New England Patriots players spoke at length this week about using their playoff bye to focus on themselves rather than their next opponent. That’s because their opponent will not be determined until Sunday.
Entering NFL Wild Card Weekend, there are three teams that could travel to Foxboro for a divisional-round matchup with the No. 1 seed Patriots next Saturday night: the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins.
For the Dolphins, that path is simple. As the No. 6 (read: lowest) seed in the AFC, they’d automatically book a trip to Gillette Stadium by defeating the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon.
The Raiders and Texans will play Saturday afternoon in the weekend’s first wild-card game, but Sunday’s game will determine whom the winner would play next. If Pittsburgh prevails, the Houston-Oakland victor would face New England. If Miami pulls off the upset, the Patriots would host the Dolphins, with the Raiders-Texans winner visiting the second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.
With that said, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Patriots’ three potential divisional-round opponents. Since New England cannot play the Steelers or Chiefs until the AFC Championship Game, we’ll leave them out for now.
vs. Patriots this season: N/A
Well, for starters, they don’t really have a quarterback. (As you’ll soon see, that criticism applies to all three of these teams.) MVP candidate Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16, and veteran backup Matt McGloin went down with a shoulder injury last Sunday. That means third-string rookie Connor Cook’s first NFL start will come in a win-or-go-home playoff game — the first time that’s happened in the Super Bowl era.
Cook hadn’t played since the preseason before taking over for McGloin this past weekend, so it’s difficult to predict how he’ll fare Saturday in Houston. The Raiders do have two stud receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and a massive, bruising offensive line, but with Carr out, it’s hard to imagine them winning any more than one playoff game.
On the other side of the ball, the Raiders have a Defensive Player of the Year favorite in Khalil Mack but not much else. They ranked 26th in total defense, 24th in passing yards allowed, 23rd in rushing yards allowed and 20th in points allowed this season.
vs. Patriots this season: 27-0 loss in Week 2
Because they play in the miserably bad AFC South, the Texans were able to sneak into the playoffs despite averaging just 17.4 points per game. That was tied for the fourth-lowest mark in the NFL, ahead of only the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams. The biggest reason for this offensive ineptitude: Brock Osweiler proved he wasn’t even remotely deserving of the four-year, $72 million contract he signed in March.
Osweiler ranked 27th in the NFL in completion percentage this season (sandwiched between Colin Kaepernick and Blake Bortles) and 29th in passer rating, and he’s only starting against the Raiders because his backup, Tom Savage, is in concussion protocol. Savage took over after Osweiler was benched in Week 15, but he got hurt two weeks later.
This ineptitude at the quarterback position has rendered DeAndre Hopkins, one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers, largely useless this season. And Hopkins typically excels at making mediocre QBs look decent.
Saturday’s wild-card game should be a low-scoring slog, and Houston’s defense is far more stout than Oakland’s. But even putting 20 points on the board might be difficult for Osweiler & Co.
The Dolphins were one of the NFL’s best stories this season, winning nine of their final 11 games to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008. But notching their first playoff win since 2000 will not be easy.
First off, Miami has to travel to Pittsburgh this weekend to play a Ben Roethlisberger-led Steelers team that might be the Patriots’ toughest competition in the AFC. The Dolphins already have beaten the Steelers once this season, but that was with Landry Jones playing in place of an injured Roethlisberger.
And if head coach Adam Gase’s squad does make it past Wild Card Weekend, it’s shown little to make us believe it can go into Foxboro and win. The Patriots have racked up 66 points in two games against their division rival this season — using three different quarterbacks, no less — with the most recent of those wins coming just a few short days ago.
Miami’s secondary is ravaged by injury, New England has proven it can limit running back Jay Ajayi and, in keeping with the trend, the Dolphins have a question mark at quarterback: injured Ryan Tannehill or backup Matt Moore? Against the Patriots, it shouldn’t matter.
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images