Three teams enter Wild Card Weekend with a chance of facing the New England Patriots in the divisional round.
Only one team will earn that chance.
It can't be the No. 6-seeded San Diego Chargers—if they win, they automatically travel to face the No. 1-seeded Denver Broncos, who have earned the right to face the lowest-seeded team that advances. That leaves the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs as potential Patriots opponents.
"Three opponents we can possibly face," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, "we'll try to get some work done on them preliminarily until we know for sure who it is. Really we're just trying to grind it out here and find ways to improve."
Each of the three opponents brings its own unique set of challenges, but which one presents the least favorable matchup for the Patriots?
Let's take a look at the teams, assign them a matchup rating on a scale of 1-10 (higher is more difficult for the Patriots) and see if we can come to some kind of a conclusion on the matter.
Offense: This group starts with quarterback Andrew Luck. The passing game took a step back when Luck's favorite target, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, went down with a season-ending injury. As you would expect from the No. 1 overall pick, Luck was still able to spread the ball around to other receivers.
T.Y. Hilton is exactly the kind of smaller, quicker receiver who gives cornerback Aqib Talib some problems. Tight end Coby Fleener is the kind of bigger, athletic tight end who gives the Patriots linebackers problems.
There will be matchups that Luck will look to exploit. Another name to watch out for is wide receiver Griff Whalen, who came on strong in the final three games of the year, with a combined 15 receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns.
The Colts have turned the ball over just 14 times, which is the fewest in the league. As the Patriots often like to win the turnover battle, they'll have their work cut out for them.
Defense: This group starts with linebacker Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks. That's 14 sacks more than anyone else on the roster. The Colts have been competent in pass defense, with cornerbacks Vontae Davis and familiar face Darius Butler leading the way. As a team, they've yielded 231 passing yards per game.
Their run defense, on the other hand, has struggled. They were in the bottom 10 in nearly every category that matters, yielding 125 yards per game and 4.5 yards per rush attempt. The Colts allowed over 100 yards rushing in eight straight games in 2013.
Strength: Luck hasn't been a dominant fantasy quarterback, but he has the talent to put the team on his back. We've seen the Patriots secondary get exposed over the past few weeks, and if it's not back to full health for next Sunday, Luck and his receivers could feast.
Weakness: Despite making the biggest in-season trade in some time, giving up a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson, the Colts really don't have much of a running game. The Patriots would also benefit from a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount in the running game to take advantage of the Colts' struggling front seven.
Matchup Rating (1-10): 6
Offense: Quarterback Andy Dalton has plenty of weapons at his disposal and has spread the ball around well this year. The Bengals' added two rookies, running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert, have come in and helped the offense immediately.
The goal was to take some of the burden off wide receiver A.J. Green, but the 6'4", 207-pound wideout actually improved on his numbers from last season. They were still a multifaceted attack, though, with five players over 40 receptions and another player with 39.
The Bengals want to be balanced on offense, ranking eighth in rush attempts and 12th in pass attempts, but their running game has not been nearly as effective on a per-play basis (3.6 YPA ranks 28th) as the passing game (7.4 YPA ranks 10th).
Defense: The Bengals have been without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the final seven games of the year, but their defense has still been highly impressive and finished the season ranked fifth in scoring (19.1 points per game). It created 31 turnovers, the third most in the league, with cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones leading the way with three interceptions apiece.
Defensive ends Michael Johnson, Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap have wreaked havoc off the edges this year. Gilberry and Dunlap each have 7.5 sacks, and although Johnson has fewer sacks, he creates pressure more consistently than Gilberry.
Strength: The Bengals' plethora of skill-position players on offense could be more than the Patriots can handle, even with Andy Dalton delivering the passes. The Bengals haven't been successful running the ball overall this year, but they were able to beat the Patriots in Week 5 thanks to a heavy dose of the running game, with 19 rush attempts for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and 13 for Bernard.
Weakness: As much as the Bengals have so many talented players, the Patriots' best bet may be to force them into a shootout. Dalton has been up and down throughout his career and this season, with nearly as many games with two or more interceptions (five) as games with three or more touchdowns (six).
Matchup Rating (1-10): 7
Kansas City Chiefs
Offense: Jamaal Charles is the engine that makes the Chiefs offense go. He's been remarkably consistent, averaging over four yards per carry in 12 of 16 games this year—and in one of those games, Charles went off for 195 receiving yards.
Charles really hit stride at the end of the season, with at least one touchdown in each of his last five games. He has an elite first step and breakaway speed, which have helped him amass 20 carries of 15 yards or more, tied for second-most in the league.
The biggest difference has been the efficient play of quarterback Alex Smith. The Chiefs haven't asked him to bear the burden of the offensive production, but he has been accurate enough and efficient enough to keep the offense on schedule. According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs throw fewer interceptions per drive of any team.
Defense: The defense is loaded with talent, even considering injuries to outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Derrick Johnson may be the best bet of any linebacker in the playoffs when it comes to the challenge of covering Shane Vereen.
Their defensive line, spearheaded by Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito and Tyson Jackson, has been stout in run defense and has freed up Johnson and the rest of the linebackers to make plays.
But you really can't talk about this defense without mentioning Eric Berry, who has three interceptions with two of them returned for touchdowns this year. He has once again been one of the best overall safeties in the league, but particularly for his abilities in pass defense.
Strength: As mentioned previously, the Chiefs offense is dependent on its ability to be effective on the ground. It ranked fifth in the league with an average of 4.7 yards per carry. The Patriots run defense has been a weak link all season, and the Chiefs will certainly look to Charles and the running game to take advantage of that.
The Chiefs also have a physical, athletic duo of cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith who can play tight man coverage and knock the receivers off their routes. The pass rush has lost its two strongest players, but the Chiefs may find their way into some coverage sacks thanks to those two corners.
Weakness: Without the two star pass-rushers, the Chiefs defense has been struggling to get after the quarterback and has logged just 10 sacks in the past five games since Houston's departure. If the Patriots offensive line can keep Tom Brady upright, he'll have time to find favorable matchups against the Chiefs third or fourth cornerbacks.
Matchup Rating (1-10): 8
If the Patriots' struggling run defense doesn't tighten up in time for its first playoff game, the Chiefs would instantly become the best-equipped team to beat the Patriots because of Jamaal Charles. The Patriots have flashed the ability to stop the run in recent weeks, but that remains the area that teams should be testing the most in the playoffs.
The Chiefs defense also features the best pair of corners when it comes to wiping away the Patriots' passing game, and the presence of a solid coverage linebacker and one of the rangiest safeties in the league could cause problems if the Patriots want to live over the middle of the field in the passing game.
Andrew Luck is the best quarterback of the group, so if the Patriots want to avoid facing a top-tier passer, they should hope to face either the Chiefs or Bengals.
Both Alex Smith and Andy Dalton are limited in their abilities, although both have the ability to be efficient enough with the ball and avoid mistakes.
The Bengals clearly have the best group of pass-catchers of the Patriots' potential playoff opponents. A.J. Green could be a tough matchup for Aqib Talib, whether or not he's at full health. As mentioned previously, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham are exactly the athletic, physical kinds of tight ends who give the Patriots problems.
Each team presents its challenges, but overall, the Chiefs appear to be the worst matchup of the three teams.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!