Breaking down possible Patriots playoff opponents

Which matchups might give the playoff-bound Patriots the most trouble?

Patrick Mahomes Chiefs Patriots
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes throws against the Cincinnati Bengals. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
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Whatever happens in the next week, the Patriots know one thing at least: they’ll be playing playoff football in 2022.

New England (10-6) seized one of the AFC’s seven postseason spots with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, ending a one-year playoff hiatus. If the NFL were still on a 16-game season, they’d be the fifth seed going into Wildcard Weekend.

However, there’s still one game left and a lot left to play for. If they win in Week 18, the Patriots have shots both at the AFC East with a Buffalo Bills loss as well as a chance at the conference’s top seed if they get a whole lot of help.


Conversely, a loss to the Miami Dolphins this coming weekend could find them facing an uphill battle from the AFC’s seventh seed.

Though the playoff picture is still somewhat in flux, it’s not too soon to size up the Patriots’ possible playoff opponents.

Buffalo Bills

If the season ended today, it would mean Patriots v. Bills III with the contest taking place in Orchard Park.

If a grudge match does come to pass, the Bills arguably have the momentum after blitzing the Patriots at home two weeks ago. When it came down to it, the vaunted New England defense simply couldn’t contain Josh Allen, who had one of his best games of the season. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s defense challenged Mac Jones to beat them down the field and outside of the numbers, and the rookie couldn’t oblige.

Can the Patriots count on another freakish storm to slow down Allen and the Bills’ passing attack if they face each other again? Maybe not.

The better bet would be for the New England defense to figure out how to get Allen on the ground or coerce him into more mistakes, while the offense gets the running game going again, which would benefit Jones.


The Bills have the better quarterback and, therefore, the edge in another rematch. But the Patriots still have Bill Belichick, who has proven his worth more this year than arguably ever before.

Kansas City Chiefs

Remember when everyone thought the Chiefs were finished back when they were 3-4 after a loss to the Tennessee Titans? That was fun (and also eerily familiar).

Patrick Mahomes’s crew then ripped off eight straight wins to storm back to the top of the AFC with only a last-second loss to the Bengals stopping the Chiefs from stealing the No. 1 seed.

In a “down” year, Mahomes is still tied for third in the league in touchdown passes with 35 and leads the fourth-best scoring offense in football, which still has Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in it.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ defense has quietly been better than expected: though they’ve given up the sixth-most yards in football as a unit, they own the 13th-ranked scoring defense.

Bottom line: this is yet another Super Bowl-caliber Chiefs team, especially in an AFC without a clearly dominant squad. Mahomes has only missed the Super Bowl once as a starter, with the Tom Brady-led Patriots stopping him in the 2018 AFC Championship game.


The Patriots could end up facing them if they lose to Miami on Sunday and the Chiefs remained the AFC’s No. 2 seed. It’d be best if New England doesn’t end up in that position, or they’re probably going home in Round 1.

Cincinnati Bengals

There might not be a more interesting team on either side of the playoff bracket than the AFC North Champion Bengals.

This squad has had its share of puzzling defeats, including losses to Chicago Bears and New York Jets teams that are a combined 10-22. But when they’re on, they can put up points on anybody with Joe Burrow (4,611 yards, 34 touchdown passes) and his army of playmakers, including Rookie of the Year candidate Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon, dominating around him.

Look no further than the Bengals slipping past the aforementioned Chiefs on Sunday thanks largely to Burrow and an epic game from Chase. They’ve also dropped 40 points three times this season—twice on the Ravens and once on the Steelers.

The Bengals aren’t exactly an elite defensive team, especially when it comes to defending the pass. But they don’t need to be. They just have to stop the other team enough times to let the offense do its work.

If the Bills were to win on Sunday and the Bengals lose, the Patriots could find themselves traveling to Cincinnati on Wildcard Weekend. Belichick typically crafts good plans for young quarterbacks, and Burrow has thrown 14 interceptions. But it feels as if the Patriots might be a bit outgunned in this matchup.

Indianapolis Colts

A rematch against the team that beat them in Week 15 might appeal to a Patriots squad hungry to avenge itself. What’s more, such a contest might be likely to take place at Gillette Stadium assuming New England can stay ahead in the standings.


But Indianapolis won’t exactly be quaking in their boots. They’ve already proven they can beat the Patriots, and the formula they’d use is fairly repeatable: stop the run, pressure Mac Jones, and feed the ball to Jonathan Taylor. A lot.

The question in such a game would inevitably be this: can Jones go win you the game when that’s exactly what the other team is daring you to try and do?

The Colts and Bills both essentially disrespected the rookie’s ability to stretch the field and dared him to hit throws outside the numbers on third downs especially. The result: a dismal 7-of-25 (28 percent) conversion rate on third downs and some bad-bad-not-good passing beyond 10 yards (28.2 percent on such throws in Weeks 15 and 16).

Then, though Jones gave them a chance near the end of the game, the Patriots couldn’t keep Taylor bottled up forever. His star power on the ground enables the Colts to win games even though Carson Wentz is bad, and that’s more valuable than ever in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Chargers

Facing Justin Herbert (4,394 yards, 33 TDs) wouldn’t exactly be a cinch, but the Patriots have now bottled the dynamic young quarterback up in both their contests against him. It’d be easy to see them doing it a third time.

That said, Herbert still has the pure ability to dial up throws that shouldn’t even be humanly possible, so it’d be foolish to think he can’t find a way to overcome even the best defense.


The more pressing issue in this game, arguably, would be Jones’s performance on offense again. New England’s Week 8 win over the Chargers marked the first time in a while Jones had simply looked ineffective for much of the game, though the rookie helped clinch the game with an efficient game-ending drive.

As long as the running game proved up to the task, the Patriots should be able to handle the Chargers, especially if the game is played in New England. But with Herbert on the other side of the ball, anything can happen.

Tennessee Titans

If the Patriots ended up traveling to Tennessee down the line in the postseason, this matchup might depend totally on one man. And no, that man is not Mac Jones—or any New England Patriot, honestly.

Will Derrick Henry be back?

The all-world running back hasn’t played since Halloween after breaking a bone in his foot, but Henry might be able to return to practice this week.

If he’s in the mix, this Titans team is the most dangerous team in the AFC outside of Kansas City. Why? Because they can turn around and hand it to a man that runs with the same combination of ferocity and getaway speed as a rhinoceros. Then, when they get tired of that, Ryan Tannehill can play pitch-and-catch with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones.

Not to mention the Titans are among the best run-stopping teams in football when they’re on their game.


Yes, the Patriots beat Tennessee during New England’s seven-game winning streak. But again, that was a Titans team missing its best player. If the two teams face each other with Henry back in the lineup this time, this likely looks more like the 2019 Wildcard Round loss for the Patriots than that Week 12 win.

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