The Patriots can never be discounted, even if they might have to travel to reach the top postseason prize. Because no one franchise has cast its persistent shadow over the Super Bowl this century like the Patriots, who have played in the game eight times since 2002.
The team most likely in the Patriots’ cross hairs is, of course, the Chiefs (12-4), who throttled the ever hapless Oakland Raiders, 35-3, on Sunday. The magical quarterback Patrick Mahomes started slowly but eventually ran around and flung astounding passes to seven receivers.
The young, dynamic Chiefs will be an intimidating presence for any team visiting Arrowhead Stadium, but they will also spend most of the next two weeks answering questions about their two defeats in the last three weeks. And the Chiefs nearly lost at home to the Ravens four games ago.
Then there’s Kansas City’s 1-10 record in playoff games since the 1993 season.
With two losses in the last four games, the third-seeded Houston Texans (11-5) have likewise seen a pause in the momentum they built with a nine-game win streak after a 0-3 start. The Texans easily manhandled dysfunctional Jacksonville Sunday, and they have a formidable multidimensional talent in quarterback Deshaun Watson. They will play at home on Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, who earned the sixth seed with a 16-point victory over Tennessee on Sunday night.
The Colts (10-6) are perhaps the league’s hottest team, having won their last four games and nine of the last 10, including a victory earlier this month in Houston. The Texans will still be a favorite against Indianapolis, but Houston’s late-season struggles have led to questions about whether they can keep up with the A.F.C. elite, a group that may yet include the Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) and the resurrected Ravens (10-6). The Chargers, the fifth seed because they lost the tiebreaker for the A.F.C. West division title with the Chiefs, would probably be the most feared team in the conference if they had earned home field advantage throughout the playoffs. With a 7-1 road record, they are still going to be a daunting challenge for anyone.
But the quirky Ravens, who defeated the Chargers in Los Angeles late this season, are the team that no one looks forward to playing in January. Behind the incandescent Lamar Jackson, a rookie quarterback who ran for two touchdowns Sunday and had two other touchdown runs negated by penalties, the fourth-seeded Ravens have won six of their last seven games. Baltimore is also a quizzical throwback, with a ball-control offense that acts as the perfect complement to the team’s top-ranked defense.