If the season were to end tomorrow, the six AFC teams that would make the playoffs would be the Colts, Bengals, Ravens, Chiefs, Broncos, and the Patriots. To get to the Super Bowl, the Patriots would have to play at least two of these six teams.
Lets get a better idea of what the Patriots are up against and learn a little bit about each opponent.
1. Baltimore Ravens (6-6)
Power Ranking: 14
Points Per Game: 20.8 (29)
Opponents Points Per Game: 19.6 (7)
Points Per Game Differential: +1.2 (14)
Turnover Differential: -3 (20)
Last year’s Super Bowl champion, the Baltimore Ravens, have had a very up and down season. At week 8, they held a record of 3-5, but they have slowly climbed back to 6-6. Their offense has been anemic. Despite them making Joe Flacco the face of the franchise and signing him to a long-term deal, he has been a bust this season. He has only one more touchdown than interception and is a big reason why they have a negative turnover differential.
He is not the only one on offense that hasn’t preformed. Ray Rice is having the worst season of his career. He is only averaging 2.6 yards per carry for this 30th ranked rushing attack.
The team’s defense has been phenomenal though. With the exception of week one when they gave up 49 points to Denver, they have held all of their opponents to an average of just 16.4 points per game. Unfortunately, their offense has not been able to put up a lot of points so they still have lost their fair share of games.
The majority of Baltimore’s games are very close, almost always within a touchdown. Their only big win came in a close game against the Bengals, when they won in OT. In order for Baltimore to win consistently, their offense needs to play well on a regular basis. But if this team plays up to their potential, they could make another run at the Super Bowl, just like they did last year at the end of the season.
2. Indianapolis Colts (8-4)
Power Ranking: 9
Points Per Game: 23.8 (19)
Opponents Points Per Game: 22.8 (12)
Points Per Game Differential: +1.0 (14)
Turnover Differential: +6 (10)
The Colts may be among the most inconsistent teams this season. They have had a couple of huge wins against Denver and San Francisco, but they have also had some blowout losses to average teams like the Cardinals and Rams.
Nothing really stands out when you look at the team. They have a below average offense (20th in the league in both rushing and passing), and a defense that struggles to get the quarterback and stop the run. Star quarterback Andrew Luck has not been terrific this year, completing under 60 percent of his passes while throwing interceptions in his last two games.
The Colts, despite their 8-4 record, have been far from perfect this year. They do a great job extrapolating on matchups, which is why they have eight victories this season. Lately, their wins have come in a struggle. However, they have shown they have the ability to knock of a formidable opponent when they upset Denver earlier in the season and demolished the 49ers.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)
Power Ranking: 8
Points Per Game: 24.3 (11)
Opponents Points Per Game: 18.0 (6)
Points Per Game Differential: +6.3 (7)
Turnover Differential: -1 (6)
The Bengals have been solid all season. They rank in the middle of the pack in the NFL in both passing and rushing yards and are in the top ten in both run and pass defense. The team does everything well and really has no glaring weakness.
The team only has four losses on the season—two of them coming in overtime. The only game they lost by more than a field goal was to the Cleveland Browns, a game Andy Dalton played terribly in. They later came back the next week against the Patriots and played tremendous defense to hold them to just six points.
Overall, the team’s only really big win was against the Patriots in week five. With that being said, they still have the potential to make any game hard on their opponent. They have a very diverse offense led by star receiver AJ Green, a good quarterback in Andy Dalton, and two solid runners in Green-Ellis and Bernard. They also have a very tough defense that does not allow opposing offenses to get in a rhythm.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3)
Power Ranking: 7
Points Per Game: 24.8 (15)
Opponents Points Per Game: 17.8 (5)
Points Per Game Differential: +7.0 (7)
Turnover Differential: +14 (1)
After going undefeated through the first nine games of the season, the Chiefs has stumbled as of late, losing in three straight games against two tough opponents: the Chargers and Broncos. The games were supposed to be statement games for the Chiefs, but they did not pull off the victories.
Kansas City’s statistics do not jump out at you. They are 21st in the league in defending the run and the pass, and only are just 15th in the league in points per game. They do not have a lot of play makers, but they are very efficient. They generate a lot of turnovers, and rarely give the ball away. Because of this dicipline, they have won a lot of close games.
Kansas City does not have a lot of “big-wins” this season. They did beat Dallas in overtime in week two and then Philadelphia the following week, but those are the only two winning teams they have defeated. They lost twice to arguably the best team in the league, the Broncos, and lost in a high scoring battle against the Chargers.
Overall, nobody really knows how to treat this Kansas City team. At the beginning of the year, they looked elite, but at the same time, their numbers do not jump out at anyone. But because they do such a great job fundamentally, they are a tough team to beat, and a force in the AFC.
5. Denver Broncos (10-2)
Power Ranking: 2
Points Per Game: 38.7 (1)
Opponents Points Per Game: 26.4 (26)
Points Per Game Differential: +12.3 (1)
Turnover Differential: -4 (22)
Denver is a very interesting team. They lead the league in a lot of offensive categories: Passing Yards, Touchdowns and Points per game differential, which allows them to absolutely dominate teams. They have the ability to score 50+ points (as they already have in 2 games this season), which makes them very hard to beat.
They have so many offensive weapons. Whether its Manning, Welker, Thomas, Decker, Julius Thomas, or the running backs, they have a lot of elite players that can step up on any day and carry the team to victory. They are so hard to cover—a big reason why they score so many points.
The team struggles in every other category besides offense. They have little confidence in their return man on special teams, their defense is giving up over 26 most points per game and they have turned the ball over 25 times on the season. But because their offense is so good, they oftentimes do not have to worry about their deficiencies.
The only way to beat the Broncos is to make them turn the ball over and capitalize on every offensive opportunity possible. In the two games they lost this season, that is exactly what happened. In the game they lost to the Colts, they went only 5-16 on third down, had 12 penalties for over 100 yards and turned the ball over three times. The Colts capitalized on these mistakes. In the Patriots game, they also had four costly turnovers, and once again, the Patriots were able to capitalize on those for points.
With that being said, the Broncos also have a lot of key wins. They beat Dallas, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Kansas City (twice). They have proven they can go toe-to-toe with anybody—and would be a tough matchup to go against in the playoffs because there is just so many ways they can win.
Patriots in comparison to their AFC opponents:
Here are some graphs to show how the Patriots compare with their AFC opponents in key offensive and defensive statistics.
They are either second or third best in every category—showing they may be among the most balanced teams in the AFC. However, as we saw, their defensive statistics may be a little inflated, and probably have the worst defense (along with the Broncos) in the playoffs.
As the statistics show, each team in the AFC has some sort of weakness, so there is no team the Patriots cannot beat. But because the Patriots are the same way, all of the games should be close and entertaining.
For more information on key players from each of these potential playoff teams, view this interview I had with Ryan Jackson from the blog, A RyJack Prospective.