The playoffs are here except the Patriots do not yet know their opponent.
Since they are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and have earned a first-round bye, they will not know who they will play until after the games on wild card weekend. The Patriots will host the highest seed to come out of this weekend on Jan. 13 at 1:05 p.m.
If Houston (No. 3 seed) beats Indianapolis (No. 6 seed), it would come to Gillette Stadium, but if the Colts win then the winner of the Chargers (No. 5 seed)-Ravens (No. 4 seed) game would travel to New England.
While the coaching staff and players will all say it doesn’t matter who they play, it actually does matter as some potential opponents are matchup nightmares.
Here’s a breakdown of all three potential opponents and then who the Patriots want to see most.
The Texans won the AFC South with an identical record as the Patriots at 11-5, but because of the New England win at Gillette Stadium in Week 1, it won the tiebreaker to get the bye. The Texans started the season 0-3, but then won nine straight games to get to where they are now.
Deshaun Watson had a solid season with 26 passing touchdowns to nine interceptions and his play was a main reason for the nine-game win streak. Running backs Lamar Miller (973 yards), Alfred Blue (499 yards), as well as Watson (551 yards) gave the offense one of the better rushing attacks in the league. In the passing game, DeAndre Hopkins (1,572 yards) is one of the best receivers in the NFL, but it did lose Demaryius Thomas for the year to an injury last week. Thomas was acquired at the trade deadline.
Defensively, Houston was ranked fourth in points allowed, but 12th overall. It is better against the run as it was the third-best rushing defense, but 28th against the pass. The unit has the same playmakers as it always has had with J.J. Watt (16 sacks), Jadeveon Clowney (nine sacks), and Whitney Mercilus (four sacks). Also, linebacker Zach Cunningham was very good this season leading the team with 107 tackles. Besides Week 17 against Jacksonville when it allowed just three points, the unit allowed at least 22 points in the three games before that.
The Ravens finished the year by winning six of their last seven games to win the AFC North. A quarterback change sparked the end of the season run with rookie Lamar Jackson taking over for Joe Flacco. The offense is now much more run-oriented and has given opposing defenses fits. They weren’t tested much against good teams over the course of the year, as they went 1-2 against playoff teams.
For the year (seven starts), Jackson had a 58.2 completion percentage for 1,201 yards, six touchdown and three interceptions, but did run for 695 yards and five touchdowns. Gus Edwards has also been impressive in the running game, as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Baltimore's passing game is balanced with wide receivers John Brown, Willie Snead, and Michael Crabree all having between 607 and 715 yards receiving. Overall, the offense was the ninth-best in the league and 13th in points scored.
Defensively, the unit is back to what it was a few years ago. It ranks No. 1 overall and No. 2 in points allowed. It also doesn’t matter if it is stopping the run or the pass, it ranks in the top five against both. No matter who it faces, the Baltimore defense is ready for the challenge. It is worth noting it doesn’t really force turnovers (17 forced, 22nd in league), it’s just a physical defense that forces a lot of punts. Players to keep an eye on are linebacker C.J. Mosley (105 tackles), linebacker Za’Darius Smith (8.5 sacks), linebacker Matt Judon (seven sacks) and of course veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (seven sacks).
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Los Angeles finished 12-4 but because of the way the playoffs are structured, since they did not win the AFC West they are the No. 5 seed. Not only do they have to play on wild card weekend, they have to travel as well. That likely won’t bother them as they are 7-1 on the road this year. The Chargers are 2-3 against playoff teams, and enter the playoffs winners of five of their last six games.
On offense, they are led by Philip Rivers once again as the veteran quarterback had another good year passing for over 4,300 yards with 32 touchdown and 12 interceptions. Keenan Allen is their best receiver (1,196 yards), but Mike Williams (664 yards) and Tyrell Williams (653 yards) are solid No. 2 and 3 options. Antonio Gates is still around and is a threat at any time. Also, Hunter Henry is expected to return for the playoffs after tearing his ACL. Don’t sleep on the run game, either. In 12 games, Melvin Gordon ran for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards a carry. Overall, the offense ranks sixth in points scored and 11th overall.
Unlike years past, the Chargers defense is very, very good. It ranks ninth overall and eighth in points allowed. It also fares well against both the run and pass, entering the playoffs ranked ninth against both. This will be Joey Bosa’s first postseason and he’s tallied 5.5 sacks in seven games. The unit's best player may be defensive end Melvin Ingram, as he leads the team with seven sacks and also has 43 tackles, including eight for losses. Like the Ravens, they don’t force many turnovers (20, 16th in league), but they make you earn everything.
The Patriots should be rooting for another divisional round meeting with the Texans (the two teams met two years ago in New England, which was a 34-10 win by the Patriots). The Ravens and Chargers just aren’t good matchups, and not to mention the Patriots have won eight straight games against the Texans.
Baltimore’s offense would be tough for the Patriots to stop as they struggle with speed and mobile quarterbacks. Then defensively, they have always been able to give the Patriots fits, especially with their physicality. The Chargers may be less of a matchup problem, but their 8-1 record on the road (should they beat Baltimore) would be scary.
As for the Texans, it seems the Patriots just know how to beat them. They have consistently kept Hopkins and Watt in check, so the only question would be containing Watson since he is a much different player now than he was in Week 1 coming back from an ACL injury last year. Another factor is Bill O’Brien, who has seemed to make a few mistakes each time he takes on his former team.