Stadium: They can't play the Ravens or the Texans. (Actually, they knew going into today that they couldn't play the Texans . . . but that's besides the point.)
That means it'll be either Denver, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati coming to Foxboro for what the NFL calls the "divisional round", but is, in actuality, the AFC semifinals.

And we now also know that one of those teams will play the Patriots on Saturday, January 14, at 8 p.m.

Here's how it shook out:
The Ravens clinched the AFC North title, and the No. 2 seed, by beating the Bengals, 24-16. Baltimore, like New England, receives a first-round bye.
Cincinnati, however, qualified for the playoffs despite the loss because both the Broncos and Raiders lost. (The Bengals only needed one of them to lose, but both came through.) They're the No. 6 seed, and they'll travel to Houston for a wild-card weekend matchup next Saturday.
Because both the Broncos and Raiders lost, Denver -- and Tim Tebow -- won the AFC West and the No. 4 seed. Denver lost to Kansas City, 7-3, but got help from San Diego, which beat Oakland, 38-26. The Broncos are seeded fourth and will host the Steelers, the No. 5 seed, in a wild-card matchup on Sunday.
The Steelers finished 12-4 after their 13-9 win over the Browns, but -- because they lost both their meetings with Baltimore this year -- had to finish with a better record than the Ravens to win the AFC North. They both went 12-4, and thus Baltimore gets the division title.
In the 1 p.m. games, the Jets eliminated themselves with a 19-17 loss at Miami that drew raucous cheers from the Gillette Stadium crowd. The Titans won a thriller,beating the Texans, 23-22, to keep their hopes alive for a few hours, but the Jets' loss meant that Tennessee could only make it if the Bengals lost and both the Raiders and Broncos won. Their trifecta didn't come through.
So the conference seeds are: 1, New England. 2, Baltimore. 3, Houston. 4, Denver. 5, Pittsburgh. 6, Cincinnati. Next weekend, the matchups are 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. Then they'll be reseeded, and the Pats will play the No. 4 seed.
(The reason they can't play Baltimore or Houston? The Ravens are guaranteed to be the No. 2 seed, and the Texans, if they win next weekend, will be the No. 3.)
For the Patriots to avoid the Steelers -- whom, we must assume, will beat Denver next weekend -- in the first round, the Bengals must win in Houston.

Brady allows himself to enjoy win: '[Bleep], you've got to be happy now'

Brady allows himself to enjoy win: '[Bleep], you've got to be happy now'

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady can be his own worst critic. That's why last week, after beating the Texans in the Divisional Round to move on to the AFC title game, he wasn't thrilled. He didn't play up to his standards. The offense struggled at points. He wore his frustration like a five o'clock shadow.

Winning is not everything for Brady, most weeks. He has an idea of how he should perform, how the Patriots offense should perform, and when those ideals aren't met, he's generally displeased. 

PATRIOTS 36, STEELERS 17

On Sunday, after beating up on the Steelers, 36-17, that wasn't the case. It was a sound performance, but it wasn't perfect. It was explosive at times, but it shined a light on areas where the Patriots will need to continue to improve. 

Despite its imperfections, Sunday was no time to brood about plays missed or lessons learned the hard way. Screw it, Brady seemed to say. They were going to the Super Bowl. It was OK to smile.  

"It was a good day," Brady said. "I mean, we're going to the Super Bowl, man. [Expletive], you've got to be happy now."

The Super Bowl berth is the ninth in franchise history -- more than any other club -- and the seventh with Brady and coach Bill Belichick. By throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns on 32-of-42 passing, Brady tied Joe Montana for the most postseason games (nine) with three touchdown passes. 

Brady will also claim the record for Super Bowls played when he and the Patriots head to Houston. And if they win, he'll tie Charles Haley for most Super Bowl wins for a player (five).

Those are lofty numbers made even more significant, perhaps, due to the fact that Brady wasn't allowed to start this season as his team's quarterback. He was asked during Sunday's postgame press conference if it was personally satisfying to get back to the Super Bowl despite having to serve a four-game suspension due to Deflategate.

"Well, that's because of the hard work of a lot of people from my coaches to my teammates to our families that support us," he said. "It takes a lot of people, a lot of hard work and a lot of effort over the course of many months. This didn't start at 6:40 tonight.

"This thing started in April. It really started before that in free-agency when we were picking up guys like [Chris] Hogan and drafting guys like Malcolm Mitchell and guy who were in rehab like [LeGarrette Blount] and [Dion Lewis] and [James Develin] and Nate [Solder]. It's a lot of hard work. There are only two teams left standing, and I'm happy we're one of them."

They're going to the Super Bowl. He has to be happy now.