Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Consistency is Pats' priority
But just because it'll be the first thing on everybody else's mind doesn't mean playoff seeding will be the Patriots' first priority on Sunday. Nor should it be.
If New England had handled its business in a more confidence-fostering fashion last Sunday in Jacksonville, rather than struggling to survive as a 23-16 victor over the lowly Jaguars, then perhaps the it could approach its regular-season finale with a broader view.
Had the Pats played well in that game, followin up on a good second half against the 49ers, then maybe they could keep an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard and try to manipulate the final seedings by giving a less-than-full effort if that's what they believed would render the scenario most in their favor.
However, the Patriots lost that right last weekend. When they "played pretty terrible" and were "lucky to win," according to Tom Brady, their focus became more introspective than extrinsic. Coupled with 35 bad minutes against the 49ers a week earlier, when they fell into a 31-3 hole, their performance in Jacksonville made clear that before they worry about match-ups and matters beyond their control, the Pats must first reestablish the high level of consistency they'd developed over a seven-game second-half winning streak.
The reemergence of that kind of consistency would mean far more to their playoff chances than any possible seeding could.
"It's always about consistency," New England coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "I think you can look at every team in the league and find good plays and players doing things really well. These are professional football players. They're very talented. They can do a lot of things. The good teams, the good players - they do them more consistently.
"It's not about talent as much as it is consistent performance - teams and individual players."
The nature of football's postseason puts a particular emphasis on consistency given the way one subpar week - sometimes even one weak half or quarter - can spoil the six months of work it took to get there. There are no second chances, no best-of-seven series, no opportunities for redemption. It's one-and-done.
And if the Patriots play like they did last week, they'll be done no matter which of the other five AFC playoff teams is standing across the line of scrimmage.
So while the Patriots certainly know what's at stake in all the relevant contests, none should matter more to them than their own against Miami - and how seriously they seem to take that test is likely to show whether they understand that.
"I'm sure we'll all be aware of (the scenarios), yeah. No question," Brady said. "But I don't think that changes what our goal is for the weekend. I think we're trying to win this game regardless. It could be different if some other teams win, but that's really out of our control. We're just going to go out and try to win."
That wasn't overtly the case back in 2006, when the Patriots seemed to lose their regular-season finale on purpose in order to give themselves a better wild-card round match-up. And there are some who think the Patriots could benefit from letting the Dolphins beat them again this year if things don't go their way in Sunday's early games.
If Houston beats Indianapolis and Baltimore beats Cincinnati, some believe, the Patriots would give themselves their best chance of a long playoff run by losing and thereby dropping to the No. 4 seed. That assumes the Chiefs are incapable of pulling off a shocker over the currently top-ranked Broncos in Denver.
Under this scenario, New England would host a wild-card tilt against rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts, whom the Pats trounced at Gillette Stadium in November. Then, assuming Baltimore beat Cincinnati in the other AFC prelim, it would mean going to Houston instead of the mile-high and Peyton Manning-filled air of Denver in the divisional round.
Of course, if Houston loses to Indianapolis on Sunday, the Patriots could bypass the first round altogether merely by beating Miami. Or, if Houston and Denver both lose, a Patriots win would give them both a bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC tournament. Or, if Houston and Denver both win, but Baltimore loses to Cincinnati, the Patriots are locked in as the No. 3 seed and will face the Bengals, no matter how they fare against the Dolphins this weekend.
Clearly this could still go a number of ways - none of which is fully within the Patriots' own control, and that should only accentuate the need for them to focus this week on the one thing they can dictate. That's attacking with playoff urgency the way they practice, the way they prepare and the way they perform on Sunday.
"I think it's about playing consistent football, and I think we've got to do a better job of that," Brady said.
"It hasn't been as consistent as we would have liked, but we've still got a chance to improve it."
And before they can focus on what lies ahead, the Patriots first must take full advantage of that chance.
Patriots Pro Bowlers
Seven New England Patriots have been named to the Pro Bowl, including Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork as starters for the AFC team. Tom Brady and Wes Welker were selected as backups, while Matthew Slater was named as the AFC's representative on special teams.
Peyton Manning, who led all players in fan voting, is the AFC starting quarterback. Brady has been named to a team-leading eight Pro Bowls. The game will be played Jan. 27 at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii.
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Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio