The AFC playoffs are set up for an epic ride. The teams that have qualified, have endured contrasting journeys to get here. Pittsburgh snuck into the playoffs, thanks to the Jets’ gaffe, and looked primed to be the best 6th seed since the 2010 Green Bay Packers. Kansas City enters the post season riding a 10 game winning streak. Houston won seven of their last nine games to hold off the Colts in the AFC South. Cincinnati lost its starting quarterback four weeks ago, but still managed to win the AFC North. New England, losers of 4 of their last 6, limped through the end of the regular season but appear to be getting healthy at the right time. And then there’s Denver, who held off the red-hot Chiefs to secure the #1 seed. There isn’t much separation between these playoff teams, with the only exception being whether or not Andy Dalton can go for the Bengals. With the road to Santa Clara starting this weekend, all six teams have a worthy shot to make a run to the Super Bowl.
Getting to Know the Teams
Denver Broncos: The Broncos were able to secure the #1 seed despite Peyton Manning playing the worst football of his career and missing six games due to a plantar foot injury. Manning tossed 17 interceptions before his injury but the team still started 7-2 thanks to a dominating defense. That defense finished first in the NFL in total yards allowed (271.8 yards allowed/game), first in passing defense, third in rushing defense and fourth in points allowed. Defense absolutely wins championships, a recent example was Seattle’s back in 2013, but the offense has to be more than anemic. Manning finished the year with a total QBR of 45.0 which is by far the lowest of his career. More troubling, he completed less than 60% of his passes for the first time since his rookie year in 1998. Team injuries are partly to blame for all the unpredictability on the offensive side of the ball. But if Denver expects to make a run to the big end, it will need better game management from one of the best signal callers of all-time.
New England Patriots: New England managed to win a seventh straight AFC East crown despite losing a quality player at each level of the offense. The passing offense still finished in the top 5 of every major statistical category, but the rushing offense finished near the bottom of the league. The defense was close to league average, but did manage to make the big plays necessary by finishing second in sacks (49.0) and first in forced fumbles (20). The biggest cause for concern with the Patriots is how they have played collectively down the stretch. The Pats finished the season losing four of its final six games and that shouldn’t sit well with people in Foxborough. However, there is a strong chance that Brady will see his #2 target, Julian Edelman, return in time for the second round matchup. And the late signing of Steven Jackson might provide a boost to the running game. Oh, and some guy named Tom Brady avoided a major injury in the season finale so the Patriots will still be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals used an 8-0 start en route to winning the AFC North crown and earning the #3 seed in the playoffs. The team sputtered some down the stretch, but it should be noted that they did lose starting quarterback Andy Dalton, who was having the best year of his career, for four games. The Bengals offense should be able to score enough points even if Dalton isn’t cleared in time to play. But the real key for the Bengals will be how they defend the pass. Coming into the playoffs, the Bengals passing defense ranked #20 in the NFL in total yards allowed. That doesn’t bode well for its first round matchup against the Steelers, who move the ball in the air better than any team in the playoffs. If there is anything that the Bengals have shown this season its resiliency. With a home game against a division rival to start out, the Bengals are in good position to win a playoff game for the first time since 1991.
Houston Texans: For the Texans, the buck starts and stops with All World defensive end JJ Watt. Watt again led the league in sacks (17.5), added 3 forced fumbles and 8 pass defends. Actually, the entire defense played dominate in the final three games as the Texans only gave up an average of 7.3 points/game (albeit it came against Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville). That defense is sure to have its hands full against better competition, but it has proven that it can keep the Texans in the game. Houston has a game changer on offense in DeAndre Hopkins (111 catches, 1521 yards, 11 TDs). It’s amazing what he was able to accomplish with such an unworkable situation at quarterback. Coach O’Brien did make the right call in re-instituting Brian Hoyer as the starter. The looming question will be however, can Hoyer, who has shown that he has the ability to be an effective NFL starter, be consistent enough to give the team a chance?
Kansas City Chiefs: Kansas City enters the playoffs red-hot by winning their final 10 games. Some will point out the fact that during that stretch the Chiefs only beat two over .500 teams; Pittsburgh with its 3rd string quarterback and a Manning less Broncos team. While that assessment would be fair, it doesn’t give the Chiefs the credit they deserve for turning around a 1-5 start. Kansas City was able to score around 25 points/game which is more than enough for a defense that finished third in the NFL in points allowed (17.9).
Throughout this entire season, the Chiefs have proven that they can run the ball (127 yards/game) which makes up for the lack of a dominate pass attack (30th in the NFL in total passing yards). About the passing offense, quarterback Alex Smith doesn’t seem to receive enough credit for the job he does. While it’s true that he isn’t cut from the Drew Brees air-it-out for 500 yards mode, he does take impeccable care of the football. In the playoffs, when mistakes are magnified, this shouldn’t be underestimated. Smith only threw 7 interceptions (3 in the final two games) which was tied for 2nd best among qualified quarterbacks (200 passing attempts or more). The Chiefs finally found a game breaking wide receiver in what could be the free agent signing of the year in Jeremy Maclin (87 catches, 1,088 yards, 8 TDs). If Smith can continue to take care of the football and the defense keeps up its consistency, the Chiefs have the tools to make a run in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh needed a terrible 4th quarter performance from the Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick to make the playoffs, but nobody in Steeler Nation is concerned about that now. The Steelers, typical known for defense, enter the playoffs as the second highest scoring team in the AFC. The offense was dominated during the second half of the regular season. Over the last eight games, the Steelers averaged close to 32 points per game, with Week 16’s seventeen point showing against the Ravens, was the only game over that span in which they have failed to score at least 28 points. If there is a concern about that prolific offense, it’s the depth at running back. After losing LeVeon Bell back in Week 8, DeAngelo Williams found the fountain of youth. Williams injured his ankle in last week’s match up against Cleveland, but the good news is that the MRI showed no major structural damage (he is day-to-day). With Williams on the mend, the Steelers may be getting former All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey back for a deep playoff run. If the Steelers can keep the ball rolling on offense and avoid the big play on defense, this is team capable of making a deep playoff run.
Staff Wild Card Predictions
Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati
Jerome Williams: Pittsburgh
Steven Abramo: Cincinnati
Ryan Patti: Pittsburgh
Cassidy McMahon: Pittsburgh
Greg von Matt: Cincinnati
Chris Lengua: Pittsburgh
Kansas City vs. Houston
Jerome Williams: Kansas City
Steven Abramo: Kansas City
Ryan Patti: Kansas City
Cassidy McMahon: Kansas City
Greg von Matt: Kansas City
Chris Lengua: Kansas City
Staff Divisional Round Predictions:
Jerome Williams: Pittsburgh over Denver and New England over Kansas City
Steven Abramo: Kansas City over Denver and New England over Cincinnati
Ryan Patti: Denver over Pittsburgh and New England over Kansas City
Cassidy McMahon: Denver over Pittsburgh and New England over Kansas City
Greg von Matt: Kansas City over Denver and Cincinnati over New England
Chris Lengua: Denver over Pittsburgh and New England over Kansas City
Staff AFC Championship Round Predictions
Jerome Williams: Pittsburgh over New England
Steven Abramo: Kansas City over New England
Ryan Patti: Denver over New England
Cassidy McMahon: Denver over New England
Greg von Matt: Cincinnati over Kansas City
Chris Lengua: New England over Denver