With the regular season done, and the Patriots’ path to the Super Bowl settled, now would be a good time to take a look at the teams that will stand in the way of the Patriots as they aim for a trip to New Orleans in February for Super Bowl XLVII.
Tom Brady and the Patriots have the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye, so while they wait to see how things shake out in the wild-card round, here’s the rundown on each team the Patriots might face in the AFC playoffs.
No. 1 Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos, led by long-time Patriots nemesis Peyton Manning, are on an 11-game winning streak. The last team they lost to? The Patriots in Week 5.
Manning is having a freakishly good year. He’s in contention for the NFL’s comeback player of the year award and the league’s MVP award, throwing for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions with a 105.8 quarterback rating. At 13-3, with all three of the Broncos’ losses coming in the first five weeks of the season, Denver is arguably the hottest team in the NFL right now.
The Broncos sport the No. 4 overall offense and No. 2 overall defense. Their defense features a trio of Pro Bowl players. Linebacker Von Miller finished the season with 18.5 sacks while Elvis Dumervil (11 sacks) helps anchor the team’s defensive line. Cornerback Champ Bailey, in his 14th season, earned his 12th Pro Bowl nod, the most in NFL history by a defensive back.
They’re nicked up in a couple of key areas. Cornerback Tracy Porter missed the team’s Week 17 matchup with Kansas City Chiefs after suffering a concussion against the Cleveland Browns the prior week. Starting right guard Chris Kuper has been suffering from ankle and injuries. Kick returner Trinden Holiday has a lingering ankle injury.
In Week 5, the Broncos didn’t have their act together when they rolled into Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots. They fumbled three times, including running back Willis McGahee coughing it up with 3:48 left in the game. Wes Welker had 13 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, but it was the Patriots’ running game that led to the win. The team finished with 251 yards rushing (18 first downs on the ground) and Stevan Ridley led the way on 28 carries for 151 yards and one touchdown. Tom Brady threw for 223 yards and one touchdown, and ran for another.
No. 3 Houston Texans
The Houston Texans appear to be stumbling at the worst possible time. What once was the top team in the NFL, with a sterling 11-1 record, the Texans have gone 1-3 since the team’s Week 13 win over the Tenneesse Titans. They were manhandled by the Patriots in Week 14, a 42-14 loss on Monday Night Football, before taking another two losses to end the season against the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts to finish 12-4.
Despite six Pro Bowl players on offense, the strength of the Texans lies with the team’s defense. J.J. Watt (pictured) finished with 20.5 sacks to help lead Houston to the seventh-best total defense in the league. Between Watt and Antonio Smith, the Texans set the edges well and allow their linebackers to clean up the rest. In the secondary, led by top-flight corner Johnathan Joseph, the Texans favor man-to-man coverage.
Houston’s offense is paced by running back Arian Foster, who finished with 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. If Foster gets going along with backups Ben Tate and Justin Forsett, the Texans will use their success on the ground to set up play-action.
Quarterback Matt Schaub was also named to the Pro Bowl. He threw for 4,008 yards and 22 touchdowns with 90.7 quarterback rating. Receiver Andre Johnson (112 catches, 1,598 yards, 4 touchdowns) is one of the best in the NFL, but tight end Owen Daniels (62 catches, 716 yards, 6 touchdowns) is more likely to reach paydirt.
Cornerback Alan Ball, a nickel and dime coverage defensive back for the Texans, has missed the last five games.
In Week 14, the Patriots dominated the game up front against the Texans while Tom Brady carved up Houston’s secondary for 296 yards and four touchdowns. Vince Wilfork made a home in the Texans’ backfield. He recorded a strip-sack, a tackle for a loss, and a pass defensed. His penetration allowed for many more Patriots to make plays around him. The Texans face the Cincinnati Bengals to begin postseason play.
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens started strong, going 9-2 before losing three straight and four of their last five games of the regular season, including their Week 17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which they rested their star players. They’ve been struck with injuries all season, including the loss of spiritual leader Ray Lewis (torn triceps), who will undoubtedly try and make his return in their opening playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has given the Ravens an up and down season. He’s thrown for 3,817 yards and 22 touchdowns with a 87.7 quarterback rating. But where Flacco has faltered on offense, if at all, Ray Rice (1,287 yards, 9 touchdowns) has picked up the slack. The running back’s diminutive stature allows him to sneak around linemen, much like the Patriots’ Danny Woodhead, and he is a fearsome player for his speed and ability to find the hole in cutback lanes. He’s helped the Ravens to become the No. 11 rushing offense in the league in what has certainly been a down year for Baltimore on offense.
The Ravens’ defense is led by Pro Bowl players Ed Reed, the physical and hall of fame-bound safety, and Haloti Ngata, the stout defensive tackle. As the 17th-ranked total defense, Lewis’ return would surely be a boost, even if his best years are behind him.
The Ravens faced the Patriots in Week 3 of the season, beating New England 31-30 on a field goal as time expired. There were 24 penalties for 218 yards in one of the stranger contests from the replacement referee era. Both the Patriots and the Ravens suffered from the poor calls. But the Ravens managed to pile up 503 yards of total offense, with Rice running for 101 and receiver Torrey Smith catching six passes for 127 yards, including two touchdowns. Flacco had nine passes for 20 yards or more as the Ravens were able to blow the top off the Patriots’ secondary.
No. 5 Indianapolis Colts
Everyone thought the Indianapolis Colts would be rebuilding this season after jettisoning Peyton Manning and overhauling the team’s roster. Now that the Colts have finished 11-5 with a convincing Week 17 win over the Houston Texans, they can be considered serious contenders in the AFC playoffs.
Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has been worth the hype of a No. 1 overall pick, throwing for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. But much like any rookie, he’s been wildly inconsistent, turning the ball over at an alarming rate. He finished with 18 interceptions and five lost fumbles. It doesn’t help that he’s backed up by the league’s 26th overall defense. Rookie linebacker Jerrell Freeman (145 tackles) has shown himself to be a leader and veteran Robert Mathis is on his way to another Pro Bowl, but the Colts are hurting elsewhere.
The defensive line is in shambles with Cory Redding (ankle) and Antonio Johnson (quadricep) both missing time.
In Week 11, the Colts suffered their most embarrassing loss of the season to the Patriots, a 59-24 blowout. Luck threw for 334 yards on 27 of 50 passing. But he was also picked off twice for defensive touchdowns, once by Aqib Talib and once by Alfonzo Dennard. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman put together 222 yards on the day, returning a punt 68 yards a touchdown, and Tom Brady threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
The Colts face the Baltimore Ravens to start the playoffs.
No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals
There’s no team in the AFC that has had an easier road to the playoffs than the Cincinnati Bengals, winning six of their last 10 games against non-playoff opponents and only three times against teams in the playoff hunt. The Bengals finished 10-6, beating the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, which might have been the team’s noticeable win of the season had it not been for both teams deciding to sit their star players.
The Bengals are anchored by their sixth-ranked defense, which is led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks). Former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,094 yards, 6 touchdowns) has led the ground game while quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown for 3,669 yards and 27 touchdowns in his second season.
The Bengals have faced four common opponents of the Patriots, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, and twice against the Ravens. The Bengals have gone 2-3 in those games, beating the Jaguars and the Ravens.
They face the Houston Texans to start the postseason in the wild card.
Who will win the AFC Championship?
The road to the Super Bowl goes through Denver. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Broncos will host the Bengals, Ravens or Colts on Jan. 12, and if they win, the AFC title game would be Jan. 20 at Mile High Stadium.
The Patriots also host a divisional round game, against the Texans, Colts or Ravens, on Jan. 13.
The AFC Championship kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on Jan . 20. The Super Bowl is two weeks later, on Feb. 3, in New Orleans.