2017 AFC Playoff Preview: Nuts And Bolts

The AFC playoff field features a mixture of familiar franchises, plus a crop of brand-new quarterbacks. While the defending champion Denver Broncos sit this year’s playoffs out and search for a head coach; Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith return to the playoffs once again. The other half of the teams will turn to QBs who have not taken a single snap in the postseason: longtime backup Matt Moore in Miami, third-stringer Connor Cook in Oakland and Houston’s Brock Osweiler, who was benched in the weeks prior to the regular season finale.

The AFC gets its wild-card weekend started Saturday when the Raiders visit Houston. On Sunday, the Dolphins visit Pittsburgh. New England has its customary bye week — its sixth straight — and Kansas City whom earned its first bye since 2003.

What to know about each of the playoff teams?

New England Patriots: For the fifth time in 11 seasons, the AFC Playoffs will go through Foxborough, MA. This is in fact a good sign for New England as two of its recent Super Bowl runs (2007 and 2014) came when they were the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The Patriots won a league-best 14 games this season with three of them coming without the services of Hall-Of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots have used a resurgent rushing attack – led by the trio of LeGarrett Blount, James White and Dion Lewis – to the seventh best rushing average in football (117 yards per game).

The lions share of the credit can go to Brady, who has navigated this season almost flawlessly – completing 67.4 percent of his passes for 28 TDs and two interceptions. But New England’s defense has risen to the occasion, finishing third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (88.6 per game), 12th in passing yards allowed (238) and first points allowed (15.6). With all of that considered, the Patriots enter the playoffs alongside the best quarterback and best coach in the history of the league. However, can New England’s offense, which has struggled to string together consistent drives, be able to survive without Rob Gronkowski? Bill Belichick and company should be just fine in the divisional round, but it’ll be the AFC Championship and perhaps Super Bowl that could expose his absence.

Kansas City Chiefs: So far, it’s been a season of milestones for Kansas City. Not only will the Chiefs enter the fray with a first-round bye, but their AFC West crown was the franchise’s first since 2010. Kansas City is heading into the playoffs red-hot, winning an NFL-best 22 of its last 26 regular season games. As a whole, the make-up of KC is simple: they’re well-coached alongside the NFL’s 10th most winningest coach Andy Reid, they have elite offensive play makers (WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce) and they contain a defense/special teams unit that manufactures scoring opportunities.

Kansas City’s swarming defense is led by the ball-hawking tandem of safety Eric Berry and cornerback Marcus Peters – who have intercepted nine passes combined this year. Overall, the defense has forced a league-high 33 takeaways this season. In addition, their defense and special teams have accounted for eight touchdowns and 46.5 percent of Kansas City’s points  – a figure equal to that of the famed 2000 Ravens defense and superior to the percentages posted by the 1985 Bears and 2015 Broncos.

But if the Chiefs want to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1969, then its offense must pick up the pace. Quarterback Alex Smith has underperformed this season, throwing for only 15 TDs and eight picks, despite possessing a wealth of weapons at his disposal, such as All-Pro TE Travis Kelce and electrifying WRs Tyreek Hill and Jeremy Maclin. Smith might have to resort to his running ability, which was hampered due to concussions he experienced in late October, to help out Kansas City’s inconsistent offense.

Pittsburgh Steelers: After fighting a tumultuous battle of injuries throughout the regular season, the Steelers are finally becoming healthy at the perfect time. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have not been on the field together during the playoffs as they will be this month. Throw in a healthy O-line and the likely return of tight end Ladarius Green, and Pittsburgh should have the AFC’s most diverse and dynamic offense.

Between Roethlisberger’s scary good success-rate on third down and red zone situations, Bell’s 157 rushing yards per game average (third-most in NFL history), plus Brown’s league record for most receptions (481) over a four-year span, Steelers have all the pieces on the offensive end to make a serious run.

However its defense, which has experienced inconsistency in its secondary, must hold its own to keep challenging offenses such as New England and Kansas City off-the-field. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they’ve led the league in sacks since Week 11 with 25, in  the process they’ve allowed just 17.3 points per game during their seven-game winning streak. That defensive improvement has been triggered by the rookie trio of nose tackle Javon Hargrave, cornerback Artie Burns and strong safety Sean Davis. It’s safe to say that formula on defense must continue if the Steelers want to appear in their fourth Super Bowl in 12 years.

Houston Texans: Even without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Texans finished atop the league in total defense. Jadeveon Clowney finally realized his monstrous potential as a pocket-crashing demon against the run. Whitney Mercilus proved to be one of football’s most underrated edge rushers. And A.J. Bouye came out of nowhere to emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. The defense alone is especially frightening, limiting offenses to 16.6 points per game while posting a 7-1 home record. That in itself should give the Texans a chance in the Wild Card round.

However, Houston enters the postseason with the fourth-worst point differential (minus-49) since divisional realignment in 2002. The reason for that disparity can be laid at the feet of Brock Osweiler, the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL this season. Houston’s 25 touchdowns are the fewest by any playoff team in a non-strike-shortened season since the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978. Lacking accuracy, field vision, a streamlined delivery and the ability to attack defenses outside the numbers and down the field, Osweiler has been benched on the brink of the playoffs for two consecutive years by two different coaching staffs. Though he will be starting again on Sunday vs. the Raiders, with Tom Savage recovering from a concussion.

Oakland Raiders: Oh, what could have been. While Oakland’s fans should be ecstatic that their team is finally playing postseason football for the first time since 2002. Their chances of going deep was shot down after MVP candidate Derek Carr broke his fibula in Week 16. As a matter of fact, Carr will become the first quarterback in history to win 12+ games in a season and not start in the playoffs.

With backup Matt McGloin banged up, rookie third-stringer Connor Cook will become just the second quarterback this century to start his first game of the season in the playoffs (joining Joe Webb, who did so with Minnesota back in the 2012 postseason). In Cook’s case, it doubles as the first start of his NFL career. Cook will try to live off of one of the more dominating offensive lines in football this season, which has allowed the fewest sacks (18) of any team. Beyond Oakland’s outstanding receiving core of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree (which caught a combined 172 passes for 2,156 receiving yards), the Raiders still contain a diverse and unsung backfield. The rookie tandem of Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington combined to average a gaudy 5.6 yards per carry, while Latavius Murray became the first Oakland back with double-digit rushing touchdowns since Marcus Allen in 1990.

As Cook’s snaps become that more significant, he could use a great deal of help from his defense. Staunch pass-rushers Khalil Mack (11 sacks) and Bruce Irvin (7) will need to be on their game if they want to patch up one of the league’s worst secondary, which has surrendered nearly 280 passing yards per game.

Miami Dolphins: Like Oakland, Miami’s playoff fate is in the hands of lifetime backup Matt Moore. Although Ryan Tannehill’s absence comes as quite the hindrance, the Dophins can still rely on RB Jay Ajayi to kickstart their offense. If you can remember back in Week 6, Ajayi broke the will of the very same Steelers defense, grounding and pounding his way to a 204 yard game.

Any hope of the Dolphins springing the upset lies in Ajayi and Miami’s stout defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh and explosive pass rusher Cameron Wake. At the peak of their powers, those two must create havoc against a surging Steelers’ offensive line. Another area of concern is the state of the Dolphins’ injury-riddled defense, which as of now is fading. They’ve allowed 436 yards on average over the past six weeks. In total, they’ve surrendered a franchise-record 6,122 yards this entire season.

Wild Card Predictions:

  • Pittsburgh over Miami
  • Houston over Oakland

Divisional Round Predictions:

  • New England over Houston
  • Kansas City over Pittsburgh

AFC Championship Predictions:

  • Kansas City over New England

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