The Patriots know when and where they will play their first playoff game of the 2013 season – Jan. 11 at Gillette Stadium.
The big question is which opponent they’ll face, and we won’t know that until after the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
In the meantime, here’s a look at how the Patriots measure up against each of the other five teams in the AFC playoffs.
How the Patriots can beat them: Make good halftime adjustments. The Broncos have been the league’s highest-scoring offense all season, but they are at their best in the second half, where they average 21 points a game. The cornerbacks must be physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the Broncos offense. Finally, the Patriots must score touchdowns when they get into the red zone, which could be easier against a Broncos defense that’s allowed opponents to score on more than 60 percent of red zone possessions this year.
How they can beat the Patriots: Well, they can start by not committing three turnovers in a half, but beyond that, they’ll need more from their quarterback than they got the last time they faced the Patriots, a 34-31 Denver loss in November. Peyton Manning completed 52.7 percent of his throws that day for 150 yards and a 70.4 passer rating, all season lows.
How the Patriots can beat them: When these teams met in Week 5, the Bengals dominated the line of scrimmage. They had four sacks and held the Patriots to just 82 yards rushing, so the Patriots will have to get their offensive line issues corrected. Defensively, it starts with shutting down prolific wide receiver A.J. Green. The Bengals’ rush attack has performed well at times, but their lack of consistency on the ground could be exposed if the Patriots can find a magic formula to fix their run defense.
How they can beat the Patriots: The Patriots have once again struggled in coverage of tight ends, so the Bengals must find ways to get the ball into the hands of their two 6-foot-5, 250-plus-pound tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. The Bengals also have the cornerbacks to play tight man coverage and make life difficult for Brady and the receivers.
How the Patriots can beat them: Slowing down Robert Mathis is a great place to start. The veteran outside linebacker logged 19.5 sacks this season, which is 14 more than anyone else on the team. Mathis lines up primarily on the right side, so left tackle Nate Solder will have to be on top of his game. The Patriots also should not shy away from running the ball against the Colts’ 26th-ranked run defense, which yields 4.5 YPA on the ground.
How they can beat the Patriots: Running back Trent Richardson has been a disappointment since being traded to the Colts from the Cleveland Browns in late September, but this would be a good time for him to find stride against the Patriots’ 30th-ranked run defense. The Colts’ No. 1 receiver is T.Y. Hilton, and the 5-foot-9, 178-pound receiver is just the kind of small, speedy, shifty receiver that gives cornerback Aqib Talib problems. If the Colts get him involved early, they have a chance at beating the Patriots.
Kansas City Chiefs
How the Patriots can beat them: Teams that have beaten the Chiefs have been able to take advantage of their second and third cornerbacks. Sean Smith has been very good this year, but undrafted rookie Marcus Cooper and veteran Brandon Flowers have both struggled. Also, the Chiefs offense has struggled to convert third downs, so the Patriots need to keep the Chiefs from creating big plays on first and second down.
How they can beat the Patriots: The Patriots like to win the turnover battle, but the Chiefs have the league’s fewest turnovers on offense and the most on defense this season. Oh, by the way, they also have a running back named Jamaal Charles who is second in yards from scrimmage and sixth in yards per rush attempt. The Patriots’ front seven has lost the battles at the line of scrimmage and has struggled to get off blocks.
San Diego Chargers
How the Patriots can beat them: Pass, pass, pass. With 4,139 passing yards against them, at an average of 7.1 yards per attempt, the Chargers are among the four worst pass defenses in football this year. If Tom Brady wants to pick on a Chargers cornerback, he should be looking for Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall.
How they can beat the Patriots: Pass, pass, pass! Quarterback Philip Rivers is enjoying one of the best statistical seasons of his career this year, with a 69.5 completion percentage and a 105.5 passer rating. The Chargers should also look to get Danny Woodhead in some favorable matchups against Patriots linebackers.