We know the where: Gillette Stadium. We know the when: Sunday, Jan. 16, 4:30 p.m. But we don't know who the AFC playoffs will serve up to the Patriots for sacrifice -- whoops, opposition -- in their first playoff game.
Only three teams could RSVP for a date with the top-seeded Patriots at Fort Foxborough in the AFC divisional playoffs -- the Kansas City Chiefs, the Baltimore Ravens and everybody's favorite foot-in-mouth football team, the New York Jets. The Colts host the Jets on Saturday night, and the Ravens travel to Kansas City on Sunday.
The way the Patriots, who enter the playoffs as winners of eight straight, are playing, it's tempting to say the opponent doesn't matter. But it does. The NFL is a matchup league, even for the Patriots. Certain roads to Super Bowl XLV are less pockmarked than others.
Let's rank the possible playoff opponents for the Patriots from most favorable to least preferable:
1. Kansas City Chiefs -- The Patriots can only pray that their Missouri spinoff manages to knock off the Ravens, because they would be easy prey. They're a young team that would celebrate winning one round of the playoffs like they lifted the Lombardi Trophy. Plus, there is the impending departure of former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
The reason most often cited for the Chiefs being dangerous is the presence of Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, the Patriots' coordinators for all three of their Super Bowl titles. But that is negated by Bill Belichick's intimate knowledge of the shortcomings of Matt Cassel. The Chiefs are a bit limited personnel-wise on offense. They led the NFL in rushing behind breakaway back Jamaal Charles, but they had the 30th-rated passing attack.
Cassel completed only 58.2 percent of his passes. If you take away the play-action pass and Dwayne Bowe, the NFL leader in touchdown receptions, KC has few aerial options. Let's hope it's Kansas City, here they come.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers are the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, so they could meet the Patriots only in the AFC Championship game. Based on past history, we can only hope.
It seems odd to pick on the league's top-rated defense, but that's exactly what Tom Brady does. In seven games lifetime against the Steelers, Brady has completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Blitzing Brady plays right into his hands. The blitz-happy Steelers' weakness is cornerback and Brady exploited it earlier this season, turning the Steel Curtain into chiffon with 350 yards passing and three touchdowns.
The Steelers are one of those teams that don't change their gameplan a ton based on opponent. They're going to do what they do and believe they can do it better than you. The gameplan-specific Patriots prosper against such teams.
3. New York Jets -- The Jets have become punchlines and a punching bag recently, and they brought it on themselves with their brash style and bombastic coach. They limp into the playoffs as losers of three of five, starting with the 45-3 TKO in Foxborough. Still, ridicule Rex Ryan all you want, but his sixth-seeded team is one of two in the NFL to beat the Patriots this season.
Vociferous Rex almost seemed befuddled by the Randy Moss-less Patriots. His deployment of cornerback Darrell Revis -- or lack there of -- was baffling, and so was an offensive gameplan to come out firing with (Off The) Mark Sanchez. But given a second chance and a third game with the Patriots, it's doubtful that the snack-eating, smack-talking Jets would look quite so inept.
The wild card for the Patriots in any matchup with the Jets is Sanchez. In two career games at Gillette, Sanchez has looked like he wandered over from Walpole High football practice, turning the ball over eight times.
4. Baltimore Ravens -- There is another mouthy outfit that would love a rematch with the Patriots. The Ravens were beside themselves after blowing a 20-10 lead en route to a 23-20 overtime loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in October. Say this for the Ravens: they will not be intimidated playing a playoff game at Gillette Stadium, not after the 33-14 playoff beatdown they put on the Patriots last year -- a game Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo referred to "as last year's embarrassment against the Ravens."
None of Baltimore's four losses this season came by more than five points. The Ravens are also the last team to intercept a Brady pass, and they did it without sui generis safety Ed Reed, who opened the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list and still led the NFL in interceptions (eight).
Noted Brady antagonist Terrell Suggs and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata can provide pressure without forcing Baltimore to blitz. That allows the Ravens, who aren't strong at cornerback, to play zone coverage and disrupt the timing of the Patriots passing attack.
The Ravens have the offensive weapons, but is QB Joe Flacco, who had a nice season with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, capable of using them? Flacco only had to throw 10 passes in last year's Patriots' playoff loss. He would have to throw a lot more than that this time.
5. Indianapolis Colts -- Two words that send chills down the spine of Patriots fans: Peyton Manning. He is a Hoosier State heart-breaker with a recent penchant for piercing comebacks against the Patriots. No lead is safe with Manning on the field, and he nearly erased a 31-14 Patriots' advantage in November with another soul-sapping rally until James Sanders saved the day.
The convalescing Colts are a dangerous bunch now that running back Joseph Addai is back; their depleted defense has regained linebacker Gary Brackett, who missed the Patriots game; Manning is on the same page with Pierre Garcon and they've unearthed a bit of a running game. In the last four games of the season, the Colts, who finished 29th in rushing offense, averaged 133.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per rush.
Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis always give the Patriots problems and allow the Colts to get pressure on Brady without blitzing, which is the formula to slowing down the Patriots offense. Like Baltimore, Indy won't cower at coming to Foxborough for a playoff game.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.