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January 01. 2013 8:04PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats are lucky - and very good

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The old adage alleges that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. After preparing for what comes next by winning 12 of their 16 regular-season games, the Patriots certainly have quite an opportunity ahead of them.

It's hard to label it luck, because they've earned it. They went undefeated in their division, won three of their four tilts against other AFC playoff teams and rebounded rather nicely from a disappointing start.

But when the dust settled early Sunday night, and the details of their road to the Super Bowl were revealed, even the circumstances beyond their control left the Pats with a fortuitous path - the end of which will be a disappointment if it isn't in New Orleans.

The only thing that didn't go New England's way was Denver winning its last 11 games and thereby claiming the conference's No. 1 seed. The Patriots were thus forced to settle for No. 2.

Don't be mistaken, though: With the way things are set up, this is the Patriots' conference to win.

The first and most obvious stroke of good fortune came before New England even took the field Sunday, when Indianapolis hammered Houston and gave the Patriots a chance to exercise the tiebreaker they took from the Texans in Week 14. It wasn't the last, however.

Soon after the Pats took care of their own business by beating the Dolphins, 28-0, they received word that they would be playing on Jan. 13 - a Sunday, at 4:30 p.m. With injuries nagging so many key players, every extra day of rest could be helpful (especially for Rob Gronkowski on offense and Aqib Talib on defense), and playing on a regular day in a familiar times lot should allow them to maintain their routine leading up to the divisional round.

The league did New England a small favor with the wild-card weekend schedule, too. If Houston wins, it will be coming to Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots will have had almost eight full days to get their game plan in order. Having faced Houston just a month earlier, the challenge of that meeting will be finding new wrinkles, so the additional day should be to the benefit of Bill Belichick and his staff.

Either way, it's better than the alternative that Denver faces. The Broncos may not learn of their opponent until Sunday, then will be forced to get ready for a Saturday divisional game against either Baltimore or Indianapolis on what essentially becomes a shortened week.

Even if Cincinnati upsets Houston, the Patriots still will have a minimum of seven days to prepare the attack for their next game. And no matter who the opponent turns out to be, New England should find the match-up to its liking.

It could be Houston, which lost to the Patriots 42-14 and now stumbles into the postseason with losses in three of its last four.

It could be Indianapolis, which suffered a 59-24 throttling by the Pats and relies heavily on a host of rookies.

Or it could be Baltimore, which stole a victory from New England in September and now has a roster decimated by age and injury.

The one wild-card participant the Patriots can't face is Cincinnati. And even that's good news for New England.

Their past four playoff losses indicate that the way to eliminate the Patriots is to be overwhelmingly physical and find a way to rattle Tom Brady; the Bengals are a rough-and-tumble bunch that finished one sack shy of the league lead this season. On the other side, the Pats' undoing defensively has been vulnerability against the big play; the Bengals had more completions of 40-plus yards than any team in the AFC.

If Houston had merely won Sunday, that's what New England would be preparing for - a wild-card game against Cincinnati. But instead it's a week of self-scouting and rehabilitation before finding out who's headed for Foxborough. And even if the Pats do eventually need to travel for an AFC title tilt in Denver, that's not a match-up they need fear.

The Broncos are the No. 1 scoring, No. 1 third-down, No. 1 sack and No. 2 yardage defense in the AFC, yet the Patriots have over the past 13 months managed to burn that defense for 117 points in three games, including a 45-10 beatdown in last year's divisional round and a 31-point outburst earlier this season. Obviously the addition of Peyton Manning changes the equation for the Patriots' defense, but New England is OK in that position itself with Brady, and recent history shows he knows better than anybody where the Broncos can be exploited.

Surely Denver is more dangerous in its home altitude, and it's a better team than it was when it lost at New England. That's evident in the 11-game winning streak the Broncos take with them to the tournament. But the Patriots' record over the same stretch doesn't leave them behind the Broncos as far as confidence.

"Well, we've won 10 of 11, so it's pretty good," Brady said of his team's mental state. "We were 2-3 at one point, had some tough games early in the year. We've won 10 of 11, and the only loss was against a pretty good football team (the 49ers) where we turned it over four times. So if we don't turn it over four times, I like our chances."

As well he should. His Patriots scored 76 more points than any other team in football. They didn't lose a game by more than one score. Their average result was a 14-point victory. And to go with the No. 1 offense, they actually finished the campaign having yielded the ninth-fewest points in the NFL.

They're prepared for this. And the opportunity is there for them. But they're not just lucky; they're good.

As good as anyone else in the AFC.

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Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is Twitter: @davedonofrio

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