WELCOME TO THE CORONATION. Sit back, have a Sam Adams and wrap yourself in a Patriots banner. Pretend to have loved this team since Babe Parilli was a fetus. Nominate Tom Brady for an honorary humanities degree at Harvard. Your tournament winner is New England, and that's that. Case closed.

Consider:

  • The Patriots are the highest-scoring team in the history of the NFL. Brady arguably had the best season of any quarterback who ever lived. Fear it.

  • Ah, but defense wins championships, you say? Maybe. If so, no problem. New England's defense is ranked fourth in points and yards allowed. Fear Rodney Harrison. He's semi-nuts.

  • These are not Goldwater Republicans, clutching conservative ways. They go for the jugular, pretending your defense doesn't exist. They score touchdowns 69.4 percent of the time they reach the red zone and have put up points 68 times in 72 trips inside the 20. Oh, and while letting it fly, they rarely make mistakes; their 15 turnovers are fewest in the league. Fear Bill Belichick.

    There has to be a vulnerable spot, right? OK. They're not much in the area of gross punting (29th). Except they almost never punt -- 45 times all season, compared with a league average of 73.5 ... and San Francisco's 105.

    New England doesn't play this weekend as the NFL launches its wild-card round. If nobody else matters, why bother with wild cards? Here's why. You look for horses that can run this course.


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    On Saturday, just such a team will be on display seeking a chance to do a number on Belichick's hoodie.

    It's the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is not exactly rocket science. There is no small legion of un-Patriotics out there who think this is the team with the ammunition to take down New England.

    The Jaguars have a strong running game, a solid defense against the run that could make the Patriots one-dimensional, a history of being tough on the road and a team immune to foul weather. They also have David Garrard, who threw fewer interceptions (three) than Tom Terrific (eight).

    But they must get past the Steelers on Saturday in Pittsburgh -- never an easy chore. Indeed, nobody did it all season until Week 15, when Jacksonville ended the Steelers' seven-game home win streak. Should the Jaguars repeat their 29-22 win of Dec. 16, their next assignment -- assuming San Diego beats banged-up Tennessee on Sunday -- will be in Foxborough, Mass.

    If you're rooting against the Patriots, you'll be pulling for Jacksonville, because if the Steelers win, they're not going anywhere this postseason. They'd be the ones at New England and they've already done that trip. They stink any time they board a plane. Their 3-5 record on the road this year includes losses to Arizona, Denver, the New York Jets and Baltimore -- a combined 24-40.

    Conceding that nobody else is likely to beat New England, the time has come to assess the 12-team field. We're a big believer in recent success, margin of victory and success against quality, playoff-bound competition.

    Coldhardfootballfacts.com notes that teams with a better record against quality opponents (9-7 or better) are 25-8 in the playoffs since 2004.

    That said, here's how the teams stack up, ranked 1 through 12.

    1. New England: Far and away the favorite but not unbeatable. Second-half record: 8-0. Record against playoff teams: 6-0. Average score against quality opponents: 38-19. Strengths: overall balance; quick air strikes. Achilles' heel: a running opponent that can monopolize the clock.

    2. Indianapolis: Has the swagger to repeat. Second-half record: 6-2. Record against playoff teams: 4-3. Average score against quality teams: 23-18. Strengths: passing; poise; NFL's top defense, in terms of points allowed (honest). Achilles' heel: injuries to wide receiver Marvin Harrison and defensive end Dwight Freeney.

    3. Dallas: Puncher's chance, glass jaw. Second-half record: 6-2. Record against playoff teams: 4-2. Average score against quality teams: 35-33. Strength: pitch and catch between Tony Romo and Terrell Owens. Achilles' heel: Passing teams have feasted on their defense much too often.

    4. Jacksonville: The team nobody wants to play. Second-half record: 6-2. Record against playoff teams: 4-3. Average score against quality teams: 21-21. Strengths: mistake-proof passing; strong running; tenacious defense. Achilles' heel: the occasional stinker on defense.

    5. Green Bay: In a broad sense, the people's choice. Second-half record: 6-2. Record against playoff teams: 3-1. Average score against quality teams: 28-22. Strength: Brett Favre when good. Achilles' heel: Brett Favre when not so good.

    6. San Diego: In winning groove, could surprise. Second-half record: 7-1. Record against playoff teams: 2-3. Average score against quality teams: 20-26. Strengths: LaDainian Tomlinson; defense that forces turnovers (48). Achilles' heel: Philip Rivers' passing and erratic defense, both down from last year.

    7. Seattle: Dark horse. Second-half record: 6-2. Record against playoff teams: 1-1. Average score against quality teams: 17-20. Strength: quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Achilles' heel: mediocre coverage in spite of fine pass rush; average run game.

    8. Pittsburgh: Not the same team that opened 7-2. Second-half record: 4-4. Record against playoff teams: 1-2. Average score against quality teams: 24-20. Strength: No. 1 defense. Achilles' heel: loss of running back Willie Parker; poor road results.

    9. Tampa Bay: Spoiler. Second-half record: 5-3. Record against playoff teams: 2-3. Average score against quality teams: 15-20. Strengths: top pass defense in league; heady play by quarterback Jeff Garcia. Achilles' heel: momentum gone after resting players and losing to inferior 49ers (5-11) and Panthers (7-9).

    10. Washington: Hot, but in over head. Second-half record: 4-4. Record against playoff teams: 2-5. Average score against quality teams: 17-22. Strengths: scrappy play; playoff-seasoned coach. Achilles' heel: if quarterback Todd Collins' hot streak is a mirage.

    11. Tennessee: Banged up, no chance. Second-half record: 4-4. Record against playoff teams: 2-4. Average score against quality teams: 15-18. Strengths: running game including quarterback Vince Young; defense against run. Achilles' heel: defense collapses when big Albert Haynesworth gets hurt, which is often.

    12. New York Giants: Longest shot of all. Can't beat the good teams. Second-half record: 4-4. Record against playoff teams: 1-5. Average score against quality teams: 23-31. Strength: huge running back Brandon Jacobs. Achilles' heel: injuries to three starters in gallant Week 17 loss to Patriots, inconsistent quarterback play.

    Contact Bill Soliday at bsoliday@bayareanewsgroup.com.