First things first: For the New England Patriots' players and the coaching staff, their focus is all on the Miami Dolphins this week.
There’s so many different scenarios and so much to be decided with AFC seeding, so you really don’t know who you'll face in the Wild Card round, and you can’t put any effort into preparing for a team you may not even play.
But like almost every other organization, the Patriots have an advance scouting department. That department will put together writeups about the strengths and weaknesses of potential teams the Patriots could face in the playoffs based on the scenarios right now.
So, that’s going to give them a head start. The advance scouts already do this with different opponents during the season, but this is a critical time for that part of the organization, because when you get to the playoffs, it comes down to preparation, especially for uncommon opponents.
Patriots Talk Podcast: Why the Patriots’ beat down of Jacksonville was very necessary | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube
A lot of teams in playoff spots now -- like the Titans, Bills, Colts and Chargers -- have already played the Patriots, so they already have a good understanding for who those opponents are: their personnel, their tendencies, etc. But if the Patriots get an uncommon opponent like the Chiefs or Bengals, that’s where you rely heavily on the advance scouts for the information they've put together on these teams.
From a player perspective, guys generally understand what's at stake prior to a game like this. They know they can win the division if they beat the Dolphins and the Bills lose. It’s not like Bill Belichick comes in and says, "Guys, you can’t be checking scores." He knows that’s going on.
But the beauty of how he runs his program is that there’s a consistency every week regardless of the outside scenario. I know it’s probably nauseating for some people to hear -- "Come on, is it really like that for every game?" But the answer is yes, it really is. You understand that as a player, which really helps you to focus on gameday.
In terms of who the Patriots should want to face? The Bills and Bengals are their two most likely opponents right now, and both present their own unique challenges.
New England Patriots
The Bills have one of the NFL’s most dynamic quarterbacks in Josh Allen, and it’s a familiar opponent. They played the Patriots twice over a three-week span, so they understand each other. They understand their strengths and some of the areas they struggle with, so it’s probably easier to prepare for a team like the Bills because you’ve put so much work in during the season against a common opponent.
The Bengals have their own stud quarterback in Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase could be the Rookie of the Year. So, they’ve got weapons across the board. They’ve got a good front seven on defense, so they're a dangerous team as well.
The Patriots would have a bigger advantage over a team like the Bengals, though. They have a young coach in Zac Taylor who's never been to the playoffs, and a young team that hasn't been in these situations before. When you compare that to the wealth of playoff experience Bill Belichick has, and the different coverage schemes the Patriots use on defense that would challenge any quarterback in the league, the Patriots have the edge.
Playing an uncommon opponent is challenging, but the Patriots would have a leg up against a coach like Taylor making his playoff debut. A lot of times coaching makes a difference in those games from a situational standpoint in terms of making the right decision at the right time.
So, while the Bills might be easier to prepare for, you also know that when Josh Allen is on, they're a tough team to beat, regardless of how well you play.
Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.