As most Patriots fans know, the road to Arizona will be coming through New England, which means the Patriots have a first round bye and play the lowest seeded team to come out of the wild card round. Let's take a look at the first round playoff match ups in the AFC.
-Saturday, January 3rd, 8:15 PM (NBC): (6) Baltimore Ravens at (3) Pittsburgh Steelers
This should be a fun, competitive game between the AFC North Rivals. I say competitive because it's a rivalry game, but it could turn one-sided in favor of the Steelers. The injury to Leveon Bell is something to keep an eye on, but Pittsburgh is hot right now. I'd argue they're the de-facto two seed in the AFC, given Peyton Manning's inability to throw down field if the conditions aren't perfect, which they never are in the playoffs. The Steelers have a very high powered, balanced offense. In fact, they are the first offense in NFL history to have a 4,500 yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger), 1,500 yard receiver (Antonio Brown), and a 1,300 yard rusher (Leveon Bell). That's an impressive record to have. Antonio Brown is arguably the best receiver in the NFL, and with Ben Roethlisberger playing at a high level, this offense is fun to watch. Baltimore on the other hand, they squeaked into the playoffs thanks to a Chargers loss. Some Patriots fans don't want Baltimore coming to New England, but I'd welcome it. Both teams are different than they were in 2011 and 2012...one is better and one is worse. In a perfect world, the Ravens would win and we'd get them here in Foxboro. Unfortunately, I don't see Pittsburgh losing to the Ravens, especially at home.
-Sunday, January 4th, 1:05 PM (CBS): (5) Cincinnati Bengals at (4) Indianapolis Colts
This game could go two ways. The first is that Andy Dalton plays like Andy Dalton in a big game and hands (quite literally) the win to the Colts. The second is that Andy Dalton manages the game well, Jeremy Hill has a big day on the ground, and the Bengals defense forces Andrew Luck to make some mistakes, which he is very capable of making. Most would expect the former to happen, but let's take a look at the two teams, as this match up is quite intriguing given how different the two teams are.
The Bengals are a hard team to predict. Their quarterback seems to get hot, then go cold and bring his job into question, then get hot again and reaffirm his job as the starting quarterback, only to go cold again. Their defense is a lot like their quarterback. They started the season hot, got rocked in Foxboro, struggled for a while, then got it together later in the season, culminating in a Monday night defeat of the Denver Broncos. They have a great one-two punch at running back with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, which is something to watch.
The Colts have a quarterback who is teetering on the edges of great and elite. Andrew Luck shows signs of being a top-5 quarterback in this league, but makes too many mistakes at critical times to hold down a spot in that elite category. He has elite games, but also has some games where he's nowhere near that level. Either way, Andrew Luck is a much better quarterback than Andy Dalton. On the other side of the football, the Colts are overwhelmingly mediocre. It's not a bad defense that will cost you a ball game, but it won't win you one either.
In the two scenarios I mentioned earlier, I believe the latter will happen. Andrew Luck will play well, but the Bengals will force some turnovers. As long as Andy Dalton doesn't have a meltdown, the difference will be on the ground. Hill and Bernard should be able to have their way against the Colts run defense, giving the Bengals a real opportunity to control the clock and pace of the game.
Prediction: 27-24 Cincinnati
This means the Cincinnati Bengals would be coming to Foxboro for a rematch of the Sunday night game in week 5. This is the best, most realistic scenario for New England. I wouldn't be overly worried if Indianapolis didn't get upset at home and came to Foxboro, but it's not ideal. Eventually a good quarterback like Andrew Luck is going to crack the code against Belichick in the playoffs, just as Manning eventually did. I'd rather Luck not get that opportunity next Saturday. We can all dream of the Ravens somehow defeating Pittsburgh, but it's so unlikely that I won't even bother looking into that match up until it happens.
The New England defense is playing at a high level right now, and the offense can certainly get it going as long as the offense line gets back to full health. The Bengals pose no serious threat, and does anyone really think Andy Dalton and the Bengals can win two playoff games in a row? Most people don't even think he can win this one, let alone two.
It'll be exciting to watch these two playoff games unfold, because we can predict all we want, but at the end of the day it's playoff football and anything can happen. I'm looking forward to taking a look at the new match ups we'll have next week.
If you share different feelings on this weeks games, let us know below!