All things considered, the AFC playoff field shook out pretty well for the Patriots.
Their win over the Jets on Sunday clinched the No. 2 seed in the conference, earning the Patriots the all-important first-round bye and Divisional Round home game, where they will face either the Texans, Ravens or Chargers at 1 p.m. Jan. 13.
And the rest of the AFC bracket shapes up about as well as possible for the Patriots, considering the circumstances.
Of course, the circumstances are worse than usual for the Patriots. They don’t have the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs, because they lost that crazy game to Miami on the final play. The Patriots are 11-5, winning fewer than 12 games for the first time since 2009 and finishing a game behind the Chiefs. They have issues on both sides of the football, and don’t look like a clear favorite against any of the other five playoff teams. The Patriots are part of the pack this year, not above it, and will get a tough challenge in any game they play.
That said, the AFC is wide open this year, and it is not unreasonable to envision a scenario where the Patriots still end up hosting the AFC Championship game.
Let’s take a look at each of the five playoff teams, and how they match up with the Patriots:
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
The Patriots beat the Chiefs in Week 6, 43-40, but any objective fan should admit that the Chiefs are the better team, and the class of the AFC.
The Chiefs scored the most points in the NFL, Pat Mahomes became just the third quarterback to throw for 50 touchdowns in a season, and they will have home-field advantage, which historically has been one of the best in the NFL. Arrowhead Stadium is loud, intense, and tough on opponents — Tom Brady’s last trip there was a 41-14 loss in 2014.
That said, this is still the Chiefs, and they have a lot of ghosts. They have lost their last three playoff games under Andy Reid, and have lost 11 of their last 12 playoff games as a franchise. They haven’t won a home playoff game since 1993.
And this year’s team has some weaknesses. The defense ranked 29th in points and 31st in yards entering Sunday’s game. And they have lost almost all of their big games this season — at New England, at LA Rams, at home to the Chargers and at Seattle. Their one signature win was an overtime home victory over the Ravens.
If the Patriots have to go to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game, they will have a tough time keeping up in a track meet. But it’s not so crazy to see a scenario in which the Patriots beat the Texans at home in the Divisional Round, the Chiefs lose at home to the Ravens or Chargers, and the Patriots end up hosting the AFC Championship game.
3. Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans would automatically come to Foxborough if they win their wild-card game, but first have to get through a tough Colts team, which won in Houston in Week 14.
After starting 0-3, they finished on an 11-2 tear, losing only by 3 points to the Colts and 2 points to the Eagles. Deshaun Watson is a far different player than he was in Week 1 against the Patriots, looking as dynamic as ever both as a runner and thrower. The Texans’ defense is also for real, and J.J. Watt is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate again.
That said, is there any other team the Patriots would rather see coming to Foxborough for the Divisional Round than Houston? History says no.
The Patriots are 10-1 all time against the Texans and 7-0 at home, including a 27-20 win in Week 1 this season and a 34-16 win in the Divisional Round two seasons ago. As good as the Texans may be, this is still the team that wore letterman jackets before a blowout loss to the Patriots, and another time mixed up their travel plans and got stuck in traffic coming down from Waltham. They have their demons when coming to Foxborough.
There’s no doubt the Texans will give the Patriots all they can handle in the Divisional Round. But this would be the best matchup for the Patriots.
4. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Ravens beat the Chargers in Los Angeles in Week 16, and will get a rematch in the wild-card round, this one in Baltimore. If the Colts knock off the Texans next weekend, it could send the Ravens to Foxborough for the Divisional Round — which would be the worst-case scenario for the Patriots.
The Ravens are the one team the Patriots don’t want to see. They have the No. 1 defense in the NFL, holding four of their last six opponents under 20 points. They have an electric young quarterback in Lamar Jackson whose speed is hard for the Patriots to match.
And they have a head coach and a defensive leader who aren’t afraid of the Patriots’ mystique. John Harbaugh and Terrell Suggs have beaten the Patriots twice in the playoffs at Gillette — in the 2009 wild-card round, and the 2012 AFC Championship game. And they took the Patriots to the brink in the 2014 Divisional Round, a 35-31 Patriots win that required every trick play in the book.
The Patriots’ run defense has been much better of late, and the Patriots might be able to corral Jackson and limit the Ravens’ run game. But the Ravens can win games on defense, and with the Patriots’ offense dealing with personnel issues, this matchup would have major upset potential.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)
The Chargers may be the most complete team in the playoff field. They have a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. They have a tough, veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers who doesn’t let the moment get too big for him. They have an elite running back in Melvin Gordon, and big, physical receivers in Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams. They have Pro Bowl pass rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, and an aggressive young secondary led by Pro Bowl rookie Derwin James.
On paper, this isn’t a great matchup for the Patriots, especially with their inconsistent offense matching up against the Chargers’ stout defense. The Chargers have also won big road games at Kansas City and Seattle this season. And the Chargers offer the difficulty of the unknown — they have played the Patriots just once in the last four seasons (a 21-13 Patriots win last season), and the Patriots don’t know much about coach Anthony Lynn or the team’s current personnel.
That said, it’s still the Chargers. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. They have to get through the Ravens first, who just held the Chargers to 10 points in Week 16. And having to come 3,000 miles east to play a 1 p.m. game isn’t easy.
This potential matchup is probably a toss-up on a neutral field, but tilts toward the Patriots in Foxborough.
6. Colts (10-6)
The Colts clinched the final wild-card spot on Sunday night, and have a short week to get ready for Saturday’s game at Houston. If they win, they face another road game at Kansas City. The Colts could only face the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium.
It won’t be easy, but why can’t the Colts make a run? They played two 3-point games against the Texans — a Week 4 loss in OT and a Week 14 win in Houston — and could easily pull off the upset. Andrew Luck also has a playoff win over the Chiefs on his résumé, from 2013.
The Patriots usually welcome a Colts visit with open arms. The Patriots have won their last eight games against the Colts (6-0 vs. Andrew Luck), including playoff blowouts in 2013 and 2014 and a 38-24 win this seaso,.
But this is not your usual Colts team, nor your usual dominant Patriots. The Colts have won four in a row, and nine of their last 10 games. Luck is playing like an MVP, the Colts have a dominant offensive line and run game, and the defense has been surprisingly stout, shutting out the Cowboys two weeks ago. Colts coach Frank Reich also isn’t afraid of going toe-to-toe with the Patriots after shredding their defense in last February’s Super Bowl.
The Patriots would be favored at home in the AFC Championship game, but the Colts would give them a tough game.