Patriots can't coast

ROB LONGLEY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Those aren't Christmas bells ringing in the ears of the New England Patriots. More like warning bells. The Patriots weren't exactly preparing to play out the string, but as recently as a week ago they likely didn't expect the penultimate game of the season to potentially mean this much.

This afternoon's match at the Meadowlands against the New York Jets is one of three featuring top AFC playoff contenders and loaded with palpable consequences.

With the AFC East title wrapped up, you would think the Patriots would be stress-free from here on in.

But because of Monday night's perplexing collapse against the Miami Dolphins, things are a little more complicated.

A loss could result in the Super Bowl champs essentially forfeiting a first-round bye, which would make the road to the Super Bowl that much tougher, especially in the AFC.

The shocker to the Dolphins, complete with a foreign four Tom Brady interceptions, also make it next to impossible for the Patriots (12-2) to chase down the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-1) for the top seed and home-field through the AFC Championship.

The importance of the Jets-Patriots game is hinged to an earlier start when two impressive 11-3 teams meet -- the San Diego Chargers and host Indianapolis Colts.

Should the Chargers pull off the upset (tough to believe they are seven-point underdogs isn't it?) the Patriots would need a win to stay ahead of San Diego in the race for No. 2 seed.

As it stands now, the Patriots would lose a tiebreaker against the Chargers and likely with it a first-round bye.

Even though the Patriots are 27-2 since Sept. 2003 and are the best-coached team in football, they may be vulnerable in one key area -- pass defence.

With the prospect of meeting one or both of the Chargers' Drew Brees or the Colts' Peyton Manning in the post-season, there is some real incentive for more games at home where weather in Foxboro can help neutralize such attacks.

The Colts, meanwhile, don't want to yield any ground themselves and still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed with a win today and a Patriots loss.

The Jets don't figure to be a pushover for the Patriots, either. A win at home would guarantee them one of the coveted AFC wildcard spots in what is a fierce race. The Jets are also long past weary of hearing how they are 10-4 but haven't proven themselves against a legitimate contender.

Another all-AFC matchup has some interesting playoff ramifications on a couple of levels. Pittsburgh and Baltimore meet at Heinz Field, a rematch of the early-season game in which the Ravens (8-6) handed the Steelers their only loss.

The result will have influence on the exciting playoff push currently being engineered by the Buffalo Bills. A Steelers victory helps the Bills on two levels (assuming Drew Bledsoe and company win this afternoon in San Francisco, that is.)

First, it gives Buffalo an edge on the Ravens in the wildcard tussle. And secondly, the Steelers would wrap up top seed in the AFC meaning that when they visit Buffalo the following week, it stands to reason (and common sense) that Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher would rest many of his starters.

BILLS MUST WIN

That finale is also a must-win for the Bills, who still face the crazy possibility of winning their final seven games to finish 10-6 and still miss the playoffs.

The Patriots don't have such life and death concerns. But another loss today and suddenly their credentials to repeat as Super Bowl champs will be under fire.


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