The six AFC teams in the playoffs are set, and there is a round of wild-card games to be played before the Patriots learn their first opponent in the postseason.
But it’s not too soon to scout the possibilities. Here’s a look at potential opponents.
Record: 12-4, No. 2 seed
Regular season vs. Patriots: In Week 9, the Broncos were overwhelmed by the Patriots, 43-21, at Gillette Stadium.
First playoff opponent: The Broncos have a first-round bye, and will learn their first opponent after the wild-card games.
When they could meet: The Patriots would host the Broncos only in the AFC Championship game.
Scouting report: The Broncos finished the regular season on a high note Sunday, beating up on the Raiders, 47-14. In the win, Peyton Manning was held without a touchdown pass for the second time in December, and finished with 273 yards passing. Though the Broncos have the fourth-best passing attack in the league (291.3 yards per game), Manning has completed only 60 percent of his throws the last two weeks, below his season average of 66.2, and has thrown only two touchdowns against four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. C.J. Anderson has emerged as a solid ballcarrier for the Broncos (849 yards, eight TDs) after injuries to Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball depleted the depth at running back. The Bengals proved in Week 16 that the Broncos’ second-ranked run defense (79.8 yards per game) can be softened, rushing for more than 200 yards. But don’t be fooled by that loss to the Bengals; Denver is still the most likely team to challenge New England in the playoffs, especially the Patriots’ secondary, which was lit up in Week 9 for 438 yards. Confusing Manning, making him uncomfortable in the pocket, and changing defensive looks often, as the Patriots did in their win, is the way to take down the Broncos.
Record: 11-5, No. 3 seed
Regular season vs. Patriots: The teams did not meet.
First playoff opponent: The Steelers host the Ravens Saturday at 8:15 p.m. (NBC) in the wild-card round.
When they could meet: The Patriots would host the Steelers only in the AFC Championship game.
Scouting report: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had one of his best seasons, leading an offense that ranks second in yards per game (411.1). Roethlisberger completed a career-best 67.1 percent of his passes for 4,952 yards, 32 touchdowns, and just 9 interceptions. Roethlisberger’s play has been complemented by the running of Le’Veon Bell, who had 1,361 yards (third in the NFL) and eight touchdowns on 290 carries. Bell is also a threat out of the backfield, catching 83 passes for 854 yards and three scores. However, he sustained a knee injury Sunday night against the Bengals and is iffy for the playoff game. Antonio Brown led the league in receiving with 127 catches for 1,698 yards and 12 touchdowns. The trio helped Pittsburgh rattle off 32 plays of at least 30 yards, which was second in the league to Denver (34), and win six of nine games decided by one score. The Steelers are riding a four-game winning streak (11.4-point margin of victory), though their defense is ranked 18th overall at 353.4 yards per game.
Record: 11-5, No. 4 seed
Regular season vs. Patriots: In Week 11, on Sunday night, Jonas Gray garnered national attention in the Patriots’ 42-20 win.
First playoff opponent: The Colts host the Bengals Sunday at 1:05 p.m. (CBS) in the wild-card round.
When they could meet: The Patriots would host the Colts in the divisional round if Indianapolis takes care of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh defeats Baltimore.
Scouting report: It’s no secret that the Colts have the best passing attack in the league (305.9 yards per game) with a league-leading 78 passes going for at least 20 yards. Andrew Luck had 4,761 passing yards (surpassing Peyton Manning for the franchise record) with 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. T.Y. Hilton, who was inactive Sunday, was 55 yards shy of becoming the third Colt to have a 1,400-yard receiving season, which would have put him in the company of Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. But the trouble for the Colts comes on the ground, where they ranked 22d in the NFL at 100.8 yards a game. They had 98 rushes go for 0 or negative yardage. They were held under 100 yards eight times, including against New England (19 yards) and Dallas (1 yard). Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw accounted for five of the team’s nine rushing touchdowns (T-23d) and averaged 3.8 yards a carry. The defense hasn’t been stellar at forcing turnovers, with a minus-5 margin, and tied at 17th with 12 interceptions. Luck’s postseason record is 1-2.
Record: 10-5-1, No. 5 seed
Regular season vs. Patriots: In Week 5, New England dismantled Cincinnati, 43-17, at home after coming off an embarrassing loss at Kansas City.
First playoff opponent: The Bengals visit the Colts Sunday at 1:05 p.m. (CBS) in the wild card round.
When they could meet: The Patriots would host the Bengals in the divisional round if Cincinnati knocks off Indianapolis and Pittsburgh defeats Baltimore.
Scouting report: Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined to power the Bengals’ running game, which ranked sixth in the NFL at 134.2 yards a game. The offensive line gave up 23 sacks, third-fewest in the league, and manhandled the Broncos’ defensive line in a Week 16 victory. But the Bengals’ 15th-ranked offense has a propensity to cough up the ball, as Hill and Andy Dalton had eight combined fumbles (three lost) and Dalton was picked off 17 times (tied for third-most in the league). The defense made the Bengals’ turnover margin a wash (0) and tied for sixth in the league with 18 interceptions, four of which came in Week 16 against Denver. Though this is the fourth consecutive season the Bengals have made the playoffs, Dalton has yet to win in the postseason — he’s 0-3, with one touchdown pass and six interceptions — and the Bengals will likely have to duplicate Week 16’s all-around performance to notch a victory.
Record: 10-6, No. 6 seed
Regular season vs. Patriots: The teams did not meet.
First playoff opponent: The Ravens visit the Steelers Sunday at 8:15 p.m. (NBC) in the wild-card round.
When they could meet: The Patriots would host the Ravens in the divisional round if Baltimore upsets Pittsburgh on the road.
Scouting report: The Ravens can thank Philip Rivers and the Chargers for losing to Kansas City Sunday, which helped get them in the playoffs. In their regular-season finale, a 20-10 come-from-behind win over the Browns, Joe Flacco threw for 312 yards and two scores while completing 61 percent of his passes. Flacco was complemented by Justin Forsett’s 119 yards on 17 carries, bringing his season total to 1,266. In Week 16, John Harbaugh & Co. suffered a 25-13 defeat at Houston, a game in which the offense was held to just 211 yards, with Flacco throwing three interceptions. The Ravens’ rushing attack has done well this season (eighth overall at 126.2 yards a game), with Forsett emerging as a rusher who averaged more than 5 yards a carry. Flacco and his receivers have been middle-of-the-road (13th overall), averaging 238.7 yards a game, and the quarterback hasn’t had many flashy stat lines this season, throwing for 300 yards just three times. The Ravens’ rushing defense has been stout (fourth overall), allowing more than 100 yards just four times, but the pass defense was only 24th, giving up nearly 250 yards a game.
Follow Rachel G. Bowers on Twitter at @rachelgbowers.