Six of the seven AFC Playoff teams take the field this weekend to kickoff the 2022 NFL Playoffs, as Tennessee lays in wait to see who they will face in the divisional round.
Chiefs Focus @Chiefs Focus Charles Robinson @CRob5769
With college football tying a bow on its season after Georgia’s win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship game on Monday night, the football world’s focus now shifts wholly to the NFL. Grown man football being played during the time of year where young players grow up or go home, men become legends, and legends attempt to add to their legacies. The 2022 NFL Wild Card weekend kicks off this Saturday with two AFC matchups when the Raiders travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals to open the afternoon followed by the rubber match of AFC East rivals when New England heads to western New York to take on the Bills on a day where the high temperature is forecasted to be 10 degrees. Sunday night will cap off the weekend with a primetime game where Pittsburgh will travel to Arrowhead to take on the Chiefs where they lost 36-10 in week 16 of the regular season.
It’s about to get real. But in a year where everyone seems to think the AFC is wide open, I asked myself the question….why? Well, there isn’t a team that has dominated the entire season, only teams that have been dominant in stretches. The number 1 seed Titans, who finished the year 12-5, started out hot with an 8-2 record out of the gates. They racked up wins over the Cardinals, Colts twice, Bills, Chiefs, Rams, and Saints. But after Derrick Henry’s injury, the Titans lost 3 of 4 before recovering to win their final 3 to clinch the 1 seed. Kansas City started off the season with more questions than answers, going 3-4 in their first 7 games with embarrassing losses to the Bills and Titans. Then, 9-1 in their last 10 games. Cincinnati scored over 34 points 5 times this season and sport a high-flying offense, but have head scratching losses to the Jets, Bears, and a blowout loss to the Browns on their resume. Buffalo has looked dominant at times this year but have been the AFC’s biggest “Jeckyl & Hyde” team this year with inconsistencies as a team and from quarterback Josh Allen.
Each of these 7 teams have strengths and weaknesses, so naturally you can make a case for, and a case against each of them to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on February 13. Let’s break down, in order of seeding, what each team has working for and against them at this point in the season, and why each one of them could hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy on the final Sunday of January.
- Tennessee Titans (12-5)
The case for the Titans :
Betway The Titans earned the number 1 seed in the AFC on the back of an offense that was built to pound their opponents in the running game, with a receiving threat in AJ Brown that can help in that regard as one of the best blocking receiver in the game, but does dual duty as heady route runner who is good in both short yardage and big play scenarios. Tennessee activated Derrick Henry off of the IR last week, and signs are pointing towards him being healthy enough to return for their divisional round game. Henry missed the last 9 games of the regular season, but still finished the year in the top 10 in rushing yard in the NFL, and 6th in rushing touchdowns. He was averaging 117 yards per game before his injury, and if 100% will be a huge impact for the Titans in the playoffs. Tennessee’s defense was 6th in the league this season in scoring, holding opponents to 3 points or less 3 times (Chiefs 3, Jaguars 0, Dolphins 3).
The case against the Titans :
Tennessee set a record this season, starting 82 different players throughout the course of 2021. Ending the year at 12-5 with that type of injury luck should without question win Mike Vrabel coach of the year honors. But will the injury luck continue to bite them in the postseason? In their 28-25 season ending and 1 seed clinching victory over the Houston Texans, Kristian Fulton and Amani Hooker were both banged up, and they went into the game with defensive tackles Naquan Jones and Teair Tart. 9 other starters or contributors were on their injury report going into week 18 as well. Every team is dealing with injuries this season, but with the uncertainty surrounding Derrick Henry’s ability to go at 100%, along with other injuries, the Titans appear to be literally limping into the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill has also had a solid season, but he does not stir the most confidence as the team enters the postseason. The QB is 2-2 in his playoff career, with the two wins being in the 2020 playoffs against New England and Baltimore. In those games, Tannehill was a combined 15 for 29 for 160 yards. He did throw 3 TD, but Derrick Henry did nearly all of the heavy lifting (374 yards on 64 carries) before the Titans lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the AFC Championship.
- Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
The case for the Chiefs :
The obvious answer here is that the Chiefs have been here before. Each of the previous 3 seasons Kansas City has made it to the AFC Championship game, winning it in 2020 and 2021. We all know about Super Bowl 54. We all know about Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark. That is all good and well, and a major factor in this year’s AFC playoff field, that is actually quite sparce when it comes to teams that have made deep playoff runs. But the biggest key for the Chiefs this season is two fold – there is depth on the offensive line, and the play calling at the end of the regular season. It’s well documented the struggles the Chiefs had in Super Bowl 55 with fill ins at left and right tackle. This year, while Lucas Niang is out, Mike Remmers appears to be on the way back and the depth at OL is a strength as opposed to a weakness. Couple that with the fact that in recent weeks complimentary players like Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Derrick Gore, and Jerrick McKinnon have performed and produced, taking pressure off of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill to be the only offensive weapons for Kansas City, and you have a recipe for success in the playoffs. With the vanilla offense and defense that the Chiefs have been putting on tape since week 15, KC has set themselves up to not just attack opponents from different angles that they have seen recently, but from every single direction with multiple players peaking and the same old weapons still there to drive the dagger. The defense is also much improved from a year ago, specifically with the additions of the twins Nick Bolton and Melvin Ingram. Bolton led the team in tackles as a rookie, assuming the mike linebacker role with no problems, and since Ingram’s addition at the trade deadline the pass rush has come alive. The Chiefs rank 7th in the league in pass rushing, and will be a hazard to opposing QBs in the postseason, especially at Arrowhead Stadium where it gets very, very loud.
The case against the Chiefs :
Steve Spagnuolo’s play calling and personnel decisions in the final two games of the regular season look a lot more like regression than progress. After an 8 game stretch where the defense gave up just a hair under 13 points per game (all wins), the Chiefs finished the season by giving up 34 to Cincinnati and 24 to Denver. While there were other factors at play that contributed to those point totals, Spags insistence on playing Daniel Sorensen like a starting free safety and the sub packages he has utilized are a big cause for concern. Third down defense has been incredibly predictable, and has hurt the Chiefs on several occasions in the waning moments of the regular season. Defensively the team has looked a lot more like the 3-4 Chiefs than the 8 game winning streak Chiefs, and if that continues the playoff run could be fairly brief.
- Buffalo Bills (11-6)
The case for the Bills :
When the Bills offense is clicking, they are one of the hardest in the NFL to stop, and it starts with Josh Allen. Let me correct that statement – it starts with good Josh Allen. There is a bad Josh Allen, and we will get to that in a second. Offensively the Bills ended the regular season 3rd in the NFL in scoring on offense. With Stephon Diggs, Dawson Knox, and Cole Beasley dangerous as pass catchers, and the emergence of Devin Singletary in a rushing attack that found consistency over the course of the last 4 weeks of the regular season, Buffalo’s looked complete for the first time since really week 5 against Kansas City. The Bills also sport the NFL’s top scoring defense, which makes them incredibly dangerous on both sides of the ball. Their defensive line is deep, athletic, and powerful, and their linebackers look like they were created in a lab. If the Super Bowl was won on how a team looks coming off of the bus, Buffalo would have it no doubt.
The case against the Bills :
Now, let’s get to bad Josh Allen. The Josh Allen that looks like a glitch on Madden that would make you rage quit. There are games, as recently as two weeks ago against Atlanta, where everything goes out the window and Josh Allen forgets he’s got a tight end’s body with a rocket launcher on his right shoulder. He finished the season 8th in passing yards, but only Trevor Lawrence and Matthew Stafford had more interceptions than Allen. And the elephant in the room – the Bills were 6-2 in their final 6 games of the regular season, but only 3 of those games were against teams with winning records. In those 3, they were 1-2. Their other victories – Panthers, Jets, Falcons. The team has embodied inconsistency all year, and one slip up in the postseason gets you the door. So which Bills will we see on Saturday, the team that handled New England in Foxborough 33-21, or the team that lost to the Jags 9-6 and the Colts 41-15? That remains to be seen.
- Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
The case for the Bengals :
Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Joe Mixon. Collectively, there aren’t many teams in the AFC, or the NFL, that have a stable quite like Cincinnati does offensively. Burrow finished the regular season 6th in passing yards in the league, Mixon finished 3rd in rushing yards and 4th in rushing touchdowns, and Chase (as a rookie) finished 4th in receiving yards and 2nd in receiving touchdowns. But it’s not just the offensive side of the ball that gets it done in Cincinnati. The Bengals ended the year as the league’s 5th best run stopping defense, something that will be crucial in the playoffs, where running the ball and playing defense become a key to success.
The case against the Bengals
The Bengals last made the playoffs in 2015. Tight end CJ Uzmah, punter Kevin Huber, and long snapper Clark Harris are the only 3 players on the roster who were on that team, and a collectively 12 Bengals have any postseason experience at all. This will be the first postseason experience for Burrow, Chase, Mixon, Boyd, and Higgins. While the Bengals have the Wild Card round at home, they will almost certainly spend the rest of their time in the postseason on the road as the 4 seed, unless New England or Pittsburgh find a way to the AFC Championship. The Bengals offensive line is an issue as well. On the year, the Bengals offensive line ranked 30th out of 32 teams in pass block win rate, at 49%. Conversely, in pass rush win rate defensively they were 25th in the league at 36%. You can run the ball and stop the run all you want, but on the road in the playoffs, if you cannot rush the passer and protect your quarterback – especially on the road – you’re more than likely going home.
- Las Vegas Raiders (10-7)
The case for the Raiders :
In October, Jon Gruden was fired when offensive emails that he had sent years back surfaced. Insert Rich Bisaccia as interim head coach. A couple of weeks later, 2020 first round wideout Henry Ruggs is involved in a fatal DUI crash where his BAC was twice the legal limit. Shortly after that, the Raiders other 2020 first round pick, Damon Arnette, is cut from the team for posting a video to social media with numerous guns, advising someone that he would kill them. Even as recently as January 3rd Nate Hobbs was arrested for DUI also. The Raiders have been through it this season, but the resolve they have showed to not only continue to fight, but to win and make it to the playoffs with a spectacular win against a hated division rival in the regular season’s final game is nothing short of miraculous. This Raiders team has major “team of destiny” vibes, intangibles if you will. But they are doing it on the field, that’s for certain. Derek Carr was the league’s 5th best passer this year, and the Raiders defense clamped down when they needed to the most, holding opponents to 20 or fewer points in 4 of their last 6 games. The pass rush, led by Maxx Crosby, has been the league’s 8th best this season, and could continue to carry the team to greater, more surprising heights.
The case against the Raiders :
Even Cinderella’s carriage eventually turned back into a pumpkin. Vegas face an uphill battle in the wild card round against Cincinnati, a team they lost to 32-13 in the regular season, and will do so with a largely inexperienced roster. This will be quarterback Derek Carr’s first postseason start. While he was drafted by the team in the 2014 NFL draft, and they made the playoffs in 2016, he missed their loss to the Texans with a broken leg. And while the Raiders defense certainly possesses the threat of rushing the passer, the defense overall has struggled in 2021. The Raiders rank 26th overall in scoring defense on the season, and have allowed 28 or more points 7 times this season.
- New England Patriots (10-7)
The case for the Patriots :
Any team led by Bill Belichick is going to have a chance in any playoff game. The Patriots bring the 8th ranked rushing offense and the number 2 scoring defense into a postseason that will undoubtedly see games decided on those two facets of the game. New England also has the benefit of a first round opponent they are very familiar with in the Buffalo Bills, in conditions that will lend more to their style of play than Buffalo’s. The Pats defense, spearheaded by Matthew Judon and JC Jackson, can not only get to opposing quarterbacks, but they can take the ball away at an alarming rate. New England had the league’s 8th best turnover differential (+7), 2nd most interceptions (23), and 3rd most total turnovers (30).
The case against the Patriots :
Mac Jones has had a fine rookie season, but towards the end of the regular season it was far more evident that he was indeed a rookie than the middle of the season. Jones threw 6 of his 13 interceptions in the Pats last 6 games, in which they went 2-4, falling out of the AFC’s 1 seed and failing to win the AFC East. Because of their sputtering finish, New England now travels to Buffalo rather than hosting the wild card round. Inexperience and offensive inconsistency – the Patriots offensive stats on the season are buoyed largely by huge showings against terrible teams in the Jets and Jaguars – will likely cut this Patriots playoff run short, but I have a feeling there are more coming for Mac Jones and Bill Belichick.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1)
The case for the Steelers :
Broken record alert, but any Mike Tomlin coached team is going to have a shot in the postseason. Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have been to the top of the NFL mountain together twice in their 18 years together as head coach and quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While this isn’t the same Big Ben that hoisted the Lombardi in 2006 and 2009, he knows how to lead a team and prepare for high intensity, high pressure games. That is something that cannot be overlooked. The Steelers are also loaded with weapons on offense, from Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool to Najee Harris and Benny Snell. Defensively, the Steelers have the league’s best defender in TJ Watt, an eventual hall of famer in Cam Heyward in the middle of the defensive line, and Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Terrell Edmunds in the secondary to clamp down on opposing passing attacks. This is a gritty team that, when healthy, is very dangerous. With TJ Watt playing over 40 snaps per game, the team was 9-2 this season. Without him in for a majority of the snaps…0-5-1.
The case against the Steelers :
The draw, and the dependence on one player. The Steelers have the toughest draw of the first round, going to Kansas City to take on a team that was up 30-0 on them in week 16 before calling off the dogs. And while TJ Watt has been on the field the past few weeks wreaking havoc and setting records, he is still dealing with banged up ribs, and a groin that was injured in the regular season finale against the Ravens. The Steelers had to put so much into even making the postseason – gritty wins over the Titans, Browns, and Ravens proved Pittsburgh could do their part, and with a little help from the Jags they got in, but you have to wonder how much Pittsburgh, and especially Roethlisberger, have left in the tank after a 17 game regular season. The Steelers also rank 31st in the league in pass block win rate, and 30th in run block win rate. To say the offensive line is a liability would be an incredible understatement.
When I started writing this, I thought “well this is going to be about 2000 words.” Nope, how about 3000. If you made it this far, you are a saint. We’ll be back tomorrow for a little less in depth look at the NFC, and more coverage going into the Wild Card Weekend.