Possible playoff opponents: Bengals

Happy New Year from the Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com.

And though it’s a new year, it’s not a new season, as the Patriots continue into the postseason.

Over the next three days, we’ll use this space to spotlight each of the possible Patriots opponents for the divisional round, to be played next Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.

We’ll start with the team we believe would be the best matchup for the Patriots, despite the fact they defeated the Patriots earlier this season and are the highest seed that the Patriots could face in their first postseason game.

Here’s an extended look at the Cincinnati Bengals.

Record: 11-5

Seed: 3rd

Division status: AFC North champs

Vs. Patriots: Defeated New England 13-6 in Week 5

How these two can face off: If Cincinnati beats the Chargers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. EST, CBS), they automatically face the Patriots

Top offensive player: Wide receiver A.J. Green. Green, a 2011 first-round pick, is among the best young wideouts in the game. He had his best season as a pro in 2013, racking up 98 catches, 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Top defensive player: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict. An undrafted free agent in 2012, Burfict has quickly become a star. No NFL player had more tackles this season. (Note: All things being equal, the Bengals' best defensive player is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, but he’s on injured reserve)

How they can stress the Patriots: A suffocating defensive effort from the Bengals held the Patriots to just six points in a previous matchup, their lowest output of the season. On that day, the Bengals managed four sacks of Tom Brady and eight total quarterback hits, a testament to their combination of unique rushers and a potent scheme under Mike Zimmer, their defensive coordinator. The outlook changes without Atkins, but the Bengals are still able to generate pressure from the exterior with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, plus the incorporation of interior blitzes, as we saw when Burfict sacked Brady on an A-Gap pressure in a previous meeting. The defense is incredibly well coached and, while a seasoned bunch in some areas, it’s a tough group on the whole.

How the Patriots can stress the Bengals: The Patriots will need much more than six points to win next Saturday night, but they can once again hold the Bengals' offense in check, too. Andy Dalton is a Jekyll and Hyde performer under center (he threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns in Week 16 before throwing four picks in Week 17) and is prone to unforced errors. The Patriots will aim to slow down Green first in the passing game and then the two-headed rushing attack of Gio Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but of paramount importance will be capitalizing on Dalton misfires when he throws them, as they did with one interception in Week 5.