BOSTON (CBS) -- Playoff weeks typically bring us a range of statistics and analytics, from the organic to the synthetic, from offense, defense and special teams to temperature, wind and precipitation. Amid it all, the Patriots face a most daunting challenge this postseason, particularly as they inch toward the cusp of history.
Can they regain their health?
It's a simple question, of course. And yet, it may be the singularly most important one. In 2011, for instance, the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants by the narrowest of margins, all while a hobbling Rob Gronkowski served – as the Giants themselves noted on the sideline during the game – as a "decoy." A year later, again without Gronk, the Patriots lost the AFC Championship Game at home to the Baltimore Ravens. In 2013, the Pats went to Denver with an entirely depleted pass-catching corps, leaving quarterback Tom Brady with no choice but to throw to Matthew Slater, Austin Collie and the great Matthew Mulligan.
Last year? The pass-catching corps was as healthy as it has ever been come January and February. And the Pats defeated the Seattle Seahawks, who have had the best pass defense in the NFL over the last three or four years.
Now, as the Patriots prepare to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round at Gillette Stadium tomorrow, here is a question for the masses: How many teams have been injured the way the Patriots have in recent weeks, then recovered to win the Super Bowl? (In all seriousness, we're looking for nominations here.) The most obvious example in recent history is the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, who limped to the finish line after starting out 9-2, losing four of their last five games to finish 10-6.
Overnight, seemingly, the Ravens got healthy – or healthy enough – with even the torn triceps of linebacker Ray Lewis mending as if it were welded.
The Ravens don't feel like the norm, of course, but that hardly matters. What matters is the health of this Patriots team, at this time, in this field of contestants. And with regard to the latter, the Patriots are undoubtedly catching a break. Kansas City has suffered significant losses, too – Jamaal Charles is not walking through that door and Jeremy Maclin seems hobbled – and the Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a gang war against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Even with a bad shoulder, Ben Roethlisberger might be able to throw the ball farther than Peyton Manning can, which means the entire AFC looks wounded and vulnerable.
The Super Bowl? Let's see what it all looks like if and when the Patriots get there, particularly with the benefit of another off-week.
Admittedly, the vibe around the Patriots this week does not feel good. A strung-out Chandler Jones hobbled into the parking lot of the Foxboro Police Department like a homeless man and Gronk has missed practice amid reports of hospital visits and injections. Coach Bill Belichick has a black eye. Julian Edelman hasn't played since Nov. 15 and Danny Amendola always seems to be a walking voodoo doll, pins stuck here, there and everywhere. The Patriots offensive line feels like a mess. And they have no real running game to speak of.
By dusk tomorrow, that could all change. Winning obviously means everything. But our bigger answer on the Patriots may come from something altogether different.
It may come from how they look.
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