It’s playoff time in New England.
The 11-5, No. 2 seed Patriots will begin their quest for a sixth Super Bowl title Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m. ET when they welcome their divisional-round opponent to Gillette Stadium. Who will that opponent be? We’ll find out next weekend.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the three candidates:
Houston Texans (11-5; No. 3 seed)
They’ll play the Patriots if: They beat the Indianapolis Colts
The Texans are the highest-seeded AFC team playing on wild-card weekend, so a win over the sixth-seeded Colts automatically would book them a ticket to Foxboro. (Likewise, Indy only can play the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.) The Patriots defeated the Texans 27-20 way back in Week 1, but Houston has come a long way since then.
Led by dynamic second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and a defense that entered Week 17 ranked sixth in points allowed and eighth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Texans reeled off nine consecutive wins after beginning the season 0-3. A last-second loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16 cost them a shot at a first-round bye, but they rebounded Sunday, easily dispatching the Jacksonville Jaguars to clinch the AFC South.
Watson was excellent down the stretch for Houston, completing more than 70 percent of his passes in each of his last six games. During that same span, the Clemson product threw eight touchdown passes without an interception while also averaging 46 rushing yards per game and scoring four rushing touchdowns. This is not the same player the Patriots saw in the season opener, when Waston still was working his way back from a torn ACL.
The Texans’ offensive line, though, remains just as leaky is it was in September. Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times this season, making him the first QB to take more than 60 sacks in a season since John Kitna in 2006.
Houston’s receiving corps also has question marks. DeAndre Hopkins is a superstar, but there’s not much depth behind him with Will Fuller and midseason acquisition Demaryius Thomas both on injured reserve.
Defensively, the Texans boast a characteristically stellar front seven (J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney, etc.) and a resurgent secondary. Cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph are Pro Football Focus’ fourth- and 12th-highest-graded cornerbacks, respectively, and Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Justin Reid have been excellent additions at safety.
The Patriots have not lost to the Texans since Week 17 of the 2009 season (the Wes Welker torn ACL game) and have beaten them twice in the divisional round since (2012 and 2016).
Baltimore Ravens (10-6; No. 4 seed)
They’ll play the Patriots if: They beat the Chargers and the Colts beat the Texans
They had to survive a Week 17 scare against Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns to get there, but John Harbaugh’s troops are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. And the Ravens might be the most interesting team in the tournament.
Ever since rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson replaced long-past-his-prime Joe Flacco in Week 11, Baltimore’s offense has resembled one from the leather-helmet era. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has gone all-in on the ground game to maximize the strengths of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who at this point in his career is more dangerous running the ball than he is throwing it.
Over Jackson’s first six games as a starter, the Ravens ran the ball 57 more times than any other team and accumulated 303 more rushing yards than any other team while also attempting the second-fewest passes in the NFL. Jackson has played a starring role in this effort, leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards with 695 over the course of the season. (Running back Gus Edwards leads the team with 711.)
Against the Browns on Sunday, Baltimore racked up a whopping 296 rushing yards — the second-highest total by any team in 2018 — with Jackson providing 90 of those and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Keeping him in the pocket will be priority No. 1 for any postseason opponent.
Teams that rely heavily on the run typically need strong defenses to succeed, and the Ravens certainly have one of those. They allowed an NFL-low 17.5 points per game during the regular season and held opponents below 25 in 13 of 16 contests, including all 10 wins.
Baltimore is 6-1 since Jackson took over, with the lone loss coming to Kansas City in overtime.
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4; No. 5 seed)
They’ll play the Patriots if: They beat the Ravens and the Colts beat the Texans
The Chargers scored big-time wins over the Chiefs (29-28) and Pittsburgh Steelers (33-30) late in the season, but they’re not exactly trending upward heading into the playoffs. They lost 22-10 at home to the Ravens — the team they’ll face again this Sunday — in Week 16, then struggled offensively in a Week 17 win over the checked-out Denver Broncos.
Philip Rivers, who looked like an MVP candidate until a few weeks ago, failed to crack 200 passing yards in either of those final two games, throwing one touchdown with four interceptions and posting passer ratings of 51.7 and 60.4. Not great.
Rivers was great for the majority of this season, though, and the 37-year-old signal-caller has a couple of elite offensive weapons at his disposal in wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Melvin Gordon, plus valuable role players in Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler and the ageless Antonio Gates.
Gordon left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury but is expected to play this weekend. Los Angeles could also get a boost from tight end Hunter Henry, who reportedly plans to make his season debut in the wild-card round after tearing his ACL in May.
The Chargers’ defense looked nasty against Denver, forcing four turnovers and taking a fumble back for a touchdown, while the unit isn’t as highly regarded as Houston’s or Baltimore’s, it boasts several stars or stars-in-the-making.
Joey Bosa, who’s teamed up with Melvin Ingram to form one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing duos in recent years, has 4 1/2 sacks in his last six games after missing the first half of the season with an injury. Versatile safety Derwin James (99 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, four tackles for loss, six QB hits, three interceptions, 13 pass breakups) is a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and Desmond King is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks.
One potentially underrated factor: A Patriots-Chargers matchup would require L.A. to travel east for a 1 p.m. ET road game for the second time in two weeks.