BOSTON (CBS) — There is a lot still up in the air in the NFL heading into Week 18. A lot in the air.

That includes where the Patriots will slot into the postseason picture. The Patriots are in the playoffs, sitting in the five-seed as an AFC Wild Card team, but they can finish just about anywhere in the conference.

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They still have an outside shot at the No. 1 seed if a lot of cards fall their way. The AFC East will be up for grabs if the Bills have a hiccup against the Jets. The only spot the Patriots can’t finish in is the four-seed.

With all of that festering in the great unknown, we also have no idea who the Patriots would play in the first round. That likely won’t be resolved until Sunday evening. But while there has been a lot of chatter about a Patriots-Bills 2021 trilogy concluding with a Wild Card matchup, which is the current matchup, there is actually a different team the Patriots are most likely to play in the opening round.

That would be the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals, currently the three-seed at 10-6 as we hit the final week of the regular season. Cincy clinched their division Sunday with a dramatic win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the team’s third straight win.

New England currently has a 41 percent chance to face the Bengals on Wild Card weekend, according to ESPN’s FPI. There is a 33 percent chance that it will be New England-Buffalo in a couple of weeks.

A lot can change when Sunday arrives. For it to be Patriots-Bengals on Wild Card weekend, the Patriots will have to beat the Dolphins to remain the five-seed, the Bills would have to beat the Jets to clinch the AFC East, and the Bengals would have to lose to the Browns in Cleveland for the Bills and Bengals to flip flop in the standings. That would leave Cincinnati as the four-seed, and they’d then host the Patriots.

The Bengals may be shorthanded in Week 18, with quarterback Joe Burrow leaving last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs with an ankle injury. But the 7-9 Browns are pretty much just going through the motions right now, and quarterback Baker Mayfield may opt for shoulder surgery instead of playing in the final game of the regular season.

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As for how New England and Cincinnati stack up against each other, it would be an interesting matchup between a strong Patriots defense against a solid Bengals offense. Burrow has inserted himself in the MVP conversation by putting up some massive numbers in his second NFL season, ranking fifth in passing yards with 4,611 to go with 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick completed 70.4 percent of his passes this year.

It certainly helps that Burrow has an outstanding offensive cast, with Joe Mixon running wild for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase has been an instant hit in the aerial attack, with the rookie hauling in 79 receptions for 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns. Tee Higgins (1,091 yards and six touchdowns) and Tyler Boyd (828 yards, five touchdowns) are also a threat to pick up some big yards in the passing game.

The Patriots defense would have its hands full, but they would also have ample opportunity to get their hands on Burrow if they match up with the Bengals. Burrow has been sacked an NFL-high 51 times through 17 weeks.

The biggest advantage for New England would be in the turnover battle. The Patriots are a plus-10 in turnover differential this season, while the Bengals are a minus-2.

The Bengals can be beat through the air too, surrendering 253.2 passing yards per game.  Mac Jones should be able to paper-cut his way to a big day, with the Bengals defense allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 67 percent of their passes during the regular season, which ranks in the bottom third of the NFL.

Then there is the whole coaching matchup between Bill Belichick (who has coached in 43 NFL playoff games) and Zac Taylor (who has coached in 48 NFL games total). Taylor has thrust himself into the Coach of the Year race with a division title, but the Patriots would have a massive advantage on the sideline, per usual.

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Again, a lot can change when the games kick off on Sunday. But it’s never too early to start thinking about potential postseason opponents. At least for us, since the Patriots would never do that.

CBSBoston.com Staff