By Gregory Hunt
For the first time under head coach Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots are entering the AFC playoffs with a two-game losing streak. In fact, the last six weeks have not been kind to the Patriots, as the team has lost four of its last six games after starting the season 10-0.
A loss in Week 17 to the Miami Dolphins cost the Patriots a number-one seed, but as the number-two seed, the Patriots will still receive a first-round bye. New England's roster has been decimated by injuries this season -- four starters from Week 1 are on injured reserve and four more missed last weekend's game -- so the bye should allow some of New England's key players to heal.
Cincinnati Bengals (#3 seed, 12-4-0 record)
Under the leadership of quarterback Andy Dalton, the Cincinnati Bengals were one of the top teams in the AFC for the first three-quarters of the season. The team held a 10-2 record going into a Week 14 game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but then Dalton broke the thumb on his throwing hand in that game and the Bengals went 2-2 in their last four games. Dalton is hoping to get the cast removed from his thumb this week, but there is no timetable for his return. As the number-three seed, the Bengals will host the number-six Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round, and backup quarterback AJ McCarron will start that game if Dalton is unable to go.
Houston Texans (#4 seed, 9-7-0 record)
The Houston Texans have had an up-and-down season, losing five of their first seven games before a four-game winning streak put them on track to win the AFC South title. The main thing keeping the Texans from greater success is their quarterback situation -- four different players have started at that position this season. Former Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer is the primary starter for Houston, and he returned to action in Week 17 after missing the previous two games with a concussion. That injury was suffered during Houston's 27-6 loss to the Patriots on December 13.
Kansas City Chiefs (#5 seed, 11-5-0 record)
Riding a 10-game winning streak, the Kansas City Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL. After a 1-5 start, the Chiefs came within one game of overtaking the Denver Broncos for the AFC West title. Even though Kansas City will be going on the road to face the Texans in the Wild Card round, the Chiefs opened up as a three-point favorite this week, making them New England's most-likely opponent in the Divisional round. The Chiefs met the Texans in Houston back in Week 1, and Kansas City came away with a 27-20 victory.
New England played only one game against these potential opponents this season, so it's difficult to get a feel for how the Patriots may perform against any of them in the Divisional round. New England dominated Houston when they met in December, but Houston played most of that game without its starting quarterback. The Patriots hold an impressive 17-4 record at home in the playoffs, but rarely have they gone into a postseason playing so poorly. Their success may come down to the physical health of the squad, especially wide receiver Julian Edelman (foot) and left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) on offense, and defensive end Chandler Jones (abdomen/toe) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) on defense.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.
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