The New England Patriots have locked up their spot in the NFL playoffs, but who their first postseason opponent will be remains to be seen. Every option is still on the table at this point in time, depending on how this week’s games will go.
At the moment, they would be headed into a third matchup with the Buffalo Bills — New England is the fifth seed, Buffalo the fourth — but the Cincinnati Bengals have something to say about this as well. Cincinnati, after all, will be down multiple starters in Week 18 against the Cleveland Browns.
The current No. 3 seed in the AFC, the Bengals will likely miss multiple players on the Covid-19 reserve list. Running back Joe Mixon has already been ruled out, while starting offensive linemen Trey Hopkins and Quinton Spain as well as defensive end Trey Hendrickson and safety Vonn Bell are all questionable to play versus the Browns.
Add Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow, who already confirmed he will be rested, and you get a team that will be quite shorthanded on Sunday.
If the Bengals end up losing to their AFC North rivals as a result, the door might be open for the Bills or even the Patriots to leapfrog them in the standings. Based on this week’s matchups across the league plus the current AFC playoff picture, however, it seems most likely that a loss might set them up with a game against none other than New England:
- Tennessee Titans (11-5) (clinched AFC South)
- Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) (clinched AFC West)
- Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) (clinched AFC North)
- Buffalo Bills (10-6) (clinched playoffs)
- New England Patriots (10-6) (clinched playoffs)
- Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
- Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)
In the hunt: 8. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7), 9. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1), 11. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
The Bengals being down multiple starters, including their quarterback, could have a trickle-down effect on the AFC. Instead of Bengals-Colts and Bills-Patriots, the wild card round might feature some completely different matchups.