By announcing on Wednesday that Joe Burrow won't play this weekend, the Bengals seemed to be making a statement: Bring on the Patriots.
If the Bengals lose to the Browns with backups on the field in their regular-season finale, hosting New England in two weeks is a very real possibility for them. The opportunity for Cincinnati to rest coupled with the prospect of playing Bill Belichick's club -- which would occur if the Bengals lose and the Patriots, Chiefs and Bills win in Week 18 -- is one the Bengals apparently welcome.
While the Patriots and Bills could still easily square off in Buffalo for the Wild Card round, ESPN ranks Patriots-Bengals as the most likely pairing.
The Patriots may welcome that scenario, too. As our friend Matt Cassel points out, having Belichick on one sideline and Zac Taylor on the other would be an oversized check mark for the Patriots in any tale-of-the-tape lookahead.
Is that the best possible matchup for the Patriots, though? There are more than half-a-dozen possible opponents for the Patriots, so how would they stack up? Which team would be the toughest pull?
Ahead of what could be a wild Week 18, let's rank potential Patriots playoff opponents from the best matchup to the worst...
Best matchup: Steelers
Likelihood: Hell frozen over
Clearly, some pairings are more likely than others. For this one to happen, the following would have to occur: Kansas City loses to Denver, the Jets beat Buffalo, Jacksonville beats Indy and the Chargers and Raiders don't tie. The Patriots and Steelers would also need to win, making them the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds, respectfully.
Ben Roethlisberger looked emotionally spent after a Week 17 win over the Browns in what will likely be his final game in Pittsburgh. Even if rested and psychologically on-point, physically he has very little left. As a result, the Steelers are a relatively easy team to defend. And while their defensive front with potential Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward is stout, they're still just the 26th-ranked team in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA.
Best matchup for Mac Jones: Raiders
Likelihood: Pigs take flight
Here's another that's hard to envision, but it's still on the board. The Bills, Colts, Chiefs and Chargers (against the Raiders) would all have to go down for the Patriots to end up with the second seed and Vegas to end up with the seventh.
The Raiders have dealt with a mid-season head-coaching shakeup and have done an admirable job of keeping their heads above water to this point. But their pass defense is the most generous in the playoff picture. They've picked off just five passes all season (last in the NFL), and they're seventh-worst in football when it comes to passer rating allowed (98.3). Rookie quarterbacks historically haven't been very successful in the postseason, but Mac Jones would have a chance to put up some numbers if this ended up being the matchup.
Michael Myers matchup: Ravens
Likelihood: Powerball odds
Baltimore wouldn't be a bad pull for Jones, either, mind you. Because of the rash of injuries they've suffered, they've quickly become one of the worst pass defenses in football. They've allowed quarterbacks a higher rating than the Raiders (100.9) and no team allows more yards per attempt through the air than John Harbaugh's team.
But this is a unit with a playoff-tested coach and an electric quarterback in Lamar Jackson. Even though Baltimore has been a mess for the late portion of the year, that's enough of a combination to bump them up this list a tad. You just can't be sure they're actually dead until they are. The Chiefs, Bills, Colts, Chargers and Steelers would have to lose next week -- along with a Patriots win -- for this one to actually occur.
So... not likely.
Eastbound and down matchup: Chargers
Likelihood: Kenny Powers running a triathlon
Again, highly unlikely. But more likely than the others we've tossed out to this point. This one hinges on the Jets beating the Bills. But if that happens -- and if the Chiefs, Titans, Colts and Chargers all win -- then we're in business.
If the Chargers make their way across the country for a Week 8 rematch, having to slow down Justin Herbert will of course be a challenge. But Bill Belichick and his pass-rushers flummoxed the LA offensive line that week and odds are they'd be able to do it again. At home -- with the Patriots as the No. 3 seed and the Chargers as the No. 6 -- this would be a game the Patriots would be favored to win. The rest on this list? Maybe not.
Does-experience-matter matchup: Bengals
Likelihood: Brace yourself
The Bengals would be at home. They'd be the more talented offense with a receiving complement of players that includes star rookie Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Their running game (4.0 yards per carry, 26th in the NFL) isn't terrifying but running back Joe Mixon is a threat for a big play at any time. And second-year quarterback Joe Burrow is quickly becoming one of the best young passers in the league. For a Patriots defense that isn't incredibly deep in the secondary, this would be among the toughest on-paper matchups available.
But if they could find a way to solve Cincy's weapons -- maybe double-team Chase, stick J.C. Jackson on Tee Higgins, and hope Myles Bryant can slow down Boyd -- the other aspects of this game aren't incredibly daunting. The coaching matchup would favor New England, clearly. The Bengals offensive line has not been good -- they are 22nd in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' pass-block efficiency metric and no quarterback has been sacked more this season than Burrow (51) -- so there would be opportunities for the Patriots defense to make plays there.
And defensively, the Bengals are 20th in DVOA and quarterback rating allowed (92.8). Plus, the Patriots would have a playoff-experience edge with core guys like Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, J.C. Jackson, Devin McCourty, David Andrews, Trent Brown and Shaq Mason understanding what it takes to win in mid-to-late January. But will that matter?
The toughest home matchup: Colts
Likelihood: How you feelin' about the Jets?
This would be an unlikely rematch -- the Jets would need to upset Buffalo in Week 18, and the Raiders would need to beat the Chargers for this one to go down -- but if it were to happen, it would present the Patriots with a difficult test.
For teams built around a running game, that should travel no problem. That's the Colts. Even in the conditions these teams would likely face in Foxboro, this particular dome team heading to the Northeast shouldn't be stressed. Then there's the understanding that the Colts would have that they already beat New England this year. For other teams that might look at a trip to Gillette Stadium as intimidating, Frank Reich's group probably wouldn't be. The Patriots, it could be argued, have the better quarterback in this matchup. But they'd have to play a much cleaner game than the one they posted back in Week 15 in order to advance to the Divisional Round.
The trilogy matchup: Bills
Likelihood: Strong to quite strong
The Bengals matchup is the one that is slightly more likely to happen at this point, according to ESPN. Their computer probabilities give the Patriots a 41 percent chance of seeing Cincinnati. The Bills, though, aren't far behind at 33 percent. If the Bengals, without Burrow and Mixon, can still beat the Browns -- certainly not out of the realm of possibility -- then the Patriots would likely end up with the No. 5 seed and make their way to Buffalo for the second time this season.
Of course, this matchup looks like a bad one for Bill Belichick's group given what happened in Foxboro just a few weeks ago. But that was a herculean effort from Josh Allen, and his play has been a little up-and-down at times this year. In tougher conditions, which would be the expectation after Allen got the Patriots on a mild New England day, would he be able to post as dominant a performance? In the snow against an unimpressive Falcons team last week, he was a different player. This one could be largely dictated by the weather, and the Patriots are built to be the better bad-weather team.
The surefire headache matchup: Chiefs
Likelihood: Better beat Miami
If the Patriots lose to Miami, they could very well end up seeing Kansas City on Wild Card weekend. A New England loss coupled with a Raiders win -- assuming the Chiefs and Titans also win their season finales -- would probably have them in the No. 7 seed spot and headed to Arrowhead Stadium.
Not what you're looking for.
Not only could the Chiefs passing attack give a thin Patriots secondary some issues, not only do the Chiefs still boast one of the best quarterbacks in football even when he's having somewhat of a down season (for him), not only do they have a playoff-tested head coach... the Chiefs also offer up the toughest road environment Mac Jones has seen in his young pro career. The most hostile environment the Patriots have faced to this point -- in Indy -- couldn't have gotten off to a worse start with the crowd juiced up at kickoff.
How would a young passer handle an even more difficult crowd-noise situation outdoors in Kansas City? Avoiding this matchup should be motivation enough for the Patriots to go all-out to beat the Dolphins.
Toughest matchup: Titans
Likelihood: Never say never...
...But the odds of a Mike Vrabel-coached team falling on its face to the Texans with a bye and homefield throughout the playoffs on the line? With Derrick Henry potentially back in the lineup? Combined with a Patriots loss to the Dolphins and a Chargers loss to the Raiders? Yeah, this one is highly unlikely.
Still, if it were to happen, this would be the toughest matchup on the list for New England. And it's not just because Vrabel's team has given the Patriots problems in the past. They saw the Patriots earlier this season, completely decimated by absences, and still made it a game for a half. The Titans are tough. Like the Patriots, they're built around a bruising running game and a play-action passing attack.
Unlike the Patriots, they have one of the rarest physical specimens the league has ever seen at running back as well as two dynamic playmaking threats on the outside in A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. And Tennessee's defense (6th in points allowed) would be up to the task, too. They held Damien Harris to 3.6 yards per carry in the first meeting, and they're sixth in the NFL in passer rating allowed (84.0). One to avoid.