Welcome to the Belichick Invitatio … er, NFL playoffs. With the defending champion Patriots wobbling, a record-tying six teams boasting 12 or more victories and the winningest postseason field (.708) since 2005, there does seem to be a possibility, believe it or not, that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won’t be putting a numerically neat little bow on the NFL’s first 100 years by playing in their 10th Super Bowl in 20 seasons together.
For the first time since 2009, the 12-win Patriots must slum it with the wild-card peasants when they play host to the 9-7 Titans on Saturday night. Nary a one of New England’s six titles has come without a first-round bye.
This, of course, is an atypical year. Just ask the sixth-seeded Vikings, who open Sunday vs. a Saints team that has the misfortune of being only the third playoff participant to go 13-3 and not earn a bye. The Vikings are hoping for a repeat of 2010, when both No. 6 seeds reached the conference title games with the Packers going on to win the Super Bowl.
The playoffs begin Saturday with the offensively challenged and defensively stout Bills looking for a seventh road victory against a playoff-worst Texans defense that gets a J.J. Watt-sized boost with the return of the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
And the wild-card round ends Sunday night with what’s left of the injury-riddled Seahawks (11-5) traveling to face a 9-7 Eagles team that won four consecutive games — the most of any wild-card team — to claim the final playoff berth.
Waiting with their feet up this weekend are the 14-win Ravens, 13-win 49ers and Packers and 12-win Chiefs. They are probably happy to know that it’s been eight years since a wild-card participant — Baltimore — won the Super Bowl.
To get there that year, the Ravens had to knock off a Patriots team that was playing in the second of eight consecutive AFC title games. A streak that, believe it or not, seems poised to end this year.