No matter whom the Patriots play in the first round of the playoffs, it will be a tough opponent.
The Titans, Chiefs, Bengals, Bills, and Colts are all formidable. And without Tom Brady, the Patriots are no longer the clear alpha in the AFC. They may be 10-6 this season, but they are just 3-4 against playoff teams.
The Patriots won’t know their opponent until after Sunday’s regular-season finale at Miami. And they won’t know if they have to play on the road (likeliest), at home (possible), or if they get the first-round bye (if lightning strikes).
But there is one matchup the Patriots should be rooting for. There is one team they really, badly should want to play in the first round.
The Buffalo Bills.
That may be asking for trouble. The Bills, 10-6 and needing a win over the Jets to wrap up the AFC East title, just blew the Patriots off the field two weeks ago in Foxborough, 33-21. They clearly have the better quarterback in Josh Allen, and the more talented roster.
But if I’m the Patriots, I say bring on Round 3 with the Bills. And all the better if it’s in Buffalo. That will be the matchup if the current standings hold, with the Bills No. 4 in the AFC and the Patriots No. 5.
There are myriad reasons for the Patriots to believe that a third matchup with the Bills would go better than the second date. And for them to want to play that game at Highmark Stadium instead of Gillette Stadium.
The primary reason is that the Bills have been an inconsistent mess at home. While they are an identical 5-3 at home and on the road, some of their worst games have been played in front of their home fans: a 23-16 loss to the Steelers in Week 1, a 41-15 loss to the Colts in Week 11, and a 14-10 loss to the Patriots in Week 13. They also struggled in what should have been easy home wins over the Dolphins, Panthers, and Falcons.
Meanwhile, the Bills have gone on the road and knocked off the Chiefs and Patriots (never mind the 9-6 loss at Jacksonville). The Bills are second in the NFL in points per game on the road (30.8), and only 11th at home (26.1).
Allen, their fourth-year quarterback, has been Jekyll-and-Hyde with his home and road performances:
▪ Eight home games: 226 passing yards per game, 60.8 completion percentage, 6.2 yards per attempt, 15 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions, and an 85.8 passer rating.
▪ Eight road games: 295 passing yards per game, 67.1 completion percentage, 7.6 yards per attempt, 19 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions, and a 99.4 passer rating.
Just last week, in what should have been a layup win over the Falcons, Allen completed just 11 of 26 passes for 120 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions. The Bills still won by two scores, but the game was a lot closer, and sloppier, than it should have been.
And there are other reasons for the Patriots to want to play the game in Buffalo. The pressure on the Bills to win, in what would be just their third home playoff game in 25 years, will be immense. The fact that the hated Patriots would be the opponent would only increase the hype, and the pressure to win, to an 11 out of 10.
The Bills also aren’t great in bad weather, as we saw in their blustery loss to the Patriots a month ago, and in their struggles in the snow against the Falcons. The Bills don’t have a consistent running game, and Allen can struggle with his accuracy in tough conditions. While inclement weather is always possible in Foxborough, it’s almost a guarantee in Buffalo, especially if the game is played in the new Monday night playoff slot.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are 6-1 on the road (and just 4-5 at home). Unlike the matchup two weeks ago, this time it would be the Patriots with a chip on their shoulder, looking for revenge, and playing with a nothing-to-lose mentality as road underdogs.
Finally, give me the wits and preparation of Bill Belichick in a third matchup against any team. Only three times in his 27-year head coaching coaching career has Belichick faced a team three times in a season, and he actually is 1-2 in the rubber match — a loss to the Jets in January 2011, a win over the Jets in January 2007, and a loss to the Steelers as Browns coach in January 1995.
But three games aren’t statistically significant. In his Patriots tenure, Belichick is 45-20 (.692) against AFC East teams in the second game of the regular-season series.
The Bills definitely are the more talented team, and Belichick didn’t have any answers for Allen two weeks ago, unable to force even a single punt. But I like his chances of figuring out a new plan of attack and finding a way to slow down Allen.
As for the other potential wild-card matchups, the Patriots probably don’t have to be too worried about the Chargers or Raiders. But they don’t match up well against the real AFC contenders, especially if they have to go on the road.
It’s hard to get a read on the Titans, who currently hold the No. 1 seed. They have a great coach in Mike Vrabel, are going to get Derrick Henry back for the playoffs, and have shown impressive toughness and perseverance in battling through a ton of injuries. But Henry may not be 100 percent, quarterback Ryan Tannehill can’t win games by himself, and the Titans haven’t been consistent all year. Still, going to Nashville for a playoff game wouldn’t be fun.
The Chiefs certainly aren’t a preferred opponent. A trip to Arrowhead Stadium is always difficult, and the Chiefs have hit their stride on offense, scoring more than 37 points per game over the last four weeks.
The Bengals don’t have any playoff experience, but they may be the hottest team in the league, and have arguably the best collection of offensive talent in the NFL. The Patriots also have zero familiarity with the Bengals personnel and coaching staff, which could work against them as much as it does for them.
And the Colts have already beaten the Patriots with a terrific offensive line, an opportunistic defense, and an aggressive coach in Frank Reich who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with Belichick.
Any matchup in the playoffs probably will be a toss-up. And if the Patriots have to play on the road, they probably be will underdogs.
But there is one specific opponent that they have to be rooting for.
Bring on the Bills. In Buffalo.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.