New England Patriots: Possible opponents

Quick-hit thoughts on possible foes

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
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Some quick-hit thoughts on the Patriots' three possible playoff opponents -- Bengals, Colts and Chiefs -- after watching the Week 16 Colts-Chiefs game, and the Week 17 Bengals-Ravens game:

1. One common thread between all three teams is that they have quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Kansas City's Alex Smith both had plays in which they faked an inside handoff and gained signifiant yardage on a keeper by gaining the edge. Dalton hurt the Patriots on a similar third-down play Oct. 6. Indianapolis' Andrew Luck also has shown a knack for making plays with his feet. This will highlight the importance of defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter in staying disciplined on the edge.

2. While A.J. Green is the Bengals' clear-cut No. 1 receiver, you almost come away more impressed with No. 2 Marvin Jones (6-foot-2, 200 pounds). The 2012 fifth-round draft choice out of Cal totaled 10 touchdowns on the season and it was easy to see why. He made some big-time plays. From a Patriots perspective, he's a good example to point to when projecting the potential growth of receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins in their second seasons. Jones looks like a different player this year.

3. Of the three teams, the Bengals are the most pressure-based on defense. They come from all three levels of the defense and blitzed the most. The defensive line, led by 6-foot-7 end Michael Johnson, also gets their hands on footballs with tipped passes by disrupting the passing lanes.

4. Player I wanted to learn more about because he kept showing up with solid plays and I didn't know who he was: Colts receiver Griff Whalen, a second-year player out of Stanford (5-11, 198). He's been back and forth between the team's practice squad and active roster. Another player who fell into that category: Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins (5-7, 175), who was very quick and picked up yardage in a hurry after the catch.

5. The Chiefs' offensive line looked the most vulnerable of the three teams in pass protection. I watched left tackle Donald Stephenson, playing in place of Branden Albert, struggle against Colts end Robert Mathis. Then again, a lot of tackles struggle against Mathis, who looked like the best defensive player among the Patriots' possible playoff opponents. He's still a game-wrecker and would be a big challenge for left tackle Nate Solder.

6. Dalton still makes some decisions and throws that make you wonder what he was thinking. If I was a Bengals follower, confidence in him would be shaky. Luck, on the other hand, seemed to make only one critical mistake in that Week 16 game against the Chiefs and he got away with it (a short pass that should have been intercepted). He plays very smart football.

7. Former Patriot Brandon Tate (2009 third-round pick) is the primary kickoff and punt returner for the Bengals. He looks pretty good. Ditto for former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis; no surprise to see him still running hard as the power complement to the more dynamic Gio Bernard. For the Colts, cornerback Darius Butler seems to be competing well in the nickel.

8. The Colts, now in Chuck Pagano's second season as head coach, seem to have better parts to fit the type of defense Pagano wants to play (think more along the lines of the Ravens). Specifically, they are bigger on the interior with players like Aubrayo Franklin. It's a noticeable difference from the old Colts' 4-3 units that were undersized but quick. They play tough. First-round pick Bjoern Werner showed up with a few strong third-down rushes.

9. When Chiefs rookie running back Knile Davis has the ball on offense or special teams, he's a ball-security threat. He put it on the ground twice in the game I watched. Overall, the Chiefs' offense seemed like the least dynamic of the three possible playoff foes, with the least reliable pass-catchers.

10. Ending on a lighthearted note: I think the Colts' road white uniforms, with the blue horseshoe on the helmet and the blue numerals and trim, are my favorite in the NFL. Simple, crisp and clean, almost like a throwback that has stood the test of time.

Possible playoff opponents: Chiefs

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
5:00
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Continuing our look at the Patriots' possible playoff opponents, here's an overview of the Kansas City Chiefs, the team we deem to be the most difficult matchup for the Patriots, stemming largely from the presence of one of the league's most explosive offensive players.

Record: 11-5
Seed: 5th
Division status: AFC West runner-up, top AFC wild card
Vs. Patriots: No matchup in 2013

How these two can face off: If Kansas City beats Indianapolis on Saturday and San Diego beats Cincinnati on Sunday.

Top offensive player: Running back Jamaal Charles. If not for the brilliance of Peyton Manning in 2013, Charles would likely be the top candidate to earn league MVP honors. He totaled 19 touchdowns this season and led the Chiefs in rushing and receiving.

Top defensive player: Linebacker Derrick Johnson. It's hard to pick just one from an excellent front seven, but Johnson is the quarterback who makes thing go. He's all over the field and may be the best coverage linebacker in the NFL.

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How they can stress the Patriots: The offense is built around Charles and his unique ability to impact the game as both a rusher and receiver. Reid is among the most creative and timely coaches as it relates to the screen game, and the Patriots must be on alert for such an attack. Charles isn't a big back, but he's tough, agile and incredibly fast. If he gets in the open field, he's as good as gone. The Patriots have struggled both defending the run and defending against running backs as receivers. If they face the Chiefs next Saturday, their defensive game plan is likely to revolve around containing Charles.

How the Patriots can stress the Chiefs: Injuries to both Justin Houston and Tamba Hali dramatically impacted the Chiefs' pass rush, which had a trickle-down effect into the secondary. And while Kansas City will be represented by two Pro Bowlers from their secondary, the group on the whole is an area of limitation for the defense. Opposite of Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith has given them size and length, but the team has had struggles finding consistent play from their sub package cornerbacks, while safety Kendrick Lewis has been beaten down the field on occasion this season. The Chiefs' run defense has an identical 4.5 yards per carry allowed to the Patriots' season-long total.

X factor: The tiebreaker for us in deciphering between the Chiefs and Colts as the toughest matchup for the Patriots (the pillar for either argument is Charles and Andrew Luck, respectively) was the Chiefs' special teams. Kansas City combined for a league-best four return touchdowns for a score, two apiece on punt and kickoff returns.

Possible playoff opponents: Colts

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
5:00
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Continuing our look at the Patriots' possible playoff opponents, here's an overview of the Indianapolis Colts, the team we deem to be the second-most favorable matchup.

Record: 11-5
Seed: 4th
Division status: AFC South champs
Versus Patriots: No matchup in 2013

How these two can face off: If Indianapolis beats Kansas City on Saturday and San Diego beats Cincinnati on Sunday

Top offensive player: Quarterback Andrew Luck. The top pick in the 2012 draft, Luck has more passing yards in his first two NFL seasons than any other player in NFL history. A very good athlete to boot, he's carried this offense that has been torched by key injuries.

Top defensive player: Defensive end Robert Mathis. A strong candidate for defensive player of the year honors, Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks. He recently surpassed Dwight Freeney for the most sacks in franchise history and is a menace off the edge.

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How they can stress the Patriots: The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and though wide receiver Reggie Wayne is out and the Colts have dealt with numerous other injuries, Luck is talented enough to change the course of a game on his own. While he didn't throw for 4,000 yards, Luck had several standout performances this season reminding many why he was regarded as the best draft prospect in over a decade when he came out of Stanford in 2012. The NFL is the ultimate team game, but we've seen strong play from quarterbacks make impactful differences in the playoffs. Luck is the best quarterback on the three possible playoff opponent rosters.

How the Patriots can stress the Colts: In terms of yardage allowed, the Colts are an average pass defense. The Patriots have favorable matchups in their passing attack, particularly if they can find a way to push this defense vertically (a healthy Aaron Dobson would aid that cause). The secondary in Indianapolis is made up of some familiar former AFC East defensive backs (Vontae Davis, LaRon Landry and former Patriot Darius Butler included) and is a group that the Patriots wide receivers and backs can be productive against. Additionally, while the Colts made the biggest trade of the season in adding 2012 third overall pick Trent Richardson, their running game is not a major strength. That bodes well for the Patriots, who have been susceptible defending the run this year.

Possible playoff opponents: Bengals

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
5:00
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Happy New Year from the Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com.

And though it’s a new year, it’s not a new season, as the Patriots continue into the postseason.

Over the next three days, we’ll use this space to spotlight each of the possible Patriots opponents for the divisional round, to be played next Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.

We’ll start with the team we believe would be the best matchup for the Patriots, despite the fact they defeated the Patriots earlier this season and are the highest seed that the Patriots could face in their first postseason game.

Here’s an extended look at the Cincinnati Bengals.

Record: 11-5

Seed: 3rd

Division status: AFC North champs

Vs. Patriots: Defeated New England 13-6 in Week 5

How these two can face off: If Cincinnati beats the Chargers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. EST, CBS), they automatically face the Patriots

Top offensive player: Wide receiver A.J. Green. Green, a 2011 first-round pick, is among the best young wideouts in the game. He had his best season as a pro in 2013, racking up 98 catches, 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Top defensive player: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict. An undrafted free agent in 2012, Burfict has quickly become a star. No NFL player had more tackles this season. (Note: All things being equal, the Bengals' best defensive player is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, but he’s on injured reserve)

How they can stress the Patriots: A suffocating defensive effort from the Bengals held the Patriots to just six points in a previous matchup, their lowest output of the season. On that day, the Bengals managed four sacks of Tom Brady and eight total quarterback hits, a testament to their combination of unique rushers and a potent scheme under Mike Zimmer, their defensive coordinator. The outlook changes without Atkins, but the Bengals are still able to generate pressure from the exterior with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, plus the incorporation of interior blitzes, as we saw when Burfict sacked Brady on an A-Gap pressure in a previous meeting. The defense is incredibly well coached and, while a seasoned bunch in some areas, it’s a tough group on the whole.

How the Patriots can stress the Bengals: The Patriots will need much more than six points to win next Saturday night, but they can once again hold the Bengals' offense in check, too. Andy Dalton is a Jekyll and Hyde performer under center (he threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns in Week 16 before throwing four picks in Week 17) and is prone to unforced errors. The Patriots will aim to slow down Green first in the passing game and then the two-headed rushing attack of Gio Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but of paramount importance will be capitalizing on Dalton misfires when he throws them, as they did with one interception in Week 5.

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