Stacking Up the AFC Playoff Picture
Looking at the participants pursuing the Lamar Hunt Trophy
The stage is set. We finally have clarity on the field competing for the AFC side of the NFL playoff bracket.
Saturday, January 15th
(5) Las Vegas Raiders @ (4) Cincinnati Bengals, 3:30 pm CST on NBC
(6) New England Patriots @ (3) Buffalo Bills, 7:15pm CST on CBS
Sunday, January 16th
(7) Pittsburgh Steelers @ (2) Kansas City Chiefs, 7:15 pm CST on NBC
Lowest seed to advance plays the Tennessee Titans (Bye) in the Divisional Round
An interesting Sunday of football brought results we didn’t really anticipate heading into the day. No, the Chiefs did not backdoor into the one seed (and lone bye) like they were able to in 2019. However, they still had an overall good day for their outlook and path to returning to the AFC Championship Game for the fourth straight year.
Here’s a look at this year’s AFC playoff participants.
One Seed — Tennessee Titans (12-5)
I can’t wait to see the ratings in Kansas City for the Titans’ game against the Houston Texans on Sunday — because Chiefs Kingdom was locked in to this game and its impact.
Tennessee nearly blew a 21 point lead to Davis Mills and the Texans — with Houston climbing all the way back to a 21-18 score. Ryan Tannehill miraculously escaped a third-down sack that would’ve given the Texans the ball back in the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead.
The Titans’ identity is wrapped around star running back Derrick Henry, who has been out with injury. He’s expected to return for the playoffs, and he and receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones appear to be healthy at the right time.
I still don’t believe in this team. I don’t believe in Tannehill. I would not be surprised if they didn’t make it out of the divisional round. Lucky for them, that’s the first game they’ll have to lace them up in the playoffs — they secured the long bye week.
Two Seed — Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
Saturday’s win against the Broncos secured them no worse than the two seed in the AFC playoffs.
Obviously, we’re all disappointed that the Chiefs have to play this week. There is deserved frustration with the way that the recent loss to the Bengals was officiated, but they dug themselves into an early hole with their 3-4 start and created no margin for error.
Regardless, the Chiefs have figured a lot out about themselves over the course of this season. The defense has rounded into a group that can perform on the biggest stage, and the offense has finally found a little bit of a rhythm.
They’re 9-1 in their last ten games and look primed to make a run. That run will unfortunately take three games to reach a Super Bowl.
Three Seed — Buffalo Bills (11-6)
The Bills are the scariest opponent for the Chiefs in the AFC.
They have all the pieces to unseat KC from its seat atop the conference for the last three seasons — starting with quarterback Josh Allen. This conference has three verified rock stars capable of doing anything on the field — Mahomes, Allen, and Justin Herbert. All three are uniquely capable of elevating their team in ways even other great quarterbacks can’t.
It isn’t just Allen though. They have a star receiver (Stefon Diggs), depth at the skill positions, and a very good defense with depth and talent at all three levels of the field.
The Chiefs could see them as early as the Divisional Round. It’s the most difficult match-up for them on this side of the bracket.
Four Seed — Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
Welcome back to the playoffs, Cincinnati. The Bengals found their long term answer at quarterback in Joe Burrow and loaded him up with a deep pool of skill players. The Chiefs are all too familiar.
Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase set a single-game rookie record with 266 receiving yards just last week, and the result of that game shut the Chiefs out of controlling their own destiny for the one seed.
The Bengals have the offensive firepower with wide receivers Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and running back Joe Mixon, to go toe-to-toe with the Chiefs — or anyone — on any given day. If they get hot, they can light up the scoreboard.
This is still a young team, and their inexperience and poor defense makes it unlikely they string enough of those games to make real noise in the playoffs. They’re talented, though, and the future is bright.
Five Seed — Las Vegas Raiders (10-7)
Wait … what?!
The Raiders jumped all the way up to five seed in the AFC somehow with their wild, dramatic victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday Night Football. Las Vegas got hot at the right time — winning their final four games of the season to get in.
Their last loss? A 48-9 drubbing at the hands of the Chiefs — who outscored them 89-23 in their two matchups this season.
It’s remarkable that they’ve got to this point with the tumultuous season they’ve had — and more remarkable that they’re seeded as the top non-division winner. This is a stunning development, but it’d be very surprising to see there is only one team that’d I’d more surprised to see make a run in the AFC than Las Vegas.
Six Seed — New England Patriots (10-7)
The only thing scary about the Patriots is their head coach: Bill Belichick.
New England is heading the opposite direction of the Raiders, losing three of their last four. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has shown signs of regression at the end of this year after doing a great job managing games, protecting the ball, and playing complementary to his defense.
That’s the formula for the Patriots to regain the form they had for stretches of the regular season. The ceiling for that kind of brand of football — paired with the limitations of their young quarterback — will make it difficult for them to put three wins together.
They did split with the Bills in the regular season, however. They’ll play on Saturday for the right to advance to the Divisional Round.
Seven Seed — Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1)
When I say Pittsburgh needed some help to get in …
When the Jacksonville Jaguars demolished the Indianapolis Colts in stunning fashion on Sunday afternoon, it opened the door for Ben Roethlisberger to extend his career by at least one more game at Arrowhead.
The last one didn’t go so hot for the Steelers.
Despite COVID issues, the Chiefs beat down the Steelers at home. Patrick Mahomes carved up the Steelers despite missing Travis Kelce and using Tyreek Hill only sparingly. The defense continued their dominance as the Chiefs put together one of their more — if not their most — complete performance on the season.
No, the Chiefs didn’t get the bye week, but playing the Steelers after they played an overtime game against the Ravens just to get into the dance is a nice consolation. They weren’t at full strength a few weeks ago when they matched up and won 36-10.
The Chiefs should take care of business and advance to the Divisional Round. If they don’t it’s a serious failure.