The New England Patriots officially will be participating in the 2021 NFL playoffs. But they have yet to learn the identity of their first postseason opponent.
With no AFC seedings solidified with one regular-season week remaining, there are nine possible teams New England could face on wild-card weekend. They also still could claim the No. 1 seed and earn a bye to the divisional round, but that would require a number of favorable Week 18 results.
As the Patriots, who currently sit fifth in the AFC at 10-6, prepare to visit the Miami Dolphins in their regular-season finale, we ranked each of those potential playoff foes, from most desirable to least.
(Note: The Patriots can only face teams marked with an asterisk if they leapfrog the Buffalo Bills and win the AFC East.)
9. *Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1)
Can you see the corpse of Ben Roethlisberger, who somehow attempted 46 passes and finished with just 123 yards in his final game at Heinz Field, winning a playoff game at Gillette Stadium? Neither can we. This is one of the least likely first-round matchups, as it would require Pittsburgh climbing into the third wild-card spot and New England vaulting up to the No. 2 seed.
8. *Las Vegas Raiders (9-7)
You’d be forgiven if you forgot the Raiders still were in the playoff race. Led by interim head coach Rich Bisaccia, they lost five games in a six-week stretch in November and December. They’ve rebounded with three straight victories — including a last-second win over Indianapolis this past Sunday — but they’ve scored more than 23 points just once since Halloween. It’s hard to envision them winning in Foxboro, Mass., in January.
7. *Los Angeles Chargers (9-7; No. 7 seed)
The Chargers are undeniably talented. But they’ve been wildly inconsistent this season (5-6 in their last 11 games, including a lopsided loss to the lowly Houston Texans) and the Patriots’ defense has been kryptonite for 2020 NFL Rookie Player of the Year Justin Herbert. The two worst games of Herbert’s career — by both completion percentage and passer rating — came against New England, including one earlier this season. And, like the Raiders, the Chargers would be a dome team playing outdoors in the New England winter.
6. *Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
The Ravens have been in a tailspin of late, losing five straight to fall from the No. 1 seed to the outer reaches of playoff contention. Four of those losses were by either one point or two points, but the parade of high-profile injuries that began in training camp seems to be finally catching up with Baltimore. Lamar Jackson remains one of the league’s most dangerous playmakers, but the Patriots rolled out a plan that successfully limited him in an upset win last season.
5. *Indianapolis Colts (10-6; No. 6 seed)
The Patriots were decisively outplayed when they visited Indy three weeks ago, but that had more to do with their own indiscipline. Red-zone penalties, a goal-line interception, a blocked punt for a touchdown and jumping offsides on a missed field goal. New England did everything wrong for the first three quarters of that game. Facing Jonathan Taylor and that offensive line is a difficult matchup for any team, but the Patriots likely would feel confident in their ability to overwhelm Carson Wentz in a playoff game.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6; No. 3 seed)
With Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon surrounding quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals have one of the NFL’s most exhilarating young offenses. They just outgunned the Kansas City Chiefs in a 34-31 barnburner and have scored 41 points three times. Burrow has 971 passing yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions over his last two (!) games. But Cincinnati heads into its first postseason since 2015 with some big questions. For one, its O-line has been suspect (31st in sack rate). The AFC North champs also lost to the New York Jets and Chicago Bears and were blown out by the Cleveland Browns this season, and they’re severely lacking in playoff experience. We’re not ready to fully buy in on the Bengals just yet.
3. Buffalo Bills (10-6; No. 4 seed)
The Patriots and Bills have played twice this season. New England won the first by dominating the trenches in a windstorm. Buffalo took the second thanks to a near-perfect game by Josh Allen and a breakout performance by backup slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie. Both teams lost at home. The biggest question in a potential rubber match would be whether Bill Belichick and his staff can formulate an effective plan to limit Allen. If the Bills’ offense is clicking the way it was two weeks ago, Mac Jones and Co. would have a hard time keeping up. This is the matchup we’d see if the current standings hold through Week 18, with the Patriots visiting Highmark Stadium.
2. Tennessee Titans (11-5; No. 1 seed)
The Titans were blown out in Foxboro in Week 12, but that was with an injury-ravaged roster — and one that still racked up 270 rushing yards. Few coaches have better track records against Belichick than Mike Vrabel, whose team beat the Patriots in 2018 and in the 2019 playoffs. If they have Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown active this time around, the Titans would be a formidable first-round opponent.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5; No. 2 seed)
The Chiefs looked toast early in the season, their run of back-to-back AFC championships seemingly over. But since mid-November, they’ve returned to their usual perch as arguably the conference’s top Super Bowl contender. They still have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and their defense and offensive line have shown marked improvement. Falling to the No. 7 seed and needing to play at Arrowhead Stadium on wild-card weekend would be the worst-case scenario for the Patriots, though it is worth noting they might have won there last season if they’d had someone other than Brian Hoyer behind center.