Heading into the final week of the regular season, the New England Patriots already know they will participate in the playoffs. Beyond that, everything is still in play depending on their game against the Miami Dolphins and others around the league.
Realistically, they will finish as either the fifth or the sixth seed in the conference, but that is far from set in stone. In case of a win in Miami, the Patriots might climb as high as the number one seed in the AFC; if they lose, they could drop all the way to seventh and thus the final wild card spot.
It remains to be seen what will happen, but no team still in the playoff race can be ruled out as a potential opponent once they enter the tournament.
So, with that in mind: Who do you want the Patriots to play? Let’s start by taking a look at the possible opponents, listed based on their current seeding (New England is No. 5 at the moment).
1. Tennessee Titans: The Patriots have already beaten the current top team in the conference this year, blowing out Tennessee with a final score of 36-13 in Week 12. The Titans might look considerably different once they enter the playoffs, with star running back Derrick Henry having returned to practice earlier this week and likely getting a chance to play in the postseason.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: Despite their last-second loss in Cincinnati dropping them from the top spot in the conference the Chiefs have a strong case as the best team in the AFC. The offense and defense have both found their groove after some early-season issues; Kansas City is beginning to look like the same team of years past.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: Possibly the biggest surprise team of the season, the Bengals are as complete a team as you will find in the NFL. Their offense is balanced, their defense is disruptive, and their special teams group is solid as well. Emerging as the winners of a deep AFC North, they project as a tough matchup for whoever they will face in the postseason.
4. Buffalo Bills: The Patriots’ AFC East rivals are over their mid-season slump and have played some impressive football lately — including a 33-21 win over the Patriots in Week 16. New England and Buffalo are obviously no strangers to each other, and if the current standings do not change will face off in the wild card round.
6. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts have had some ups and downs this season, but they have proven they can play with every team in the league. Their Week 15 win over the Patriots sure was impressive, with the defense effectively shutting down the offense for three quarters and the offense running all over its opponent.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers are a talented team on both sides and have shown they can hang with everybody. Inconsistency has been their biggest flaw so far this year, however, and their point differential is a perfect illustration of that: they are just +18 on the year, clearly the worst such number among teams currently in the playoff picture in either conference.
8. Las Vegas Raiders: Speaking of point differentials, the Raiders are -68 and still in contention for a wild card spot. If they beat the Chargers in Week 18, they are in no matter what happens elsewhere in the league. That said
9. Pittsburgh Steelers: Could the Steelers carry Ben Roethlisberger into the playoffs to likely end his career? At least mathematically, they remain in a position to do that. Their defense is the main catalyst behind the team still being alive at 8-7-1.
11. Baltimore Ravens: No team in the league has been bitten as hard or often by the injury bug as the Ravens, and yet they can still make it into the tournament as the current 11th seed. That is unlikely, though: they need a win plus losses by the Chargers and Colts (against Jacksonville of all teams) plus a Miami loss or tie.
Of the teams listed here, the Raiders, Steelers and Ravens would be the preferred matchups. None of those teams is particularly impressive at this point in time and would be a clear underdog against New England. Obviously, though, the Patriots would have to earn one of the top seeds in the conference to make this a realistic option. Given the matchups across the AFC, that seems highly unlikely.
More realistically, New England will look at just two possible matchups — something confirmed by Seth Walder’s playoff projections: the Patriots are expected to either face the Bengals (41%) or Bills (33%) on wild card weekend.
So, who is the preferred opponent out of those two? There are arguments to be made in favor of both.
The Patriots are quite familiar with the Bills after having played them twice over the last month. On paper, they also appear to match up quite well with them. That said, Buffalo’s individual talent is no joke and a big reason why the team was able to earn a possible division-deciding victory just two weeks ago; quarterback Josh Allen in particular is one of the best players in football and a threat as both a passer and a runner.
The Bengals, on the other hand, have not played the Patriots since drafting Joe Burrow first overall last year. Burrow is one of the best quarterbacks in football in his own right and surrounded by one of the better wide receiver trios in the game: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Add tight end C.J. Uzomah and running back Joe Mixon and you get one of the best offenses in the game. The defense is not on the same level — or on the level of New England’s or Buffalo’s — but more than capable of making game-changing plays.
With all that in mind, who would you pick as the Patriots’ preferred wild card opponent? Let us know in the comments below!
If it’s either the Bills or Bengals, who is your preferred matchup for the Patriots?
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