Now that the Patriots have officially locked up the division, it is not too early to start projecting which team they will face in the postseason. As the NFL has long desired, the matchups will be determined by the outcomes of week 17′s games. There are four teams fighting for the sixth seed in the AFC, with the other five playoff teams already set, though the seeding is not determined. For a breakdown of all the potential results and the specific tiebreakers, head over here.
This is a perfect time to breakdown and rank the potential playoff opponents for the Patriots. This includes not just the potential first round opponents, but all potential playoff opponents (even those pesky Steelers who are unfathomably still alive), ranked from most desirable to least desirable.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers:
Why it is a good matchup: The Patriots match up well with the Steelers, given the former’s lack of consistency on the offensive line. Also, the Patriots drubbed the Steelers earlier this year and the game would be coming back to Foxboro. Much like the first matchup, I think Belichick and Brady would be able to pick apart Pittsburgh’s aging defense and put up enough points to put the Steelers away.
Why it could backfire: Though the Steelers are a flawed team, they are still a veteran team with loads of playoff experience. They made a super bowl run from the 6 seed before, and if these two teams were to meet it would be in the AFC championship game, so they would be rolling.
2) San Diego Chargers:
Why it is a good matchup: Though Philips Rivers is playing great as of late, he can still be prone to making the big mistake and the team is not particularly explosive on the defensive side of the ball. The game, like all potential six seeds on this list, would be in Foxboro so the Chargers would have to travel across the country and likely play in a cold weather game. I think the Patriots would have enough defensive depth to be able to match up with the Chargers on defense, and the Chargers defense would not be able to shut down Brady and company.
Why it could backfire: The Chargers have a developing passing game with Philips Rivers playing some of his best football in years and rookie Keenan Allen making a legitimate push for offensive rookie of the year honors. This could lead to a shootout if the Patriots defense can’t get a stop, which is not all that unreasonable to imagine, and anything can happen in shootouts. They did beat the Broncos in Denver.
3) Miami Dolphins:
Why it is a good matchup: I know they just lost to the Dolphins and I know rivalries are always difficult to predict, but the Dolphins coming to Foxboro in the playoffs don’t really scare me. That is a young team coming into Foxboro in the cold weather playing for a chance to go to the super bowl. I’ll take Brady and Belichick every time in that situation.
Why it could backfire: The only reason they aren’t higher on this list is because their defense is good and they did just beat the Patriots.
4) Indianapolis Colts:
Why it is a good matchup: The Colts are one of the most inconsistent teams in the league, with losses to Rams (38-8), Cardinals (40-11), Chargers (19-9) and Bengals (42-28) in which they got dismantled, but also beat the 49ers and the Seahawks. Luck is good, but has shown that he will turn the ball over at times, which could bode well for the Patriots opportunistic defense.
Why it could backfire: Luck is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and it is not difficult to see him becoming one of the elite sooner rather than later. Luck loves to wing it around and could have great success doing so against an much maligned Patriots pass defense. The colts also went into San Francisco and knocked off the 49ers and beat the Seahawks at home.
5) Kansas City Chiefs:
Why it is a good matchup: Alex Smith is a limited quarterback. He may not turn the ball over a lot, but he does not consistently make the big play, which more times than not is required to win a big playoff game. The Chief defense is also banged up and will not benefit from receiving a bye week during the playoffs (though, to be fair, the Patriots have not locked that bye up yet). Also almost their entire offense runs through Jamaal Charles and Belichick is usually pretty good at taking away your best weapon.
Why it is a tough matchup: Despite being banged up and the questions surrounding their offense, the Chiefs defense is one of the tops in the league. They can get after the quarterback and play press coverage on the outside, both of which have proven to be the Patriots kryptonite in the past.
6) Baltimore Ravens:
Why it is a good matchup: The Patriots just beat the Ravens, in Baltimore in a game that both teams needed to win. That last drive where the Patriots ran the ball almost exclusively, with both teams knowing full well it was coming, was a thing of beauty. The game would be coming back to Foxboro , and it is always tougher to win on the road, especially during the playoffs. I also don’t think Flacco can have another playoffs like he did last year, where every jump ball went his way and the defense shut down everyone.
Why it is a tough matchup: It is always tougher to beat a team the second time, and Baltimore is no stranger to beating the Patriots in Foxboro, particularly during the playoffs. Teams who can throw the deep ball effectively are dangerous, and that defense is better than it looked last week. Additionally, the teams are very familiar with one another, making everything more level.
7) Cincinnati Bengals:
Why it is a good matchup: This is not the same Patriots team as earlier in the season (that game was all the way back in week 5, featuring no Rob Gronkowski and no Shane Vereen). Plus, looking back at that game the Bengal’s didn’t light up the scoreboard either. AJ Green was held to 5 catches for 61 yards with a long of 18! I’ll take when facing a player of his caliber. Plus, Geno Atkins is no longer playing for the Bengals, having suffered a torn ACL, and he did play in the first game. He is very good, capable of changing a game all by himself. Depending on how this weekend’s game goes, this could either be in Cincinnati or in Foxboro.
Why it is not a good matchup: This is the only team that truly beat the Patriots this year. Referee flag pickups, phantom calls, no-calls aside, the Bengals took it to the Patriots and shut down their offense. Brady was completely ineffective, breaking his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass thrown.
8) Denver Broncos
Why it is a good matchup: Peyton Manning in the playoffs. Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning. The Patriots beat Manning and the Broncos once already this season, so intimidation would not be a factor. Belichick is obviously quite familiar with what Manning likes to do on offense, and the Broncos did just lose Von Miller for the season to a torn ACL.
Why it is a bad matchup: Denver is a very talented team and this game would be played in Denver, where the Patriots have historically not played very well. It is always difficult to beat a team twice in one season (yes, I know that is not how statistics works, but this is one place where statistics and advanced metrics and football do not mesh) and quite frankly Peyton Manning is just plain good.
Think you have a better list? Let me know how you would rank the potential opponents in the comments section.