The AFC side of the playoffs begs only one question, can anyone stop the Patriots? With three of the six teams in shambles at the quarterback position, the most likely situation sees New England cruising to the Superbowl. Here I take a look at each side’s chances heading into January football.
- Patriots (14-2, No. 1 Seed)
After another strong year the Patriots look set to make another deep playoff run, and that is because of one man, Tom Brady. At 39, the four time Superbowl champion finished the season with the highest touchdown-to-interception ratio in history, finishing with 28 touchdowns compared to just 2 interceptions, as well as finishing with the second highest completion percentage and Quarterback rating of his career, all without his number one weapon in Gronkowski for half the season, as well as missing the first four games of the season due to suspension. One strength of this team that has gone under the radar is their defence. The Patriots have only allowed a remarkable 15.6 points a game this season, more than 2 points less than the next best side. They also rank 8th in total yards allowed per game. All these points together make the Patriots extremely tough to defeat, and that’s without mentioning Bill Belichick. The winningest coach in Patriots history also has the most playoff wins of any coach in NFL history, and there aren’t many situations that he and Brady wouldn’t have seen before. Combine Brady, Belichick, their stout defence, as well as the fact the playoffs go through Foxborough and the Patriots are the side to beat.
Prediction: The Patriots have been here many times before. After a tight tussle with the Steelers in the Conference Championship, they will be moving on to Superbowl 51.
- Chiefs (12-4, No. 2 Seed)
It was hard to imagine the Chiefs being the 2nd seed just a number of weeks ago, but the injury to Derek Carr changed that. They are in this position on the back of their dominant defence. The Chiefs’ unit leads the league in takeaways and sits in equal first in turnover margin, as well as leading the league with 8 non-offensive touchdowns this season. Their constant ability to make plays sets up the offense in excellent field position and has kept Kansas City in games all year long. The biggest question with this team is quarterback Alex Smith. Smith is a solid quarterback who combines well with his dangerous defence. He doesn’t make many mistakes, however his lack of big plays has cost this team in the past. The emergence of Tyreek Hill has changed that. In just his first season, Hill has provided the Chiefs with the perfect X-factor to complement their number one weapon in Travis Kelce. In each of his last four games, Hill has scored a touchdown of over 60 yards. Pretty impressive. With the side they have now, the time for a Superbowl run is now. They will need Hill and their defence to be at their absolute best if they are to get there.
Prediction: Despite a strong effort by their defence, the Steelers will be too strong for them in the Divisional Round.
- Steelers (11-5, No. 3 Seed)
The Steelers are the AFC team that nobody wants to play. The triple threat of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are as dangerous as any trio in the league. Bell and Brown are widely regarded as the best of their respective positions, and will be vital to the Steelers’ chances. The defence has continued to improve under coordinator Keith Butler, allowing just over 20 points a game. The key, however, is still with 2-time Superbowl champion Ben Roethlisberger. Should the Steelers get past the Dolphins in their first matchup, a date with the Chiefs awaits. As long as Roethlisberger can limit his turnovers, and continue to utilise his two major weapons in Bell and Brown as he has done all year, this team will be a dangerous opposition.
Prediction: This team is dangerous, but the Patriots will be too good for them as they go down in the Conference Championship.
- Texans (9-7, No. 4 Seed)
This side will only go as far as their defence will allow them. The Texans’ offense is in shambles. $72 million signing Brock Osweiler has been very poor this season, throwing 15 touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions, and only completing his passes 59% of the time. He was benched in Week 15 in favour of Tom Savage, who didn’t exactly set the field alight before being concussed last weekend. Due to the issues at quarterback, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been extremely quiet. After compiling more than 1500 yards last season, he has been limited to just 954 yards this season and only 4 touchdowns. The sole reason the Texans are still playing in January is because of their number 1 ranked defence. We saw last year the Broncos win the Superbowl with sub-par quarterback play on the back of their defence, but the Texans’ unit is not as threatening as the Broncos’ last year. The defence will have to put this team on their shoulders if they are to go anywhere this postseason.
Prediction: Their defence will be enough to carry them past the Derek Carr-less Raiders but that’s as far as they’ll go, as the Patriots will be far too strong for them in the Divisional Round.
- Raiders (12-4, No. 5 Seed)
Less than two weeks ago, the Raiders were looking like genuine contenders, but then Derek Carr went down with a broken leg and changed everything. Prior to his injury, Carr was in the midst of a career year and was well and truly amongst the contenders for the MVP award in just his third year in the league. His combination with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree has been the key for their dangerous passing attack. Whilst their defensive ranks may not be that impressive, their high turnover rate has been invaluable, ranking second in the league in total turnovers, which has consistently set up their offence in good field position. Coach Jack Del Rio has done a marvellous job to get this team to their first playoff berth since 2002. However, the injury to Carr has now meant their dreams of a Superbowl run are all but gone, and now with backup Matt McGloin injured it all rests on the shoulders of rookie Connor Cook. He will need to get on the same page with Cooper and Crabtree fast and rely on the defence to step up on the big stage if the Raiders are to do any damage.
Prediction: The Texans defence will be too much for rookie Connor Cook as the Raiders’ first trip to the playoffs in 14 years is a short-lived one.
- Dolphins (10-6, No. 6 Seed)
Sitting at 1-4 after 5 weeks, everyone was writing the Dolphins off. Since the Week 5 loss to the Titans, the Dolphins have gone 9-2, including a six-game win streak, and became just the tenth team in the Superbowl era to make the playoffs after starting 1-4. They were looking like the team nobody wanted to face during the playoffs, thanks to a breakout season from running back Jay Ajayi. After recording just 187 rush yards in his rookie year, he finished this season with 1272 yards at 4.9 yards per attempt, including three games of over 200 yards, one of which was against this week’s opponent the Steelers. Unfortunately for Miami, starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill injured himself with a sprained knee, forcing him out of the last three weeks. However, backup Matt Moore has performed admirably in his place. In three starts, he has thrown for 674 yards and 8 touchdowns and lead his team to two wins. There is a small chance Tannehill may be fit this weekend, otherwise Moore will be relied on once again. However, if they hope to be successful, they will need Ajayi to consistently have strong games, and their 29th ranked defence has to step up, as if they manage to get past the high-powered Steelers offence a match against Tom Brady looms.
Prediction: Whether Tannehill or Moore starts, the Steelers will be far too strong for the Dolphins as they exit the playoffs after one game.
The AFC will come down to three sides, the Patriots, Chiefs, and Steelers. Given how good Brady and the Patriots defence has been this season, they will be too good and will proceed all the way to the Superbowl.