By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots await one of three teams to face in the AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium next Sunday. All three present their own unique set of challenges. The question, ultimately, is who would you rather see come to Foxborough?
That depends on what you’re looking to get out of the game next Sunday. Perhaps you’re a woke sports fan who just wants the most entertaining game possible. Maybe you’d rather just have the Patriots get the easiest path. Fans across the NFL are likely to ponder these things all weekend as the NFL Wild Card playoff games take place.
We could know who the Patriots are playing as soon as Saturday night. If the No. 3 seed Houston Texans beat the No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts, the Texans are coming to Gillette. If the Colts win, then the Pats get the winner of Sunday’s Chargers-Ravens game.
Here’s a look how the Texans, Chargers, and Ravens rank in several key categories. This could give you a better idea of where the Patriots would have easier or harder matchups.
Best Quarterback: Philip Rivers, Chargers
Deshaun Watson has proved that his great rookie season was no fluke, and Lamar Jackson is a dynamic playmaker and the type of quarterback that has given the Patriots trouble this season. But as opposing quarterbacks go, Rivers is the one to “fear” the most.
Part of that is due to experience. Watson and Jackson are about to make their postseason debuts. Rivers will be playing in his 10th playoff game, and he posted a 116.9 passer rating in his last two postseason contests back in 2013.
Not that this means Rivers will come to Foxborough and beat the Patriots. But when you weigh him against the other QBs that the Pats could face, Rivers is easily the one you’d least want to see in this game.
Best Coach: John Harbaugh, Ravens
This is another easy choice. As maligned as he is around here and as annoying/hypocritical he can be at times, Harbaugh has long been in the conversation for being the No. 2 head coach in the NFL behind Bill Belichick. Not so much in recent years, but there’s no taking away Harbaugh’s experience with the Patriots and Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens have historically been a team that’s unafraid of the Foxborough stage, especially in the playoffs. Even if the Pats end up winning, it’s never been easy against Baltimore in January. Harbaugh and Terrell Suggs are the common threads between those teams.
That doesn’t mean that you have a seamless comparison between the 2018 season and 2009, 2011, 2012, or 2014. Harbaugh and Terrell Suggs may remain, but they’re the only two. Either way, Harbaugh is by far the least likely coach of the three to be intimidated by Bill Belichick.
Best Receivers: Chargers
L.A. would roll into Foxborough with the best quarterback of the possible opponents, and they would undoubtedly have the best receiving corps as well. DeAndre Hopkins is certainly better than anyone on the Chargers, but L.A. has a deeper group that could give the Patriots defense more to think about than just wiping Hopkins out.
The opposing receivers are always important to know, but it takes on added importance when the Pats are entering the playoffs with the secondary as arguably their best all-around positional group. They have First Team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore, who was arguably the best cornerback in the league this season, and an emerging talent in rookie JC Jackson to go with reliable veteran Jason McCourty and three savvy veterans at safety.
Can this group hold their own against the likes of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Tyrell Williams? They certainly could against the Texans and Ravens’ wideouts. The Chargers would present the best test in this round.
Best Running Game: Chargers
For this, let’s go with the overall running game between the backs and the offensive lines. The Patriots’ run defense got gashed late in the season, but turned things around in the last two games against the Bills and Jets. The opponents’ running game may not be what ends up beating them in Foxborough, but it could be something that gives them trouble, especially if they fall behind.
Anyway, the Ravens get the nod here. The Texans have a pretty good back in Lamar Miller, but their offensive line is terrible. The Ravens have a good offensive line, but have had a revolving door at running back all season. The Chargers have the best balance of an elite running back in Melvin Gordon and a solid offensive line anchored by one of the league’s best left tackles in Russell Okung.
If you recall, Gordon ripped off an 87-yard touchdown in Foxborough last season. The Patriots beat the Chargers 21-13 and if they lose to the Chargers next Sunday because of Melvin Gordon, god help us. But he’s still a player they’re going to need to be well-prepared for if they end up having to face L.A.
Best Tight Ends: Ravens
The Chargers have brand-name value at tight end with Antonio Gates, but he’s 150 years old. He’s not remotely as hard to cover as used to be. The player to worry about here is Mark Andrews of the Ravens.
A third-round pick in the 2018 draft, Andrews has emerged as the Ravens’ go-to tight end in the passing game. He caught four of his five targets for 54 yards last Sunday against the Browns. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been up-and-down covering tight ends this season.
Don’t let the fact that Andrews is a relatively unknown rookie sway your mind, either. The Colts’ Erik Swoope caught a touchdown against them in Week 5. When it comes to coverage, tight ends should be a bigger concern than receivers in general. It wouldn’t be a bigger concern than if the Ravens came to town.
Best Defensive Line: Texans
This was a tough choice because really, all three of these teams have very good defensive fronts. But the Texans present the most formidable 1-2 punch on the edge with First Team All-Pro J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Whitney Mercilus is still in the mix, despite a down year. And the Texans coaching staff has shown an ability to mix up their pressure packages and cause trouble up the middle against Tom Brady.
They’ll have to do what they did in the first half of the 2016 divisional round in order to slow down the Patriots again and give themselves a chance to win. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t shown that kind of ferocity in the pass rush since that half. But this is still, and always, a group to take very seriously.
Best Linebackers: Ravens
None of the three teams have a particularly dangerous linebacking group. The Patriots may even target them in the passing game, regardless of opponent, based on personnel. But the Ravens get the check mark here because of veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley, who had another strong season and made the playoff-clinching interception in last Sunday’s Ravens win over the Browns. He’s the closest thing to a tough matchup at linebacker for Brady & Co.
Best Cornerbacks: Texans
This is another important positional group to worry about for the Patriots. Because their chances of getting back to the Super Bowl may depend on the offense, and the offense may depend on the receivers’ ability to get open. The closest thing to a mismatch comes from Houston, who employ Kareem Jackson (PFF’s No. 4 cornerback this season) and veteran Johnathan Joseph.
Best Safeties: Ravens
Another key category, because it could be an indication of what to expect for Rob Gronkowski. This was also another tough choice, because all three teams have legitimate talent at the position. The Ravens get the check mark mainly because of a pair of smart, tough veterans. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson would be players to know if the Ravens came to Foxborough.
The Texans and Chargers are nothing to sneeze at for safeties, either. Houston could be tough with “The Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu and impressive rookie Justin Reid. The Chargers may have the next Troy Polamalu in potential Defensive Rookie of the Year Derwin James.
Best Special Teams: Ravens
This question is basically, which team’s kicker is the least likely to soil himself with a chance to kick a big field goal in Foxborough? Justin Tucker is as reliable as they come in his generation as a kicker, so he wins this one by default. Chargers rookie kicker Michael Badgley has been impressive, but you can totally see a kid like him getting affected by the pressure so early in his career. And Texans kicker Kaimi Fairbairn has been wobbly this season with five misses, albeit not since Week 11. Still, if the game comes down to a kick and you had to take someone, Tucker is the one to trust.
Best Road Team: Chargers
Los Angeles went 7-1 on the road this season. If they end up playing the Patriots, expect all the naysayers to point to this stat. It’s pertinent, especially if you’re blindly saying Philip Rivers can’t win a playoff game in Foxborough before really doing the research (Hi).
The Chargers’ only home loss came in Week 3 to the Rams. After that, they rattled off seven road wins in a row, and the teams they beat include the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers. They’ve shown that their offense can come up with big plays at crunch time in these situations.
It’s fair to wonder at this point whether any team can come in to Foxborough and beat the Patriots in a playoff game at Gillette. The Pats went 8-0 at home this season and looked virtually unbeatable in the process. But based on road performance in the regular season, the Chargers are the safest bet to at least show up and make a game of it.
Who’d You Rather?
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s five check marks for the Ravens, four for the Chargers, and two for the Texans. It depends on what you think could be the Patriots’ downfall to figure out who would be the hardest opponent to beat.
If you’re worried about the Patriots offense, the Ravens’ defensive depth is a concern. If you’re worried about the Patriots defense, Rivers and his weapons are the biggest challenge. If you look at the big picture, the Ravens may be the most likely team to simply be prepared and not play scared. If you’re a superstitious type, perhaps the Texans are simply due?
I’ll let you decide who you want the Pats to play. Hopefully these quick breakdowns give you a better idea of what you’re looking for in the next opponent.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.