For the New England Patriots, the lone certainties are the date and location.
On Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4:35 p.m., the top-seeded Patriots will host a playoff game Gillette Stadium. But just whom the 12-4 AFC East champions will host remains to be seen.
There are three variables to account for until it is.
New England will either face the No. 4 Indianapolis Colts, the No. 5 Cincinnati Bengals or the No. 6 Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. It will be the Ravens if they defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night. It will be whichever side wins out between the Colts and Bengals on Sunday afternoon if they cannot.
With a first-round playoff bye in hand, head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots will wait and watch on Wild Card weekend to find out. Yet in the meantime, here is a look into each of the three potential Patriots opponents.
The Colts fell, 42-20, to the Patriots in Week 11, but their 11-5 season has stood on its own since then, and so has quarterback Andrew Luck’s. The 2012 No. 1 overall draft choice completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 4,761 yards and an NFL-best 40 touchdowns over 16 games.
He has also, however, thrown 16 interceptions and conceded 12 fumbles over that span. And as Tom Brady threw two interceptions to Colts safety Mike Adams on Nov. 16, Luck delivered one to safety Devin McCourty. Even so, Luck also connected with wideout Hakeem Nicks and offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo for scores in that contest. He did so despite a ground game that netted only 19 yards on 16 carries, and run defense that netted 201 yards and four touchdowns to Patriots running back Jonas Gray.
All things considered, though, the toughest matchup between the Colts and the Patriots may lie at tight end. Coby Fleener hauled in seven passes for a career-high 144 yards against cornerback Brandon Browner and New England in the last meeting, while fellow tight end Dwayne Allen left with an ankle injury in the first half. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Clemson product has since rebounded to catch 29 passes for 395 yards and eight scores over 13 games.
Speedster slot receiver T.Y. Hilton is also one to account for should the Patriots meet the Colts again, but he was contained by nickelback Kyle Arrington and New England’s secondary two months ago, catching three passes for 24 yards on seven targets.
A struggling 2-2 Patriots team last encountered an undefeated Bengals team on Oct. 5. A 43-17 final score was the byproduct. That was, in many ways, when the season changed for both sides. The Patriots have gone on to win 10 of their last 12 games, while the Bengals have gone on to win only seven of their last 13.
Though the Bengals have not won a playoff game in 25 years, quarterback Andy Dalton has been behind center for four consecutive trips to the postseason since joining the team via Texas Christian. The 27-year-old threw for 3,398 yards this season, tying the lowest output since his rookie year, and he’s also thrown 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Dalton did not throw an interception against the Patriots in Week 5, however. He completed touchdown strikes to receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu instead. But the dimensions of Cincinnati’s offense have shifted since then. The 6-foot-1, 238-pound power back Jeremy Hill, who rushed twice for one yard in that last matchup with the Patriots, has gone on to tally 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie year. And by working in tandem with change-of-pace back Giovani Bernard, who totaled 72 yards of offense in the recent loss to New England, the backfield has carried the Bengals’ offense.
An opportunistic defense hasn’t hurt, either. Cincinnati picked off Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning four times on Monday Night Football in Week 16, parlaying New England into home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
If there was an element of unpredictability in the fold this weekend, it would be the 10-6 Ravens. Baltimore forged into the playoffs with a fast, physical edge rush and a steady rushing attack. Those are forces the Patriots have run into before, going 1-2 in the postseason against the Ravens since January of 2010. But in the last regular-season meeting between the two teams, it was New England who won out, 41-7, in 2013.
This year could be different. Outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have combined for 29 sacks, while fellow linebacker Pernell McPhee and rookie defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan have jumped in for another 11.5 sacks. If those four hover opposite a Patriots offensive line that has allowed four sacks in each of the last two weeks, offensive trouble could be in the outcome.
Baltimore’s offense, meanwhile, has seen quarterback Joe Flacco pass for 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Wideout Steve Smith’s 1,065 yards and six touchdowns have taken a fair share of those numbers, as has Torrey Smith’s 767 yards and 11 touchdowns. And while the Ravens’ passing game does not delve far beyond those two recipients and tight end Owen Daniels, it would be remiss to overlook how the running game has delved into defenses.
Behind the likes of four-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and the 25-year-old Kelechi Osemele, running back Justin Forsett has picked up eight touchdowns, 1,266 yards rushing and 263 yards receiving this season. He will look to add to those totals on the way to Foxborough.