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Patriots resemble last year's team, but outside expectations lowered

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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Posted Jan. 04, 2012 @ 5:19 a.m. ET
By Kevin Fishbain

I'm not a believer in the "they need to be humbled" argument. I don't think that by losing to the Chiefs, thus finishing at 15-1 and not 16-0, the Packers are more likely to win the Super Bowl.

I do, however, think that something can be said for hype and how a team is perceived heading into the playoffs. Last year is a perfect example, when the No. 6-seeded Packers won it all (I know, many picked them to do so) and the 14-2 Patriots were knocked out in the first round.

This year's Patriots are 13-3, finished the season on an eight-game win streak, boast one of the league's best players in Tom Brady and have one of the league's more opportunistic defenses.

But you won't see many people picking the Pats to win it all. In fact, with a very real possibility of having to play the Steelers in the divisional round, another one-and-done is a trendy pick.

The Patriots' miserable defense, injuries on the offensive line and recent playoff struggles have dropped New England down a peg. Confidence in Bill Belichick and Brady to be enough to get the Pats back to the Super Bowl is not what it was last postseason, when everyone watched the Jets topple the Patriots' juggernaut, in Foxborough.

With the bye week, the Patriots should get some extra time to get Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer closer to 100 percent. The run game got a spark in the last few games from rookie RB Stevan Ridley, and the defense's ability to create turnovers remained key.

Same coach, same quarterback, same seed and same win streak, but completely different expectations for this year's group from the outside. Certainly, none of the AFC teams will take the Patriots lightly, so not having lofty expectations only means so much.

Before the season, everyone talked about this year's Patriots team being one on a mission. It loaded up during free agency and appeared to be a Super Bowl favorite. But early losses to the Bills, Steelers and Giants changed that quickly, as did the busts that Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth turned out to be.

This weekend, the Patriots rest and watch the wild-card round — and they may want to cheer for the Bengals. A Cincinnati win guarantees a Patriots-Bengals matchup in the divisional round. The Pats match up well with Cincy, much better than they do with Pittsburgh.

The road in the AFC is tough because of the defenses that Pittsburgh and Baltimore boast, but no team can go touchdown-for-touchdown with Brady, yet you still won't see many prognosticators picking New England.

And maybe that will turn out to be a good thing.

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