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New England Patriots

Regular season is a preliminary heat the Patriots need to win

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady , right, talk with head coach Bill Belichick in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The New England Patriots had already clinched their eighth-straight AFC East title when they rolled into Miami to finish off the 2016 regular season last New Year’s Day, but there was still something left for them to play for that day: Home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

For a lot of playoffs teams, especially the lower seeds who just barely squeeze into the postseason, home-field advantage is a bonus. For a legitimate Super Bowl contender such as the Patriots, it’s a necessary tool.

Playoff history tells us so.

Since the NFL went to its current eight-division format in 2002, the home team in the playoffs has compiled an overall winning percentage of .633. After the wild-card round, however, home teams become even more dominant.

From the start of the division round on, home playoff teams have compiled a winning percentage of .677 the last 15 years. That’s why home-field advantage matters in the playoffs and why the regular season matters to the Patriots.

The Patriots are hell-bent on getting back to the Super Bowl this season. Their entire offseason has been devoted to a short-term building project designed to ensure they get there, and they appear to have succeeded.

As the start of 2017 training camps draws near, the Patriots have already been established as the overwhelming favorite to not only win the AFC, but to get back to the Super Bowl and win there, too. Over whom seems almost immaterial.

Super Bowl LII is the Patriots’ game to lose, and the feeling among many of their fans is that the only thing that could possibly prevent them from winning it is a spate of injuries.

They may be right. The Patriots look that good on paper. They look so good, in fact, that for some ,the regular season has become little more than a preliminary heat they have to run against lesser competition.

Chances are, it will prove to be anything but that. The Patriots aren’t the only team that improved during the offseason, and should therefore be better in 2017 than they were in 2016.

Inside their own division, the Dolphins could be better. So could the Buffalo Bills. Neither is likely to knock off the Patriots as division champions, but inside the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders should be better, too.

So should the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons in the NFC.  The Patriots will play them all this year, along with the Chiefs, Broncos and Raiders, so a repeat of 14-2 may not come so easily.

That said, the Patriots schedule is only ranked as the 12th-most difficult in the league. Still, a lot may have to come together in a hurry for the Patriots to conquer the vast majority of the foes who are on it.

Put quite simply, this is not the same team as the one that was often so dominant last season. The running back corps is different, Rob Gronkowski’s sidekick is different, and the defensive front seven is different.

Granted, they may all prove over time to better, but there will be a period of adjustment that comes before that, and if that period stretches into the regular season it could cost the Patriots a game or two they’re expected to win.

Just how costly losing an extra game or two would be to the Patriots is hard to know. They were so strong last season that they clinched a first-round bye with two games left to play.

But they could be just as strong this season and not even clinch a playoff berth until Week 17. Surely it would take that long for them to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It almost always does.

And don’t think that’s a bonus the Patriots don’t need. The idea of playing a playoff game against the Chiefs in Kansas City, the Raiders in Oakland or even the Texans in Houston would not be enticing. Again, history tells us why.

The Patriots have a 20-3 home playoff record in the 12-team playoff era that includes a 17-3 mark during the time in which Tom Brady has been their quarterback and Bill Belichick has been their coach.

Since 2010, though, no team has won a Super Bowl that did not play at least one playoff game at home, and each of the last four Super Bowl champions won the Lombardi Trophy only after securing the top seed in their conference.

That group includes the 2013 Seahawks, the 2015 Broncos and the 2014 and 2016 Patriots, who know all too well that simply claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs doesn’t guarantee a Lombardi Trophy.

Despite being the AFC’s top seed, the Patriots didn’t even get to the Super Bowl in 2010. Since 2002, though, all but one their six Super Bowl appearances have come after they secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That will be their goal again in 2017, and the only way to get it is to win that preliminary heat by being as dominant during the regular season as they intend to be during the playoffs.

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