Making the playoffs is nothing new for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Since he became the starting quarterback in 2001, the Patriots have missed the postseason just twice – in 2002 (when they suffered a post-Super Bowl championship hangover) and 2008 (when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the first game).

But never have the Patriots entered the playoffs with the uncertainty they face this year.

The week leading up to their AFC divisional playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday at Gillette Stadium has been marked by off-field drama:

I know the Patriots dismiss distractions better than anyone. They won the Super Bowl last year while dealing with Deflategate. They ran off an undefeated regular season after Spygate broke in 2007.

But this feels different. This feels … overwhelming.

And that’s why I have no clue what’s going to happen Saturday.

I mean, the Patriots should beat the Chiefs.

But I don’t know if they will.

Yes, I understand the Patriots are getting their injured players back – such as wide receiver Julian Edelman, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, among others. But their return doesn’t guarantee success. There’s a big difference between practicing and actually playing.

How will Edelman react when the Chiefs get physical with him? Will the broken bone in his foot hold up? And what about Gronkowski, who not only is dealing with a bad knee but also a bad back? How effective will he be against Kansas City’s physical defenders?

Hightower is pivotal to New England’s run defense. Two of the Patriots’ four losses came when he didn’t play. A third came in Denver when he left the game in the first quarter because of a knee injury. Is he ready to shoulder a big load?

And then there’s Jones. A Pro Bowl selection at defensive end and the Patriots’ leader with 12.5 sacks, will he be disciplined by Belichick and sit out part of the game?

This was not going to be an easy matchup from the start.

The Chiefs have won 11 consecutive games. They have a plus-20 turnover margin during that stretch. For the season they were a plus-14, second in the NFL.

Behind Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, who have stepped in for the injured Jamaal Charles, Kansas City has rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 of its last 11 games. Three of the Patriots’ four losses have come in games in which they’ve given up more than 100 yards rushing.

Quarterback Alex Smith is the type of player who can give New England trouble. He is athletic and elusive, rushing for the fourth-most yards (498) by a quarterback this season. He trailed only Cam Newton (636 yards), Tyrod Taylor (568) and Russell Wilson (553).

Defensively, the Chiefs get after opposing quarterbacks. They had 47 sacks in the regular season, only two fewer than the Patriots, and play a very physical game. Kansas City gave up only 17.9 points a game – third-best in the league – then pitched a shutout in Houston in its 30-0 wild-card victory. The Chiefs allowed an average of 329.3 yards per game in the regular season – ninth-best in the NFL – and only 226 against Houston.

Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters is tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.

This is a team that doesn’t make many errors but forces its opponents into mistakes. Against Houston, the Chiefs forced five turnovers, including four interceptions, and sacked Brian Hoyer three times.

The Patriots are 17-4 at home in the playoffs. But three of those losses have come in the last seven years: 33-14 to Baltimore in a wild-card game after the 2009 season; 28-21 to the New York Jets in the divisional round the following year; and 28-13 to Baltimore in the AFC title game three years ago.

Brady should have his full complement of receivers. Edelman’s return is vital to keep New England’s offense moving. When he was in the lineup, the Patriots converted 50 percent of their third-down plays. Without him, they dropped to 31 percent.

The offensive line is as healthy as it’s been all season. With Hightower and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung healthy, the defense has the potential to shut down anyone.

Expect this one to be a struggle, with both defenses carrying the play. Expect the Patriots to win.

But be prepared for anything.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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