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The New England Patriots are headed to the postseason. That we know, with the team clinching a playoff berth after their win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. We do not know, however, where they’ll sit in the standings or who they’ll face to open the playoffs.
The most likely opponent is the Buffalo Bills. But there is a scenario where the Patriots could jump up to the No. 1 seed and get a first-round bye. Pretty much anything is possible. So let’s dive into the potential playoff opponents. Here’s a ranking of the AFC teams that have not been eliminated from playoff contention heading into Week 18. It’s not just a pure ranking. It’s a look at which teams are and aren’t a good matchup for New England.
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The Steelers are playing better, with an improved team in the second half of the season. They are definitely the least intimidating team in the field, however. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t strike fear, considering how many more-dangerous quarterbacks there are left in this pool. The offensive line has issues and the defense isn’t impressive at stopping the run. New England would be able to do what they do best: use power football to score points on offense and generate takeaways on defense.
A matchup against Pittsburgh — while highly unlikely — would be extremely favorable for the Patriots.
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The Chargers, on paper, are a good team. That has been the common refrain for years. They look better — with star-caliber players — than they play. That’s particularly true of Justin Herbert when he plays against Bill Belichick’s defense. The young quarterback has yet to figure out the Patriots’ schemes and disguises. So that’s why L.A. would make for an easier matchup. As good as the Chargers can be, they never seem to play their best against New England.
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The Raiders defense isn’t very good. They have allowed the ninth-most points per game. Their rush defense has allowed the 12th-most rushing yards per game. Again, that combination of factors would help New England get out to an early lead. New England’s defense can stand up against explosive offenses. Its offense, however, will struggle to put up points against a good defense. That’s why the Patriots will want to steer clear of the best defenses in the postseason.
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It’s hard to bet against Lamar Jackson when he’s at his best. He’s been spotty this year, but he’s still averaging 7.5 yards per passing attempt and 5.8 yards per carry — both right on par with his career averages. The totals look ugly: 2,882 passing yards, 16 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 767 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. But it’s Lamar Jackson. He’s a danger to any defense. New England would want to avoid a playmaker like him, with incredible speed that would likely toast the Patriots’ slower linebackers.
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If the Patriots had made fewer boneheaded mistakes, they would have been much tighter with the Colts. The Patriots could put together a cleaner game, with fewer penalties and better execution, particularly with tackling. Mac Jones could do a better job avoiding turnovers — he had two interceptions in the first matchup — and New England might have won handily.
The Patriots’ loss to the Colts wasn’t like their matchup against the Bills, where Buffalo controlled the game for all 60 minutes. New England nearly pulled off a comeback in Indy with a strong second half.
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Maybe the Patriots can figure out how to get Allen out of rhythm. And maybe — even if Allen is on point — New England can capitalize on his occasional error (unlike their Week 16 performance). Allen played out of his mind against the Patriots defense. If he repeats that performance, New England probably won’t beat him.
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The Patriots managed a win over the Titans in Week 12, which was when New England appeared to be legitimate contenders in the AFC. The problem with that narrative was that Tennessee was without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, so the Titans weren’t exactly a strong barometer at the time.
It’s still possible for New England to get a win, but because Tennessee has a solid defense and a potentially resurgent offense, the Titans should look significantly better in 2022.
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This might be a bit reactionary, with the Bengals nabbing a win over the Chiefs in Week 17. Cincinnati’s defense is middle-of-the-road, which should allow points to the Patriots offense. The Bengals are also a very young team, with Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase all in their first three years in the NFL. But their offense is a superpower. As much as the Patriots might be able to slow Cincy, Burrow will probably get his points. New England would likely have a hard time keeping pace.
Kansas City Chiefs
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The Chiefs remind me of the Patriots in the Tom Brady era. With Patrick Mahomes around to carry Kansas City, the team has some liberty in the early games to figure out their identity. Once they work through their strengths and weaknesses, the Chiefs go on a run. They’ll probably do it every year.
Maybe the Bengals just beat the Chiefs. Maybe the Chiefs had a rough few weeks to start the season. But Mahomes is clutch. Andy Reid has plenty of postseason experience. This team will be the toughest to beat in the AFC.