The New England Patriots are the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50, though much is unknown about the team’s potential path to Levi’s Stadium on Feb. 7. As the No.2 seed with a bye on Wild Card Weekend, New England has three potential opponents for their first 2016 playoff game.
Four AFC teams are scheduled to play in the first round of the postseason this weekend, and only the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t face New England in the divisional round. A win for Pittsburgh would send them to Denver next week, and there are multiple scenarios that could play out for the Patriots.
A win for the No.3 seed Cincinnati Bengals guarantees them a meeting with the Patriots. If the Steelers win in Cincinnati, the winner of the contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans would go on to visit the Patriots.
Below is a look at New England’s potential opponents in the second round of the playoffs.
Cincinnati finished the regular season with the same record as New England, and they are only playing on Wild Card Weekend because of tiebreaker scenarios. But the Bengals have a major question mark at the quarterback position, and the health of Andy Dalton would play a big role in their ability to compete with the Patriots.
Dalton has been ruled out of Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and AJ McCarron will get the start in his place. A matchup with New England would give Dalton another week to recover from a broken thumb, and Cincinnati would need him against the Patriots. The chances are highly unlikely that McCarron would win a playoff game against Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium, though Dalton still has to prove himself in the postseason. The quarterback had the NFL’s No.2 passer rating in 2015, but he’s 0-4 in the playoffs with an abysmal 57.8 passer rating.
With McCarron starting three games, the Bengals managed to end the season going 2-1. That’s because no AFC team allowed fewer points than Cincinnati in the regular season. However, the unit has faltered against top offenses, allowing 33 points to the Steelers in their last matchup and 34 points to the Cardinals.
Kansas City Chiefs
If this weekend’s games play out the way the betting odds indicate, the Patriots are headed for a matchup with the Chiefs. Kansas City is the only potential New England opponent that didn’t win their division, but they might have the best chance to win in Foxboro.
The Chiefs are the hottest team in football, having won 10 games in a row. They’ve beaten two playoff teams during their win-streak, though one of those victories came when Landry Jones started in place of Ben Roethlisberger. Kansas City has managed to score at least 29 points in five their last 10 games, and while Alex Smith doesn’t put up big numbers, he leads an offense that doesn’t turn the ball over. Only New England has fewer giveaways than Kansas City.
If the Chiefs give the Patriots trouble it will be because of their defense. In their last 12 games, Kansas City has allowed just one team to score more than 20 points. They rank in the top nine against the run and the pass, and they would be facing a New England team that has struggled offensively compared to the first half of the season. The return of Justin Houston will make it even tougher to score on the Chiefs, and Kansas City ranks fifth with 29 takeaways.
Given the choice, New England would likely select a matchup with Houston in the divisional round. The Patriots have already beaten the Texans on the road this season, 27-6, and they would be a heavy favorite in a rematch at Gillette Stadium.
Houston hasn’t lost since they faced the Patriots, ending the regular season with a three-game winning streak. But all of those victories came against the lowly AFC South, and the Texans are in the playoffs because they took advantage of a weak schedule. Five of Houston’s nine wins came against one of the worst divisions in recent NFL history, though they did pick up quality wins against the Bengals and Jets. The Texans have been inconsistent this season, though their defense has looked to be among the best when they are at the top of their game.
When Houston wins, it’s because opposing offenses have a very difficult time putting points on the board. The Texans allowed 10 points or fewer in seven of their nine victories, and J.J. Watt is as good as ever with 17.5 sacks and 76 tackles this season. Houston, however, allowed at least 24 points to three of the four playoff teams they faced.