While it wasn't the easiest road that the team has taken over the last few years, the Patriots entered the playoffs with a first-round bye for the ninth year in a row. This gives them the chance to rest up and get an extra week to prepare for their home Divisional Round matchup next Sunday. This weekend they will get their first look at their three potential opponents.
As the #2 seed, the Patriots could potentially play the Houston Texans, the Baltimore Ravens, or the Los Angeles Chargers. The only team in the AFC playoffs that they can't face is the Indianapolis Colts because they are the sixth seed, and if they beat the Texans they will automatically head to Kansas City because the Chiefs get the lowest seed still surviving.
The Patriots have absolutely owned the Texans since the team entered the league in 2002. New England has won 10 of the 11 matchups, with their only loss coming in 2010. In fact, last year's September matchup was the only close game the two teams have had since 2013. However, that could all change next weekend if the Texans advance to Foxboro. This is the most talented team Houston has had in years.
Deshaun Watson has had a bounce-back year after his ACL tear last season. It doesn't hurt that he has arguably the best receiver in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins and a diverse weapon in running back Lamar Miller. Receiver Will Fuller and tight end Ryan Griffin also add to an impressive skill group.
The defense is also one of the most talented in the league, with heavy hitters like JJ Watt, Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney. They also have an elite secondary consisting of Jonathan Joseph, Tyrann Mathieu, and rookie Justin Reid.
The Ravens have a chance to shock the world after going on an unsuspected run with Lamar Jackson. The rookie has led them to six wins in the teams previous seven games, including key wins over the Chargers and Browns. They also gave the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs an overtime scare. If there is a team that no one should want to play right not in the playoffs, it's the Ravens.
Their offense isn't perfect, but it has enough talent and diversity to make it challenging to stop. Jackson has not exactly been a prolific passer, throwing for only 1201 yards and six touchdowns at a 58% rate in his seven starts. However, he is a dynamic runner who has added five touchdowns and nearly 700 yards on the ground. His dual-threat ability is second to none in the NFL right now. He is helped at running back by Gus Edwards and Alex Collins who have combined for 11 touchdowns and over 1100 yards. Jackson's receiver group is a ragtag but adequate group that includes John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead.
The Ravens defense has been one of the best in the league this year. They are giving up the least yards per game, and the second least points per game. They also give up the lowest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. It is an elite unit with a quiet group of players. CJ Mosely, Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphrey, and Patrick Onwuasor are just a few of the names that the Patriots would need to worry about in the Divisional Round. This Ravens defense has the talent and the swagger to come into Foxboro and steal a victory.
I’m not sure what LA is this year. They have some impressive wins over good teams, but they’ve also played a lot of close games against bad teams. They have talent, but do they have the experience to win four road games to earn a Super Bowl title? I’m not convinced, but I’ve been wrong many times before.
LA has the weapons on offense to compete with any team in the league. Their receiver corps is solid; Keenan Allen has quietly been one of the best receivers in the league; Mike Williams has come back from early career struggles to be an effective pass catcher; Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin have deep threat potential; Antonio Gates and Virgil Green are solid tight end options. Phillip Rivers has more than enough players to distribute the ball to, which explains why he is having one of the best seasons of his career. He also has Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, who have combined for over 1400 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, over 1000 receiving yards, and seven touchdown receptions. They have been an extremely effective unit all season.
Not to be outdone, the Chargers defense is stacked top to bottom. Their line is anchored by Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. When healthy, Bosa is one of the most talented pass rushers in the league. Ingram has consistently been one of the best DE/LBs over the past four seasons. The Chargers secondary is another force thanks to solid cornerbacks like Mike Davis, Desmond King, and Casey Hayward. They are led by rookie Derwin James, who has been one of the best defensive players in the league this season (he was my pick for defensive ROY). They are a talented group that has the versatility to play both the run and pass.
The Patriots road to the AFC Championship game will not be an easy one, no matter which one of these teams comes to Foxboro next weekend. They will need to be disciplined and prepared if they want to avoid a home upset.