Yesterday, y’all got a look at the NFC playoff picture according to me. I think that’s a more competitive conference than the AFC, which to me looks like Denver and New England, followed by everyone else. Quietly, the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs have made their way into the playoffs, so they truly do have just as good a chance as anyone. But as you’ll see, I don’t really have any underdogs in the picture making any noise. So without further ado, here’s my team-by-team analysis and playoff prediction in the AFC.
Peyton Manning looked awful at the beginning of the season, and after replacing him, Brock Osweiler has been up and down. Demariyus Thomas stands to be one of the most overrated players in the entire NFL. CJ Anderson has underperformed for most of the year, while Ronnie Hillman hasn’t been good enough to take the lion’s share of carries. Emmanuel Sanders, in my eyes, is this team’s best receiver, which shouldn’t spell good things. Those four sentences more or less trashed all over the Broncos, so how are they the #1 seed? Well, two reasons. First, and most importantly, they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Patriots, which gives them the leg up. Second, that defense. It’s better than advertised; they can truly do it all. They can stop the run, they can get to the quarterback, they can force teams into mistakes. I haven’t looked too deeply into the rankings or anything, but whether the stats say so or not, I believe that the best D in the NFL resides in Denver. I see the offense as lackluster, but this defense can steal wins easily.
New England Patriots
Injuries. That word seems to begin and end every single conversation people hold about the Patriots. They’re getting healthy though, and that’s not good news for the rest of the NFL. Many still think that the Pats will get through the AFC, and I’m among them. Don’t forget that this team is still playing inspired since some dim-witted people want to put an asterisk on last year’s title due to the fabrication and overreaction that was the DeflateGate scandal. Losers of 4 of their last 6 games, New England still has Tom Brady. They still have Bill Belichick. And they still have Gronk. That’s not to mention that Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will be coming back healthier, as will key members of the o-line, like Sebastian Vollmer. The defense will be boosted by a healthier Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. This squad knows how to win. If they don’t take it home this year, it will most likely be due to injuries. I still think that this is the best team in the NFL, hometown biases put aside.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Cincinnati Bengals have dealt with key injuries of their own. Andy Dalton started off the season on fire (not a joke about his hair), but obviously is toast for the playoffs due to a broken thumb. In playoff football, I don’t think this is necessarily an awful thing because of his proven ineffectiveness come crunch time. No, AJ McCarron hasn’t lit up the league, but he knows what it takes to win, as he did it a few times in Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Cincinnati has its most talented team yet, but against Pittsburgh, a team it has historically struggled against, I don’t see it working out in their favor. Maybe, just maybe, if the Bengals can get the monkey off their back by winning the first one, it will give them the needed momentum to roll through the rest of the tournament.
I despise JJ Watt, but there’s no denying the impact that he has on a game whenever he’s on the field (especially since ESPN and Watt himself won’t let you forget it). Houston probably won’t be making their way to San Francisco for the 50th edition of the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t steal a game. It’s because of their defense. They’ve been playing well as of late, and they’ve got the pieces to stop a good passing attack, which is important for January football. Offensively speaking, DeAndre Hopkins has been a top-five receiver in the league this year. He’s officially exploded onto the scene, and the Clemson product is the Achilles heel of the Houston attack. Hopkins is one of those special guys where it doesn’t matter who’s throwing him the ball, which is good news for Brian Hoyer. Houston has some good core pieces, but they’re not there quite yet.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have been one of the hottest teams in football. They haven’t lost a game since the Royals won the World Series (not that there’s a correlation, but that’s still kind of a cool little fun fact). Led by Alex Smith, the offense has been efficient, rarely turning the ball over and making each drive last as long as possible. Many thought the loss of Jamaal Charles for the season would derail this team, however, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West have spearheaded the backfield. Combine that with the reliable tight end Travis Kelce and the quick Jeremy Maclin, and that becomes a potent attack. Defensively, the Chiefs are around the ball and they finish their tackles. Not to mention they have Andy Reid as their head coach, who is the perfect guy to run this team. I think the Chiefs are this year’s sleeper. Don’t be shocked if they have themselves a nice little run in the playoffs.
When you’ve got Mike Tomlin coaching your team and big Ben Roethlisberger throwing for you, I like your shots. Pittsburgh got into the playoffs on the last day of the season thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets losing in Buffalo. So no, they didn’t have a chance to control their own destiny. Pittsburgh is always a scary team in the playoffs, though, and that hasn’t changed. Antonio Brown is as close to un-coverable as it gets, and the thing is that he’s not even the only guy in that receiving core. Martavis Bryant can be stupid good if he plays to his potential, and Markus Wheaton is a good option too. The defense hits you hard and comes at you fast, led by Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, Cameron Heyward and others. I think the X-factor is whether DeAngelo Williams’ injury is serious. If it is, that makes the Steelers’ offense very one-dimensional. If it isn’t, it opens more things up for Big Ben to do what he does best- win.
Now for the predictions…
Wild Card Weekend:
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals- Steelers 27, Bengals 24
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Houston Texans- Chiefs 28, Texans 17
Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots- Patriots 24, Chiefs 14
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos- Steelers 21, Broncos 10
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots- Patriots 35, Steelers 31
Might be a homer move, but I like the Patriots in the AFC. I think that Tom Brady is still a man on a mission, and despite the porous football that they’ve played, I think that getting their guys healthy will be momentum enough. Looking at other potential teams, I think the other two most likely are the Steelers or the Chiefs. Cincinnati has a complete team, but they’re absolutely incapable of winning the big games. It’s hard to say what Brock Osweiler will do come playoff time, especially considering he has the greatest margin for error due to his defense. But Denver always shuts down at some point in the playoffs, and I don’t see this year as any different.
Cover Photo courtesy of USA Today.