New England’s secret advantage heading into the playoffs

One of the biggest advantages the New England Patriots have going into the AFC playoffs has nothing to do with their team.

Even though the Patriots lost to the New York Jets Sunday, the team still has a guaranteed first-round bye and a chance to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs next Sunday when the Patriots play the Miami Dolphins. And by losing Sunday, the Patriots made it extraordinarily difficult for the Indianapolis Colts to earn a playoff spot.  The Pittsburgh Steelers also have an uncertain future, needing a win in Cleveland and a Jets loss in Buffalo. It’s certainly possible, but not likely.

If the Steelers and Colts both don’t surmount the odds, that means the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Jets will squeak into the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals have already guaranteed spots.

If the Steelers and Colts don’t make the playoffs, with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, respectively,  then the Patriots will have a clear shot at the AFC crown and Super Bowl.

It’s well-known that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and, as we saw in the 2014 playoffs with the Arizona Cardinals,  starting someone other than your No. 1 option under center is a terrific way to end the season early. Ryan Lindley was thrust into spot last season for the Cardinals and imploded, partly because he didn’t have enough experience.

This season, if the playoff picture holds true, the Patriots will have the most experience in the AFC at quarterback — ever. Tom Brady will move into a tie for the most NFL playoff games played (30) all-time.

But the gap between Brady and his colleagues is stunning. Let’s break them into “categories.” (I know there’s one guy per category, but I like the idea so go with it.)

The “OK, you’ve technically been here before and I guess this is what you’ve got so let’s roll the dice” category

Only Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs has played in the playoffs, a one-and-done in 2013 with the Chiefs and two games in 2011 with the San Francisco 49ers when he game-managed a Frank Gore rushing attack. (I’m not even throwing undeserved shade. Smith was 20th in passing attempts that year and below No. 15 in yards, touchdowns and completions.)

Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick, never blossomed into a quarterback fitting of his draft position, but he excels at directing his offense and takes care of the football. His 18-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the NFL. The only problem is: The offense around Smith isn’t good enough to hide his weaknesses. Charcandrick West is running the ball well out of the backfield, but he’s the not the game-changer the Chiefs had in Jamaal Charles, the initial starter who was lost for the season to an ACL tear. Smith’s offensive line has also let him down often. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks taken (44). The Chiefs are on a nine-game win streak, but aside from the Broncos and Steelers, they haven’t beaten high-caliber teams. Once Smith gets into the playoffs, he’ll be forced to do things he’s proven over the last decade that he cannot do.

The “Cinderella” category

You know three things about Ryan Fitzpatrick: He went to Harvard, got a near-perfect score (48 of 50) on the Wonderlic test, the NFL’s QB aptitude test and (this is the coolest) is nicknamed “The Amish Rifle.”

He seemed poised for success, but the off-the-field smarts didn’t translate. In his first nine NFL seasons with five teams, he sported a 33-55-1 record, threw 123 touchdowns to 101 interceptions and lead the league in picks in 2011 with 23. He never had a winning record anywhere, but finished 6-6 as the Texans quarterback last season. The Jets flipped a sixth-round pick for Fitzpatrick this offseason. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He started 5-5 with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but suddenly something changed.

He won his next five games, rifling 13 touchdowns and just one interception. The secret: He shaved his big beard. Now, a trimmed Fitzpatrick has the Jets in position to win one game and make the postseason. The Jets beat the Patriots, its only quality opponent since the razor came out, and could ride Fitzpatrick’s hot hand into the playoffs. How far will they go before Fitzpatrick’s beard grows back out? Who knows.

The “Out the frying pan and into the fryer” category

Peyton Manning played so horribly that the Denver coaching staff had no choice but to make the switch to Brock Osweiler.

Andy Dalton’s right thumb injury (rumored to be season-ending) limited him, forcing Cincinnati to make the switch to A.J. McCarron.

Osweiler, Manning’s backup since the Broncos picked him in the second round in 2012, had thrown 30 passes before this season.

McCarron, Dalton’s backup since the Bengals picked him in the fifth round in 2014, had never thrown a pass before this season.

Yet they are the starters for their two teams heading into the postseason.

Both quarterbacks have turned in mixed results. Osweiler has thrown eight touchdowns to four interceptions, but never more than one in a game. He’s beaten New England, Chicago and San Diego while losing to Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City. McCarron is completing 70 percent of his passes, but was intercepted twice in a 33-20 loss to division-rival Pittsburgh. He came back the next week and beat San Francisco 24-14 with one touchdown and no interceptions.

Both aren’t ideal candidates to direct a team into the playoffs, but both are seeing their first real action in the biggest times, so the front offices of both clubs will see what they have from their young guns sooner than expected. Don’t expect either to be a serious threat, though.

The “Uh-oh, we have to give this guy a start in a playoff game?” category

Remember that Lindley anecdote I was talking about? In that loss to Carolina, he completed 16 of 28 passes for 82 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. From watching that game, I can tell you that the stat line is generous because Lindley looked lost on the field and the Cardinals never had a shot.

The new Ryan Lindley might be the Texans’ Brandon Weeden. At 29 coming out of college, he always had a ceiling as an NFL prospect, but that didn’t stop the Cleveland Browns from drafting him in the first round anyway. Then he went 5-18 with 28 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in his first four seasons with the Browns and Dallas Cowboys. Then the Cowboys moved on, picking Matt Cassel instead. It should tell you something that Weeden was passed over for Cassel.

Dallas promptly dumped Weeden to the Texans. The Texans needed a replacement for injured starter Brian Hoyer. Weeden won his first start against the Tennessee Titans, more to due with the defense than anything he did, but still he has a winning record with a team (1-0) for the first time in his career. When he makes it to the playoffs, don’t expect him to have a winning record there.

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