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Scouting the playoff competition

Every playoff spot has been filled, and eight teams will do battle this Wild Card Weekend. New England, of course, as owner of the NFL's best record in 2016, is one of four playoff teams sitting this weekend out and waiting to see who it will host in the Divisional round next Saturday night, Jan. 14.

So, as the Patriots enjoy a well-deserved bye this coming weekend, let's evaluate the foes New England could potentially face between now and Super Bowl LI in Houston. 

AFC

OAKLAND RAIDERS: The upstarts from the other side of San Francisco Bay have done one thing for most of 2016 - just win, baby. Doing so from here on out will be more difficult for Oakland, though, now that its undisputed leader, quarterback Derek Carr, is out with a broken leg suffered in Week 16.

For a while, it looked like Oakland and New England were on a collision course for the AFC Championship. The Raiders still have dangerous offensive weapons with running back Latavius Murray and wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, but with a statistically weak defense (28th overall entering Week 17) and without Carr to pace them, it's hard to imagine Oakland advancing very far in January.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: The Chiefs were playing some really good football most of the season before dropping a couple of surprising home games late in the year (19-17 defeats to both Tampa Bay and Tennessee). KC's 2015 season ended here at Gillette last January, and it very well could come to a halt in Foxborough again.

Despite their late-season stumble, however, the Chiefs are a solid football team overall, even though the numbers might not indicate it (20th and 24th in total offense and defense, respectively). The Patriots won't have to travel to Arrowhead, site of one of their worst defeats in the Belichick era, but if the Chiefs are on their game, they could cause the Patriots fits here at Gillette.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: New England recorded a solid road win in Pittsburgh earlier this season, but that was when the Steelers were without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Now that the Steelers have their triplets - Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown - together again, they'd be a formidable foe if they had to pay a visit to Gillette. In fact, they might just be the toughest AFC opponent the Patriots could face.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Beating a team twice in a season is hard enough, but to do so three times is a rare accomplishment indeed. Even if the Patriots hadn't been successful in Miami this past weekend, the familiarity of an AFC East foe would make a third matchup with Miami challenging in many respects.

 HOUSTON TEXANS: For the second year in a row, old friend Bill O'Brien's Texans are the beneficiaries of a weak division. They're perhaps a bit better overall than they were a year ago, but like last year, Houston isn't the strongest of division winners, which makes any advancement deep in the playoffs highly unlikely.  However, they could sneak past the Raiders at home this weekend.

NFC

DALLAS COWBOYS: America's Team has re-established itself as the premier franchise in the NFC, remarkably on the strength of a rookie quarterback and rookie running back. Entering the final week of regular-season action, Dallas had the league's second-best rushing offense and top defense against the run. The Patriots have run the ball well this year (8th overall) and defended it even better (3rd).

They'll never admit it publicly, but the suits on Park Avenue would love nothing more than a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl matchup. The league's two most popular franchises battling for the title in a de facto home game for the Cowboys? Ratings gold.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: One of New England's only losses this season came at home to the Seahawks, but Seattle's been a somewhat schizophrenic team this season. Regardless, with the recent Super Bowl history between these two teams, a rematch in Houston would provide plenty of intriguing story lines and a competitive game on the field.

NEW YORK GIANTS: It's hard to imagine that the lackluster Giants are a double-digit-win team this season. They've snuck up on us like they did in 2007 and '11, and every Patriots fan remembers how those seasons ended. New England certainly has the firepower to beat New York, but seeing them again in the Super Bowl would conjure up a fortnight of unpleasant memories for many folks.

ATLANTA FALCONS: In recent years, the Falcons have been classic underachievers. They win lots of regular-season games with quarterback Matt Ryan, yet never can get as far as they should in the playoffs. This year seems different, though. The Falcons could be on the verge of something special if they can play to their potential this month. But even if they made it to Super Bowl LI against the Patriots, I'd like New England's chances.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: Lambeau Field is cold this time of year, but Aaron Rodgers and Co. are on a hot streak. Besides the Cowboys and Seahawks, this could be New England's toughest Super Bowl matchup. 

DETROIT LIONS: Classic underachievers, these Lions. But like the Seahawks, they're unpredictable week to week. It wouldn't stun me if they pull off an upset in Seattle this weekend, but their chances of winning three road games to get to Houston in February seem slim at best.

This article originally appeared in the January 2, 2017 edition of Patriots Football Weekly. To subscribe, click here.

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