Familiar foe awaits Pats in playoffs, whoever it may be
FOXBOROUGH -- The New England Patriots don't know yet who they'll face in their playoff opener.
But they do have firsthand knowledge about all three potential opponents.
The Patriots, after all, have already played every one of them. They routed the Indianapolis Colts 59-24 and the Houston Texans 42-14 and lost to the Baltimore Ravens 31-30 on a last-play field goal.
So until the he finds out, coach Bill Belichick is playing it safe. The Patriots will focus on themselves, first and foremost. And as for the opponents? Well ...
"We'll work on everybody," the coach said Wednesday.
New England (12-4) will be home for the divisional round on Jan. 13 against the Texans if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Saturday's AFC wild-card game. If Houston loses, New England will host the winner of Sunday's game between Baltimore and Indianapolis.
"After the Houston game, we'll either be full-speed ahead on Houston," Belichick said, "or we'll put that in the drawer and wait and see what happens in the next game."
Either way, New England will be an interested viewer from afar this weekend. And none of the options will be easy, so any extended look the Patriots can get could prove valuable.
Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones doesn't know if he'll be trying to sack Houston's Matt Schaub, Baltimore's Joe Flacco or Indianapolis' Andrew Luck. So, like his teammates, he'll watch film and concentrate on self-improvement this week. He'll also review his own handwritten notes from previous games.
"I have a big stack of notes, actually, that I keep," Jones said, "So it's good to have those things to look at certain tendencies. I can't really talk so much about the Colts because I didn't really play. I was injured [in the first quarter], but, definitely, you can go back through those notes."
All three possible foes have changed since facing the Patriots. The Ravens, in fact, have had alterations on the coaching staff and lost four of their last five games.
"There's a lot more information since the time we played them," Belichick said. "That definitely needs to be analyzed."
The Patriots were leading 30-20 before Flacco threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with 4:01 left. Justin Tucker's 27-yard kick won the game two plays after a 27-yard pass interference penalty against Devin McCourty gave Baltimore the ball at the New England 7-yard line.
The loss dropped the Patriots to 1-2, their first sub-.500 record since they lost the 2003 opener. But by the time the Colts visited on Nov. 18, the Patriots were 6-3 and on a roll.
New England quarterback Tom Brady outplayed Luck and the Patriots received a huge boost from the defense and special teams. Aqib Talib, in his first game since being traded from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and rookie Alfonzo Dennard returned interceptions for touchdowns. And Julian Edelman brought back a punt for another.
"As a defensive back, we have short-term memories," Talib said, "so I don't remember too much about the game. I'm kind of worried about getting ready this week."
The Patriots' win streak had reached six games when the Texans came to town with the NFL's best record and second most points.
They left with a beating.
Brady threw four touchdown passes, all before six minutes were gone in the third quarter and the home team cruised to victory.
"We can't predict the score but we know we can dominate games," McCourty, who had a first-quarter interception, said after the game.
The Patriots did lose to the San Francisco 49ers the next week 41-34, then struggled to beat the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars 23-16. But they rebounded with their first shutout since Oct. 18, 2009, a 28-0 romp over the Miami Dolphins in the regular-season finale last Sunday.
New England also had a bye after its eighth game, a 45-7 win over the St. Louis Rams in London. Afterward, the Patriots won five straight games, starting with a 37-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
But this break is much different.
"After the St. Louis game, we knew we were playing Buffalo so there was a certain element of preparation that we could start on with them, even the next couple games after that," Belichick said. "Now it's just a one-game season. We don't know who our opponent is. We're doing things that we think will help our football team."
Like giving them three days off after Thursday's practice.
"You can't take a week off," guard Donald Thomas said. "You have to just keep working, keep preparing, just try to get better each day and put the work in. So, next week, when we know who we're playing, we can really focus on them."
Some players will be glued to their televisions for the wild-card games.
"I'll watch every game this weekend closely," safety Steve Gregory said.
Others won't ... or so they say.
"I'll be hunting," said running back Stevan Ridley, a native of Mississippi. "I'm going down South."
All of them will be back by Monday, though, when the identity of their opponent is no longer a mystery.
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