New England is the trendy pick to return to the Super Bowl, and I get it. You have Tom Brady, you're going deep in the playoffs.
And probably another Super Bowl.
But I'll give you three teams that could serve as land mines for the Patriots in January, and, nope, Pittsburgh isn't one of them: 1) Kansas City; 2) Baltimore and 3) the Patriots themselves.
Let's begin with the Chiefs. After falling apart in midseason, they suddenly look like the team that ran the table the first six weeks of the season ... and that's a potential problem for New England. The Chiefs not only beat the Pats in the season opener; they hammered them ... and that game was in Foxboro.
So they proved they can go there and win.
They have a big-strike offense. Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill are untracked again. Their tight end has over 1,000 yards in catches. They make precious few mistakes, with an NFL-low nine turnovers this season. And, unlike New England, their defense doesn't morph into an open window.
Then there's Baltimore, and, yeah, I know the Ravens aren't a playoff lock. Not yet. They must beat Cincinnati next week. But if they make it to January, beware. They're hot. Their quarterback is back on his game. He's been to the Super Bowl before ... where he won. And their defense is always a factor, with a league-leading 33 takeaways.
But this is what matters most: They're not afraid of the Patriots. Twice they've gone into Foxboro and won playoff games, including the 2012 conference championship.
Then, of course, there are the Patriots themselves. Their defense can be porous, there's virtually no pass rush and Brady hasn't been Tom Terrific the past month -- throwing an interception in five straight games. It's that last item that's most significant because when Brady is on ... when he's MVP good ... he's so damned accomplished the Patriots can overcome glaring shortcomings ... like their defense.
But if he's not ... uh-oh.
IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE ... THE END OF THE SEASON
- The Patriots should reserve a playoff share for Alberto Riveron.
- Not often I agree with former officiating head Dean Blandino, but he's right when he says officials are "overly technical." But so is the league they work for. Too many flags + too many reviews = unwatchable games. Memo to Roger Goodell: Make players ... not officials ... decide games.
- Everyone keeps telling me that it's Minnesota ... no, New Orleans ... that's the biggest threat in the NFC, but if and when Philadelphia gains home-field advantage Monday, I automatically minimize the chances of both the Saints and Vikings going to Super Bowl LII. And the reason is simple: Dome teams simply don't win conference championship games when they're played outdoors. You can look it up.
- So that's what happens when Jacksonville faces adversity. Players taunting opponents and each other, sideline arguments, stupid penalties and Blake Bortles turning into Blake Bortles again. Wonder why you can't trust these guys in the playoffs? Rewind the video to Sunday's loss.
- Better not fall asleep on Carolina in the playoffs. The Panthers have an aggressive defense that just sacked Jameis Winston six times, a legit running game and a quarterback who's been to the Super Bowl. Plus, there's this: They can win on the road. They're 5-2 there this year.
- I don't want to hear about how difficult it is for West Coast teams to travel. The only road wins Sunday were by Seattle, the Chargers and the Rams.
- If the CDC (Centers for Disease Controls) can release a list of forbidden words (and it did), so can we ... and I suggest we start with this: "Complete the process." Makes me sick.
- Lot of talk about Sean McVay and Doug Marrone for Coach of the Year, with the smart money on McVay. But why no Sean Payton? Changed the personality of the Saints in one year, and look what happened.
- From the Believe-It-Or-Don't Dept.: The Chargers have one more victory (2) at MetLife Stadium this season than the Giants (1). What's more, they're not out of the playoff picture. Really.
- Good for Cincinnati and Marvin Lewis. Glad to see the Bengals respond with more than a pulse in Marvin's last home game.
- San Francisco GM John Lynch has my early vote for Executive of the Year. Reason: He's the guy who pulled Jimmy Garoppolo away from the Patriots ... and for a second-round pick. Garoppolo is the real deal, and skeptics can sit down after what he did to Jacksonville. The guy can't lose, and you can look it up. He's 4-0 with the 49ers and 6-0 overall.
- If the Jets' Todd Bowles is on the hot seat, he shouldn't be. Won five more games than predicted.
- Let's just get it over with now, and put Larry Fitzgerald in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- Heard one broadcaster describe Jameis Winston as "the superstar" of the Bucs-Carolina game because .... well, because he threw for 367 yards. To which I say: Huh? He lost three fumbles and was sacked six times. Plus, he lost a game before losing his cool. "Superstar?" Please. The only thing the guy did right was apologize to referee Jerome Bulger afterward.
- Guess we found out whom the Cowboys miss most on offense ... and it's not Zeke. It's left tackle Tyron Smith.
- Here's why I wouldn't discount the Rams in the playoffs: Jared Goff on the road. Not only is he 7-1 there but he's thrown 18 touchdown passes on the road, with just two interceptions.
- More proof that size doesn't matter: Dion Lewis. Next to Brady and Gronk, the 5-8 back is New England's most dangerous threat. He can do anything and everything ... and usually does.
- Sorry, but don't get the Jon Gruden fascination. Yeah, he won a Super Bowl at Tampa ... with Tony Dungy's players. But then what? Well, then he went 45-51 and never won another playoff game. Be careful what you wish for, Tampa.
- Stop if you've heard this before: The Cleveland Browns clinched the No. 1 pick of the draft. It's the first time someone had the first pick two years in a row since ... well, since the Browns did it in 1999 and 2000.
- Let's hear it for Arizona defensive back Antoine Bethea, and not just because he had two interceptions of Eli Manning Sunday ... but because he took 10 families shopping for Christmas the day before.
CLEVELAND COACH HUE JACKSON. Now there are reports he may have lost the team ... and why should that surprise anyone? He's lost everything else.
COLTS' PK ADAM VINATIERI. Two field-goal misses might not seem like a big deal, but it cost him a $500,000 bonus and a lifetime of free meals at Shapiro's. Vinatieri had to make 90 percent of his kicks this year to earn the check, and he's at 84.5 now. Of course, if he hits all 18 in the season finale he could get there.
DALLAS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR SCOTT LINEHAN. You have Zeke Elliott in the lineup, and you have the ball at the Seattle 3. So why don't you give it to him, and tell everyone else to get out of his way? I'd ask Linehan to report to the principal's office, but I think Jerry wants to see him first.
ATLANTA RB DEVONTA FREEMAN. Once upon a time he was a goal-line threat. But he failed in three goal-line situations the past two weeks, including two fumbles -- one of which cost the Falcons a sure score Sunday... and maybe, just maybe, the playoffs, too.
DETROIT COACH JIM CALDWELL. When Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken clavicle, I thought the Lions were the team that would move forward. They didn't. Instead, they lost three of their last five and stumbled through a game Sunday they absolutely, positively had to have ... vs. an opponent outscored 67-14 the previous two weeks. Now they're out of the playoffs. Again. Awful.
DALLAS QB DAK PRESCOTT. He was supposed to flourish with the return of Ezekiel Elliott, but he didn't. Instead, he stunk -- sacked four times and throwing multiple interceptions (he had two) with no TD passes for the fourth time in the past six games.
GIANTS' INTERIM COACH STEVE SPAGNUOLO. If this was an audition for the real deal, you flunked the final.
RAMS' COACH SEAN McVAY. The youngest coach in the NFL just scored the Rams' first division championship since 2003.
SEATTLE QB RUSSELL WILSON. Congratulations. You not only kept your team in the playoff picture, but you're back in the MVP conversation.
CHIEFS' COACH ANDY REID. That's two division titles and four playoff appearances in five years in Kansas City. No wonder he dressed up as Santa at the post-game news conference. It's the season of giving, and Reid just delivered a second consecutive AFC West championship to K.C.
NEW ORLEANS CB MARSHON LATTIMORE. It's one thing to make an interception, but it's quite another to make a pickoff with your ... um, butt. Bottom's up, Marshon. And Merry Christmas.
RAMS' RB TODD GURLEY. The guy is a monster, with over 100 yards rushing and over 150 yards receiving vs. Tennessee, and now he's a legit MVP candidate. Oh, yeah, he also had two more TDs. Anyway, he's the third player in NFL history to have 2,000 scrimmage yards, 10 rushing TDs and five or more receiving scores in a single season. The other two are in the Hall of Fame.
CAROLINA QB CAM NEWTON. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Newton was both on that game-winning TD.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES. He just extended his league record to 12 consecutive seasons with 4,000 or more passing yards. He also became just the third quarterback ever to throw for 70,000 career yards.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. It's not just that his latest victory makes him 28-3 vs. Buffalo. It's that it makes him the only quarterback in league history to have a dozen 12-win seasons.
SUNDAY'S SECRET SANTA
RAMS QB JARED GOFF. The Rams clinched the NFC West for the first time since 2003, and it was partly due to MVP candidate Todd Gurley and mostly due to Goff. All he did was throw for a career-best four touchdown passes -- including two to Gurley -- as the Rams solidified their hold on the third seed in the NFC playoffs. When you start handicapping the NFC field, don't forget these guys. They have weapons galore and can play defense. Moreover, they're the one team that can match scores with the Eagles.
THE NEW YORK GIANTS. Just when you think it can't get any worse ... this happens. A week ago, the Giants came this close to stunning Philadelphia. Now, they're blanked for the first time since Oct. 12, 2014, in the house where Eli Manning and the Giants scored one of the biggest upsets in NFL history -- a Super Bowl XLII defeat of previously unbeaten New England. But this time ... well, this time Manning stunk. There was no running game. There wasn't enough defense. In short, it was a disgrace. Look for wholesale changes in the offseason, with Manning one of them.