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Ranking the Patriots’ top 5 potential playoff opponents

Which teams will give the Patriots the most trouble?

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

For a team that finished 13-3 and secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs, there is sure a lot of concern and controversy surrounding the New England Patriots. After starting the season 2-2 (which if history has taught us anything, basically guarantees that the Pats will win the Super Bowl this year), the team put together an impressive stretch that featured wins in 11 of their final 12 games and an eight-game winning streak.

Unlike last year’s rather pedestrian schedule, the team had a much stronger schedule that featured 6 of the 11 current playoff teams with the team winning all but two of those match ups. As the team rests during its bye week, now is a good time to examine how the Pats will matchup with potential opponents as they aim to recreate another dynasty and win Super Bowl LII.

“Honorable Mention”

Kansas City Chiefs

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

If I’m being honest, I’d rather joke about the Chiefs than talk about how the Eagles are a shell of themselves without franchise quarterback Carson Wentz. The Pats are also more likely to face the Chiefs and so it is worth talking about.

There’s a long list of things that scare me more than the quarterback/coach combination of Alex Smith and Andy Reid. After starting the season 5-0 with wins over the Patriots and the Eagles, Kansas City finished the season 5-6 and barely won the AFC West. If the Patriots are to win this potential Week 1 rematch, the defense will need to do a better job of eliminating some of the big plays they gave up to players like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and let Smith/Reid lose this game like they usually do.

Atlanta Falcons

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta deserves the 2017 NFL Most Embarrassing team award. Coming off of a NFC Championship where they carried over most of their roster, the Falcons failed to recreate the success they had last year on their run to the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan has once again regressed back to a second-tier quarterback even though his offense has some of the best talent in the league. Some people blame the 28-3 lead they blew in the Super Bowl and the effect it had on their psyche, others blame new Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Either way, the team has failed to live up to its expectations.

Jacksonville Jaguars

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Jacksonville has the defense to give the Patriots fits all day long. Their front seven, which boasts players like Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Marcell Dareus, and Myles Jack, is one of the best in the league. Their secondary is no joke and features players like Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church. Simply put, that defense is SCARY.

Offensively, the Jaguars had the most rushing attempts and the most rushing yards in the league, something that would be a huge red flag for the Patriots’ non-existent run defense. With Blake Bortles as their quarterback, the Jaguars try their best to stay out harm’s way. But even that isn’t enough sometimes as Bortles still manages to get in the way and lose games. If not for the team’s two-game losing streak to end the season and Bortles’ presence on this roster, the Jaguars might have made the top five.

5. Carolina Panthers

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Picking between Carolina and New Orleans was a tough decision. Both teams run the ball very well, albeit in different ways. While Carolina’s defense may be better, it’s not good enough to stop the Patriots, as we saw in Week 4. What separates these two teams is their quarterback play and their lack of talent at the receiver position for Carolina.

Cam Newton as talented as he may be, is not the passer that Drew Brees is. He consistently overthrows his targets and for some reason, feels like he needs to throw 90 MPH fastballs to receivers five yards away from him. The 30 points that Cam put up on the Pats during that Week 4 matchup came during a time when the defense was struggling. I doubt the secondary would allow Newton to complete 76% of his passes for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns again. The team learns from its mistakes.

4. New Orleans Saints

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

As previously stated, the Saints have a very good rushing attack that consists of Melvin Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The duo spearheaded the league’s 5th ranked rushing attack while Kamara registered the second most receptions by a running back in the league. They would be a load for the Patriots to deal with.

While Drew Brees is not the player he once was, there is something to be said about Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the playoffs and the experience they bring to the table. Let’s also not forget that Brees was fourth in passing yards, second in quarterback rating, and broke the record for completion percentage this season. Couple that with Michael Thomas, a legitimate complete receiver in this league, and the Saints would surely put up a better fight than the Week 2 performance they gave against the Patriots.

3. Los Angeles Rams

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If the Patriots are to play the Rams, it would be in the Super Bowl and I do not think that a 31-year-old rookie coach would be able to beat Bill Belichick on that stage. Strategically speaking, the Rams do boast one of the best backs in the league in Todd Gurley. The MVP candidate finished second in rushing yards and averaged close to 5 yards per carry. They have a solid receiving corps that features Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Tavon Austin.

This would actually be a very entertaining matchup to watch as the Rams had the best offense in the NFL this year and that offense is the reason I have them ranked third. They could be incredibly balanced and would be tough to stop. With that being said, our secondary could actually match up pretty well with the Rams’ receivers and I don’t think second-year quarterback Jared Goff is ready to rise up to that type of moment yet. Their defense is not good enough or disciplined enough to stop our offense, but Los Angeles is a year or two away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Say what you want about the Steelers and their various issues, but they almost beat the Patriots in Pittsburgh. Their offense is more than capable enough of putting up points while also controlling time of possession. Their defense, though still not good enough, is better than it was in years past. If Pittsburgh is able to simply learn from the mistakes they made in the previous match up, they could beat the Patriots. But then again, we’ve been waiting for the Steelers to learn from their past mistakes for some time now. Hopefully, this is not the year they do it.

1. Minnesota Vikings

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

With the Super Bowl taking place in Minnesota this year, playing the Vikings would essentially be a home game for Minnesota if the Pats were to meet them in the playoffs. Minnesota has the best defense in the league. They rank second against the run, second against the pass, and first in points allowed. They have dogs like Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Rhodes. If you pair that defense with that crowd in a Super Bowl environment, the Patriot’s offense would be in for a very long night.

Say what you want about quarterback Case Keenum but he has performed exceptionally well this season. He is second in completion percentage, seventh in quarterback rating, and has a solid touchdown to interception ratio (22:7). That’s really good for a backup quarterback. He has the ability to extend plays with his legs, which could cause problems for our weak pass rush, and when you have targets like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph, you have to respect the potential threat they offer. All of this goes without mentioning the Vikings seventh ranked rushing attack that features Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, who is a capable receiver out of the backfield. This is the matchup that would scare me the most this postseason.

As you may have noticed, most of these teams in the top 5 are from the NFC, which further highlights why the Patriots are favored to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. Once there I have no doubt that the team would be able to adjust to whatever challenges they may face. But for now, Wild Card Weekend is among us. Enjoy a stress free weekend of playoff football and watch closely as a lot of the Patriots’ potential opponents take the field.