Ranking the New England Patriots' Potential AFC Playoff Opponents

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Ranking the New England Patriots' Potential AFC Playoff Opponents
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The New England Patriots earned a first-round bye with their Week 17 win over the Miami Dolphins.

They will now await the results of the first round to find out who they will face in their first postseason game.

Just because they won't be playing this weekend doesn't mean they can't get involved. They can cheer full-throat for whichever team they feel gives them the easiest matchup. 

The Patriots offense isn't likely to be stopped by anyone but itself; the defense, on the other hand, still has weaknesses that can be exposed by the right opponents.

This is how I rank how each AFC playoff team stacks up against the Patriots.

 

5. Cincinnati Bengals

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I will probably regret putting the Bengals in the No. 5 spot. They rank eighth in scoring defense and 12th in scoring offense. They have won seven of their last eight games, a streak which includes statement wins over the Steelers and Giants

This week, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton takes on the very same team that handed him his first postseason defeat a year ago: the Houston Texans. In that game, Dalton threw three interceptions. is only in his second year, so his lack of big game experience may or may not be an issue. The Bengals will not have to wait long to find out.

If the Bengals take on the Patriots, they may find his lack of ball security unsettling; Dalton threw 16 interceptions this year, and his 3.0 interception percentage ranked ninth-worst among starting quarterbacks. The Patriots feast off turnovers, and could make life tough on Dalton if he's not careful.

One issue they may find unsettling is their lack of receiving talent. Outside of second-year receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals lack big play threats. In fact, Andrew Hawkins is the team's second-leading wide receiver and has just 51 receptions to Green's 97, 74 targets to Green's 158 and just four touchdowns to Green's 11. 

They have a weapon in their passing arsenal that may be able to take advantage of the Patriots defense even better than a receiver in the form of tight end Jermaine Gresham. The third-year tight end had 64 receptions and five touchdowns this year, and has been a big part of the Bengals pass attack all year with 92 balls thrown his way.

The Bengals are average in a lot of areas, but one of them is not the pass rush. They finished the season with 51 sacks, ranking second in the NFL. Fifteen of those sacks came from defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domato Peko; if the Bengals get an interior rush from those two, along with standout defensive end Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks in 2012), they could put the brakes on the Patriots offense.

From there, it's up to Dalton to remain efficient and avoid mistakes in the passing game.

 

4. Indianapolis Colts

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Since starting 2-3, the Colts went 9-2 to finish the season. They inspired a city, and the country as a whole in fighting through the adversity of losing their head coach while he fought and won a battle with leukemia. 

Their personnel indicates they do not stand a great chance of a deep run in the playoffs.

They went 3-2 against playoff teams this year, proving that they can contend with the teams they'll be seeing down the stretch.

A lot of that has to do with the phenomenal play of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the emergence of some of his weapons.

Luck's ability to extend plays with his legs and to find receivers downfield has helped the Colts convert 42.8 percent of their third downs, the seventh-best average in the league. The Patriots, on the other hand, were kicking near the bottom of the league in third down defense earlier this season. They ranked 29th following Week 13, but closed out the season strong in allowing just one-third of third downs to be converted.

That being said, the Patriots tend to do very well against young quarterbacks, and capitalized on some mistakes by Luck in their 59-24 triumph earlier this season, with the rookie throwing three interceptions and completing 54 percent of his passes.

The Colts defense doesn't rank very well in any statistical category, but Chuck Pagano has had some success against Brady with the Ravens. With Pagano leading the charge, the Colts defense could bring the right package to put the brakes on the league's No. 1-ranked offense.

 

3. Houston Texans

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The Texans were sent on a 1-3 tailspin to close out the season, beginning with their 42-14 loss to the Patriots on Monday Night Football.  

Arian Foster is the life force of this offense; he leads the NFL in rush attempts and in touchdowns.

However, there are significant questions as to whether quarterback Matt Schaub can lead the charge for the Texans headed into the playoffs. He has yet to come up big in a big game, most recently throwing two ill-advised interceptions against the Colts in a game that cost the Texans a first-round bye. He has played average in games the Texans have won, and that's on the strength of their defense.

It turns out, though, the defense may not be such a strength against the Patriots.

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves to blitz, and did so 22 times against the Patriots in their first meeting. Brady, however, is adept at beating the blitz, and the Texans were unsuccessful virtually every time. Brady found the weak spots in the secondary, and the Texans allowed 14 completions and three of Brady's four passing touchdowns when they blitzed.

Phillips will need to divert from his blitz-happy ways if they're to stand a chance at slowing down Brady. Even Jets head coach Rex Ryan resigned himself to that very principle when the Jets beat the Patriots in the 2010 divisional playoffs.

The scoreboard may have indicated otherwise in Week 14, but the Texans still have some of the necessary personnel to get it done against New England. The Patriots offense stalled out for three straight drives to end the first half and its first drive of the second half, giving Houston plenty of opportunities to get back in the game. The number of opportunities the Texans will have to get back in the game will be slim if the Patriots offense finds an early groove.

 

2. Baltimore Ravens

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Both the Patriots and the Ravens have changed dramatically since that meeting: the Patriots for the better, the Ravens for the worse. That being said, the Ravens are the only team in the AFC playoff field that has defeated the Patriots, and they always give the Patriots a hard-fought game.

Although the Ravens are only 2-3 against the Patriots under Joe Flacco, the quarterback has been successful in his career against New England. His stat line—64.7 percent completions, 7.6 YPA, 95.6 passer rating—all consists of marks that are better than his career numbers.

Receivers like Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin also pose a threat to New England's defense, as they proved in Week 3 by combining for 10 receptions, 175 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots have typically fared well against Ravens running back Ray Rice, but he had a big day against them in the previous meeting with 150 total yards of offense on 25 touches. 

The Patriots offense was making it look easy against the Ravens defense until the fourth quarter, so it will come down to whether the Ravens defense can weather the storm and whether the offense can keep pace.

 

1. Denver Broncos

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It doesn't matter who the Broncos have won their 11 straight games against. They are the hottest team in the AFC headed into the playoffs.

Peyton Manning is playing at an elite level once again, and regardless of the stat line, he always seems to find a way to make it interesting.

The Broncos have played some dominant football over the past 11 games, but the Patriots scored a combined 117 points in three games against the Broncos defense over the past two seasons.

If the Patriots were to get off to a quick start against the Broncos, they would be perpetuating what has become an ongoing plot with the Patriots against Manning: an early lead, followed by a dramatic finish.

This game will come down to the duel of Brady and Manning. In recent games, Manning has struggled early but always seems to make a late push to bring the game within reach. If the Broncos defense can weather the storm against New England, Manning will be able to warm up and get in rhythm.

Which team poses the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC playoffs?

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The Broncos defense is a different animal when they have a lead; they have allowed a 76.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks when leading by one or more points, and an 85 passer rating when tied or trailing.

The Broncos have a fierce pass rush that has generated a league-leading 52 sacks, but they have trailed to 12 different quarterbacks, and have only sacked them a collective 13 times when trailing. Giving the Broncos any kind of early cushion could give the defense all it needs to tee off on Brady.

That being said, Brady has posted a 120.9 combined passer rating in the past three games against the Broncos, completing 69.2 percent of his passes and throwing nine touchdowns against just one interception. Unless their defense can find a way to slow him down, he may enjoy another big game if these two teams meet in the AFC Championship.

Still, the task of taking down Peyton Manning in Denver (where the Broncos are 7-1 this season) is daunting enough to put the Broncos at the top of the list.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.

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