The resilient Patriots will have to band together to overcome the league's toughest opponents in January.
The New England Patriots' playoff campaign starts with an automatic win, thanks to an impressive 12-4 season that secured a first-round bye.
From there, things get tougher, as New England will host one of the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts or Kansas City Chiefs. If they survive that bout, they'll either travel to Denver for an AFC Championship Game against the Broncos, or host the San Diego Chargers.
Then, of course, there's the prospect of the Super Bowl in New Jersey against the NFC's elite.
Let's take a look at six opposing players the Patriots will need to be prepared for in January and (hopefully) February.
The Patriots have a deep array of talented cornerbacks that should be able to hang with Cincinnati's wide receiver corps. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw for just 128 yards to wide receivers in the Pats' Week 5 loss to the Bengals.
The place New England will struggle is in coverage against the Bengals' other weapons, notably rookie running back Giovani Bernard. The Pats are ranked just 20th in coverage against running backs per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and they're 24th in the league in yards allowed per carry. That doesn't bode well for their results against Bernard, a shifty and versatile back who could tear apart the Patriots if they don't maintain flats responsibly.
Last time Bernard faced the Pats, he had nearly 70 total yards, and that was in his fifth NFL game, and it came before the Patriots lost top linebacker Jerod Mayo to injured reserve. If the Pats aren't careful, Bernard could finish with a game like C.J. Spiller's in Week 17 (133 total yards, 5.5 YPA).
At 32 years old, the Indianapolis Colts' Robert Mathis hasn't shown signs of slowing down.
He's had a phenomenal season, with 19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles. ProFootballFocus (subscription required) ranks him as the second-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, both overall and as a pass-rusher (behind Justin Houston and Elvis Dumervil, respectively). They grade him respectably against the run, too (13th).
Mathis' move to the defensive right side (the QB's "blind side") following the departure of Dwight Freeney has proved immensely successful for the Colts, and the Pats will need to scheme to help the left side of their offensive line protect against his blindside rushes. With Nate Solder and Logan Mankins banged up, the Patriots will likely need to keep a tight end on the left side of the line to chip Mathis off the snap.
The Patriots can't afford to yield a big strip sack to one of the league's best at creating them.
Jamaal Charles finished as the Chiefs' leading rusher and receiver with 70 catches and 1,980 total yards.
After another impressive season, he'll be the biggest weapon that the Patriots will need to stop.
The problem with defending Charles, as with Bernard on the Bengals, is that he can exploit multiple personnel packages. Opt for a nickel package, and your defense will get bullied on the ground. Stay in base defense to beat him physically, and he'll slip out of the backfield and beat your slow LBs.
The Patriots will likely focus their game plan on slowing Charles and forcing QB Alex Smith to make plays, but they have to be careful. Brandon Spikes is their best weapon against Charles between the tackles, but he's also liable to get demolished in coverage by the Chiefs RB.
Julius Thomas didn't play in the Patriots' overtime win against the Broncos in Week 12. Rob Gronkowski did. That's a pretty big swing for a matchup in which the Pats already had to overcome a 24-point deficit to win.
Thomas will be a big problem for the Pats in coverage. They'll already have their top corner Aqib Talib on star wideout Demaryius Thomas. The safeties will be crawling all over the field, in deep support for Talib, bracketing Eric Decker or Wes Welker underneath or playing man against Knowshon Moreno. That means there will be times when a LB has to stop Thomas (65 catches, 788 yards) in man coverage by himself.
The biggest problem will come in the red zone, as Thomas hauled in 12 touchdowns this season. The Patriots will likely have their hands full in this matchup.
Keenan Allen has emerged as a favorite target of Philip Rivers in a San Diego offense that ranks third in the NFL in offensive DVOA, behind just Denver and Philly.
Allen, a third-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, has had an impressive rookie campaign. He was moved into a top-receiver role for the Chargers in Week 4, and he's responded with one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory.
Allen finished with 1,046 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, including a whopping 14.7 yards per catch. Against a Patriots defense that likes to force offenses to convert a high number of plays in order to score, a big-play threat like Allen could pose a problem.
The Patriots may want to put Aqib Talib on Allen, who is physical, quick and a crisp route-runner. However, that would expose them to TE Antonio Gates, the Chargers' overall leading pass-catcher by receptions. If Talib moves to cover Gates, New England will likely try and support whoever is covering Allen with zone shells.
The Patriots' last four playoff losses came to Joe Flacco (twice), Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson is better than any of them and has a team that's as good or better than those Ravens, Jets or Giants squads.
Wilson beat the Pats in their first and only matchup last season. His ability to escape the pocket and either extend passing plays or turn them into scrambles (539 rushing yards this season, 5.6 YPC) will slow the Pats pass-rushers, who will be more concerned with keeping containment than getting upfield.
The Pats won't be able to crash their ends inside like they did with the immobilized Flacco in Week 16; and that means Wilson will get more time to make plays. With his elite defense slowing Tom Brady, Wilson could prove to be an immensely tough matchup should the Patriots and Seahawks both make the Super Bowl.