Who should Patriots want in the playoffs?

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Merloni and Fauria
M&F - Do the Patriots have the characteristics of a Super Bowl contender?
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For two decades New England had nothing but the finest of first-world football problems. Players and fans alike were burdened regularly with hardships like wondering what to do with their postseason bye weeks, or who to share playoff tickets with. Should we buy the conference champ merch or wait for the Super Bowl? It was good to be the king.

One constant, for players and fans alike, through every one of those postseason runs, was figuring who would make for the best postseason matchup. In the regular season you play who the schedule tells you and when. But the postseason can be a different challenge altogether.

Since the Pats were so frequently the conference’s top seed they often waited for a team to win their way to Foxboro, and then often sent said team packing. When the Patriots did have a chance to control who they’d prefer to play in the playoffs at times they pulled some strings or overthrew some passes (here’s looking at you, Matt Cassel) to draw a preferred first round opponent.

Now, as the Pats enter their first postseason without Tom Brady to pull the strings, but with Bill Belichick to mastermind the operation, on the eve of their regular season finale, the question that has to be asked is:

Who should the Patriots want to play in the first round of the playoffs?

The Patriots are currently the AFC’s fifth seed. The most likely scenario is they finish as the fifth or sixth seed and travel for Round 1 of the AFC Playoffs. Should Buffalo lose to the Jets and the Patriots win the Pats would vault to the fourth or even third seed as AFC East champs. If they win and Buffalo, Tennessee and Kansas City all lose, then the Pats would become the unlikeliest of top seeds with a first-round bye. Considering those three teams enter Week 18 as double-digit favorites, let’s keep our eyes on that fifth/sixth-seed slot.

The fifth/sixth seed will play either the third or fourth seed on the road. For New England, that means traveling to either Cincinnati (beautiful this time of year) or to the Western New York pit of despair known as Buffalo, again. Which one just depends on how the Pats fare in Miami, and what Cincinnati, who will be resting a number of offensive starters, does at home against Cleveland. We’re assuming Buffalo wraps up the East at home by beating the Jets. We don’t care what happens when we assume; it’s the Jets.

New England does have one sort of wild card, if you will, at their disposal (and no, not a 3rd and 2 draw to Brandon Bolden). Their game kicks off at 4:25 p.m., flexed to the later spot a week ago from 1 p.m. This means all teams seeded ahead of them in the AFC will have wrapped their regular seasons by then. Which does lend the Pats the chance to play or “play” for their desired opponent. Lending much more intrigue to a game that features division rivals, sure, but one of them will bid the 2021 season farewell around 7:30 p.m. Sunday night.

First, we should ask coach Belichick if he has a preferred opponent. Well, first ask him about his New Year’s resolutions if you want to soften him up. Then hit him with this question, and he’ll tell you they have no control of the scenario and will play whoever, wherever, whenever. Believe that and you must be looking forward to your first Patriots game this weekend! Even before the Week 18 game in Miami against the Dolphins, Belichick’s supercomputer of a gridiron mind has done numerous computations as to what team his team will likely have the most success against on Super Wild Card Weekend. He’ll just never let on about it.

OK, then let’s ask the Foxboro Faithful ...

This answer comes as no surprise. New England vs. Cincinnati has none of the juice, the hot sauce (sorry/not sorry) that Pats/Bills does. While Pats at Bengals would likely make for a good game, with some decent storylines - Joe Burrow’s first game vs Bill Belichick/Cincy’s offensive firepower vs New England multi-facted defense/the last two college national champion QBs facing off in the postseason/Zack Taylor and the SpyGate 2 revenge factor (JK) - the game just wouldn’t have the same theatrical draw that Pats/Bills Round 3 would. Especially of late.

Given the way this rivalry has blossomed, and the way each team won on the road this season, plus the #BillsMafia (obligated to use that annoying hashtag) getting their billboard across from Gillette Stadium? A third meeting would be a legitimate grudge match, a title fight to settle the score this season once and for all. Blood feuds like this make for the best sports theater.

Lastly, factoring in some statistics - the opponents are mostly a draw. The Bills and Bengals both average scoring roughly 28 points per game, with strong-armed QBs unafraid to sling it to a talented squad of receivers. The Bengals have a better rushing defense, Buffalo the better secondary. We know Mac struggled throwing against the Bills, but moving it on the ground vs. Buffalo hasn’t been an issue. The Pats took Josh Allen’s best punch the day after Christmas, and he scored the TKO. But there’s a familiarity in play, and perhaps Belichick thinks he’s seen the best of Allen and might have a better idea how to defend him. And by defend him I mean make him punt at least once. While Belichick often shines when facing a QB for the first time, Burrow’s a confident one, like Allen, and he has weapons like versatile back Joe Mixon at his disposal. But Burrow is a big dude, but he can’t haul freight like Allen.

Again, on paper, it seems even. But that’s not, OK, forget the cliché. The Pats, like the fans, should want the Bills. Plain and simple. Talented at every level that Buffalo is the Patriots have had success against them before, home and away. Especially away. Who knows how Cincinnati would respond to the physical and psychological challenges presented by the Pats? If the Patriots were to travel to Orchard Park, where bad weather could be a factor again, and possibly establish the ground game again, stampeding their way into Bills coach Sean McDermott’s head? That and the chance to make Bills fans freak out all week let alone what a tight game could do to them? You have to want to risk big to win big. Even if Mac Jones would pay similar lip service like Belichick about a potential playoff opponent you know he and every Pats player who underwhelmed on December 26, 2021, would love a shot at redemption.

And if the NFL made it the Monday night game of Super Wild Card Weekend? COME ON!

For these many reasons, our vote is the Bills. But, whoever the Patriots draw the one thing that’s certain: It’s great to have these problems back in our lives.

Featured Image Photo Credit: USA Today Sports