If Belichick were asked this question, I think he'd say something like "We'll face who we have to face. Whoever it will be will be a good football team. Tom Brady is our quarterback." And that's sensible. But it's hard to passively watch this weekend's Wild Card round without thinking about who you'd prefer the Pats to face on the 14th.
Here are the scenarios:
If Cincinnati beats Houston, then the Patriots face Cincinnati. No matter what else happens.
If Houston beats Cincinnati, the Patriots face the winner of the Denver/Pittsburgh game.
So of the three, who is the best matchup for the Pats?
The answer is Denver. The Broncos are the only AFC playoff team that the Patriots beat. They're also, without much doubt, the worst team in the AFC playoffs. A token 8-8 AFC West team. And they don't matchup well with the Pats.
The Patriots defense can't defend against the pass. The Broncos can't pass the ball. So while the Broncos would be able to run around and accumulate yardage, they wouldn't be able to make significant gains in the air. They'd put up a few points, but it's tough to consistently drive the ball 80 yards and score with just a running game.
Simply put, Denver's biggest offensive weakness makes the Patriots' biggest defensive weakness a non-factor. So then it's a great New England offense facing an inconsistent and exploitable Denver defense. I'll take Brady in that bout.
Unfortunately, the Broncos are so bad that it's unlikely they'll survive against the Steelers. So would you rather see the Pats play Pittsburgh or Cincinnati?
It's easy to answer with Cincinnati. After all, the Steelers beat the Pats. The Bengals are 9-7. We don't see them very often, don't know much about them and, well, they're the Bengals.
They were 0-7 against playoff teams, 9-0 against non-playoff teams. Andy Dalton might not be an MVP candidate, but I'm sure the Pats' secondary can make him look like one. How well would their defense do against Brady? That's the key question.
They had 45 sacks. They have a few guys who can get to the QB. Their passing defense was 9th in the NFL. They only allowed 211.6 yards per game. So they could give trouble to the Patriots' offense.
Still, they can turn the ball over. Andy Dalton is not a proven commodity. I think Brady can beat their defense for enough points to win.
So I'd love to see Tebow and the Broncos come to Foxborough. Failing that, I'd prefer Cincinnati over Pittsburgh. But not by much.
The Pats lost 25-17 in Pittsburgh in October. Ironically, it was perhaps the Pats' defense best game as they repeatedly stood firm in the Red Zone, keeping the Patriots in the game. The Steelers defense didn't let Brady move the ball at all. The Pats had a mere 213 yards of offense. Brady was sacked 3 times and frequently hurried. The Pats were 3/10 on 3rd downs and only made 2 trips to the Red Zone. Pittsburgh dominated time of possession nearly 2 to 1.
Of the three possibilities, Pittsburgh is the least favorable matchup for the Patriots.
But it's still favorable. Roethlisberger has been banged and beaten around all year. The Steelers don't have Mendenhall. And I don't think Brady and the offense played up to their potential when they lost down in Pittsburgh.
No matter what, the Patriots have to execute. No matter who they play, they'll be facing a team that has already won a playoff game.