Bill Belichick would strictly prohibit this talk. With the Buffalo Bills front and center on the Patriots agenda, now is not the time for the team to be looking ahead at potential playoff opponents. But we are not the team, and regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game the Patriots know they will be in the postseason and hosting someone at Gillette Stadium.
So, with that mind we've already started discussing some of the possibilities. Depending on the outcome of the Week 17 games, the Patriots could finish anywhere from the top seed through No. 4 and everywhere in between. That leaves a variety of teams in play as potential opponents for New England, whether the first game turns out to be in the divisional round or on wild card weekend.
As of today, the only potential playoff team the Patriots could not face in their first game is Denver. Everyone else is in play, and our task today is to determine which one we'd least like to see.
The options would be Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and even Pittsburgh. The Chiefs are locked into the No. 5 seed while Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh can only qualify as the sixth seed. Obviously the Patriots can lock down a first-round bye with a win over the Bills and watch the rest fight it out on wild card weekend.
So, our question this week is, Which team would you least like to see the Patriots face in their first playoff game?
PFW's Andy Hart says...
While they haven't exactly cruised into the postseason, I still think the Chiefs are a tough potential matchup for the Patriots. There are a few keys that drive this belief. First, they have a veteran, experienced, consistent quarterback who doesn't turn the ball over very often. Alex Smith has just eight interceptions in 508 pass attempts heading into the finale. We know how important turnovers, including interceptions, are to the Patriots defense. The Chiefs 18 giveaways are the second-fewest in the AFC this season.
Second, Kansas City has a good (No. 9 in the NFL through 15 games) running game that's driven by an explosive running back in Jamaal Charles. We know the Patriots run defense is a major question, even with recent improvement against lackluster competition. Charles not only averages 5 yards a carry on the ground, he's also the team's leading receiver. We've seen how the Patriots have struggled at times covering backs this season.
Finally, I still think the Kansas City defense is a formidable one despite its recent play. If/when Justin Houston returns to action, that's adding a defensive player of the year type to a solid core. He and Tamba Hali put pressure on the edges of an offense, helping a pass defense that has 20 interceptions. They also have solid play up the middle.
Even special teams is an area that might favor the Chiefs, given that they have two kickoffs and two punts returned for touchdowns this season. Put it all together and I think that Kansas City is the scariest early-round matchup the Patriots could face this January.
PFW's Paul Perillo says...
The Bengals don't have much of a track record of success in the playoffs but they are exactly the kind of team that wins in the postseason. Cincinnati plays tough, physical defense and has enough weapons on offense to put points on the board. They also have a young quarterback who seems to be coming into his own and is playing well down the stretch.
Obviously the teams already met once this year with the Bengals completely smothering the Patriots offense en route to a 13-6 win. The Patriots did not have Rob Gronkowski in that game and they won't have him in the playoffs either. The only significant piece of the puzzle that missed that game is Shane Vereen, and he's dealing with a groin injury at this point.
If the Bengals didn't have such a poor history I'd really be concerned about playing them. While the defense has suffered some personnel losses, most notably Geno Atkins, it still has the toughness to make life difficult on New England.
While I don't necessarily fear any of the teams in the playoffs, I'd rather not see the Bengals in the first game.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.