On to the playoffs.
The New England Patriots finished the regular season with 12-4 record, earning the No.2 seed in the AFC playoff race in the process. The Denver Broncos (No.1 seed) and Patriots will get a bye week during the upcoming Wildcard weekend.
Based on the seedings, the Patriots have three possible opponents for the Divisional round: (No.3 seed) Cincinnati Bengals; (No.4 seed) Houston Texans; (No.5 seed) Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots will host one of those teams on Saturday, Jan. 16, at 4:35 P.M. at Gillette Stadium.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (No.6 seed) cannot face New England unless the two meet in the AFC Championship Game.
Here’s an initial look at the three possible Pats opponents. —
Cincinnati Bengals: With a 12-4 record, the Bengals secured the three seed and look to get the “monkey off their back” by winning their first playoff game in the Marvin lewis era (0-6). There are questions about QB Andy Dalton’s injury (thumb), but he’s expected to be ready and back-up A.J. McCarron has filled-in nicely.
While it’s easy to scoff at Lewis and Dalton’s playoff (lack of)success, the Bengals might be the most talented roster in the AFC from top to bottom. Cincy has two good running backs, playmaking receivers and one of the better tight ends in the league.
The concern I’d have most about the Bengals is they would have to win in order to play the Patriots. Meaning, they would have quieted the critics, taken some pressure off themselves and would come to New England much more confident. No question they are more vulnerable this week with doubt from media and fans creeping in.
Houston Texans: Despite possessing the fourth seed in the AFC, the Texans may be the weakest playoff opponent in the conference. The AFC South was abysmal this season and at 9-7, head coach Bill O’Brien was able to get Houston into the playoff picture.
The first two players that come to mind when facing the Texans are defensive end J.J. Watt and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Despite inconsistent play from under center, Hopkins was able to haul in 111 receptions, 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. On the other side, Watt led the league with 17.5 sacks, the leading candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award and looks to be healthy after suffering a broken hand over a month ago.
Houston’s offense isn’t a unit that brings fear to the eyes of their opponents, but the defense has been terrific since the end of October. They rank third in yards-per-game allowed (310.2), first in third down defense (28%) and fifth in sacks with 45 this season. Given the current state of the Patriots offensive line, it’s reasonable to be concerned about that potential match-up.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs are red-hot, winning their final 10 games of the season after starting the year 1-5. Head Coach Andy Reid, QB Alex Smith and their defense have Kansas City entering the post-season with a lot of momentum.
After losing star tailback Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs turned to a running back by committee approach. Smith was second on the team in rushing with 498 yards on the ground. After signing Jeremy Maclin in free agency, he’s produced in Reid’s offense catching 72 passes for 875 yards and five scores. Travis Kelce is one of the emerging talents at the tight end position.
Defensively, the Chiefs are very dangerous. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are one of the best one-two pass rushing combos in the league, safety Eric Berry returned from his battle with cancer to Pro Bowl form and rookie cornerback Marcus Peters finished the season with eight interceptions. They are loaded with talent.
Kansas City is third in the NFL with 17.9 points-per-game allowed, fourth in sacks with 47 and have the second best turnover margin (+18) in the league. They have found a winning formula and present several concerns if they come to New England.
Final Thought: All three teams aren’t easy matchups. The Patriots have battled several key injuries throughout the last two months and have been relatively mediocre. While none of these possible opponents have elite quarterback play, they all present different challenges and stout defenses.
If the Bengals defeat the visiting Steelers on Saturday, they will visit the Patriots. If the Steelers win, they will go to Denver and the winner of the Chiefs at Texans contest heads to Foxboro on Jan. 16.
We’ll go more in-depth after this weekend.
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