NFL Playoffs: State of Play in the AFC
With week 15 in the AFC already getting off to a wild start after the Los Angeles Chargers delivered a hammer blow to Las Vegas’ playoff hopes, the NFL season is starting to ramp up towards an epic finale.
By James Pike.
The next couple of weeks will be crucial for teams wanting to make a run at a Lombardi trophy come February, as well as being a true indicator of where each team truly stands in the hierarchy of their respective conferences.
Today I take a look at the American Football Conference and breakdown where each team stands as we head into the home stretch. My exceptionally talented colleague Tayyib Abu broke down the NFC earlier this week, so I strongly advise checking that out first. What, you're still here? Go and read it now!! Okay good, now without any further ado:
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-1)
And just like that Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and company find themselves sitting at the top of the mountain in the AFC. The Steelers’ two-week skid has seen them fall from grace which has opened the door for KC to swoop in and claim the top spot in the conference and even more crucially, the one and only bye in the first week of the postseason. Mahomes has simply been outstanding.
Up until this past week against a tough Miami defence he had thrown just two interceptions all season long. He had more picks in one game then he had the whole season. Even with his relatively mediocre game against the Fins (a game in which he still threw for 393 yards and two touchdowns), his numbers for the season have been phenomenal. 4,208 yards through the air to go along with 33 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
His play this season has quietly been better than his MVP year. It’s not just Mahomes who has been exceptional this year. Tyreek Hill is causing coaches to have migraines with his game breaking speed, Travis Kelce continues to be a matchup nightmare and rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire has impressed during his debut campaign for the current World Champs.
What makes things worse for the rest of the league is that the Chiefs defense is starting to find their form at the perfect time of the year. A tough test awaits the Chiefs tomorrow as they visit fellow contenders the New Orleans Saints at the SuperDome. If they can walk away with a victory in the Big Easy, then they could all but ensure they will get a break during the first week of the playoffs.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)
Just a couple of weeks ago Mike Tomlin’s men were on top of the world. The last unbeaten team in the league with one of the softest remaining schedules remaining, there was belief amongst their fans that they could do the impossible and end the season with an unbeaten record and the first seed in the AFC. How times have changed. Back-to-back losses to Washington and Buffalo has seen the Black and Gold slide down to the second seed and are no longer in control of their own destiny. However, if any team is prepared to tackle the explosive offense of the Chiefs in the playoffs, it’s the Steelers.
Their defense is still elite at every level. Their pass rush: led by DPOY candidate T.J. Watt has more sacks than any other team in the league, currently standing at 45. Their linebacking corps has remained dominant despite losing Devin Bush and Bud Dupree to injury, and their secondary can force turnovers, especially with Minkah Fitzpatrick having another All-Pro level season for the Steel Curtain.
The offense in Pittsburgh is also explosive. Big Ben hasn’t missed a beat after returning from a season ending shoulder injury. Although he may not be able to escape pressure as well as he used to, he has developed into one of the best pocket passers in the league. The Steelers have arguably the deepest corps of wide receivers in the league, with JuJu Smith Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and stand out rookie Chase Claypool all having the potential to change a game with a single play.
The Steelers need to win out to stand any chance of a bye in the first round of the playoffs but make no mistake about it, even if this team doesn’t get a week’s rest during the postseason they will still be incredibly tough to beat.
3. Buffalo Bills (10-3)
The title contenders that no one seems to be talking about. The Buffalo Bills have been outstanding in 2020. Josh Allen has now separated himself as the cream of the crop from the now infamous class of 2018 quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson may have already secured an MVP title to his name, but in my opinion, Allen is the better quarterback. What he has been able to do this season has been truly remarkable. His play has transformed the Bills into one of the most potent offensive teams in the entire league. Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown (when healthy) are an elite receiver group and they provide Allen with plenty of weapons, and the defense is doing just enough so that the Bills can build enough of a lead.
Buffalo’s slate from now until the end of the season is also one they look at as three more potential wins, as they face the Broncos, Patriots and Dolphins in their final three games of the year. Miami will be a tough matchup in the regular season finale; however, Denver and New England look like easy pickings for a team which has been so dominant throughout the 2020 season.
No one would like to go to Buffalo in January, so if they can somehow usurp the Steelers for the second seed we could be talking about a very deep playoff run for a team that just a couple of seasons ago were in the midst of a full rebuild. Are the Bills a dark horse contender for the Super Bowl this year?
4. Tennessee Titans (9-4)
The Yeti has awoken, and defensive backs and linebackers can feel a frightening chill rushing through their veins. Derrick Henry has once again started to get better as the season goes on, much to the delight of Ryan Tannehill and the rest of the Titans offense. The Titans will go as far as their superstar running back will take them in the postseason, but this team still has some work to do to secure their place at the dance. They are currently deadlocked with the Indianapolis Colts with a 9-4 record, and any slip ups between now and the end of the regular season could see this team slide out of home game in the playoffs. Most likely against their interdivisional rivals.
This Titans team is hard to predict when it comes to how they will fare during the final stretch of the season. One week they look almost unstoppable; like they did in week 14 against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Henry bulldozed the Jags on the ground, which set up their lethal play action game, giving star receiver A.J. Brown the chance to shine in an emphatic performance.
On the other hand, this team is often way too predictable, and their defensive shortcomings were on full display during the spanking they received courtesy of the Cleveland Browns in week 13. If their defense can’t improve between now and the end of the season this team could find themselves in a shootout too often in the playoffs which could spell disaster.
Hopefully, Henry still has some gas in the tank to carry this team to glory once more.
5. Cleveland Browns (9-4)
We live in a world where the Cleveland Browns are a 9-4 team. This just goes to show what a crazy year this has been. Don’t let the craziness of 2020 fool you however, as this Browns team is one that is absolutely built for success in the postseason. When temperatures drop and winds start to swirl during the cold winter months, Kevin Stefanski’s team will thrive.
The Dawg Pound are tailor made for postseason football. They run the ball well and play great defense. That is exactly what a team needs to have success in January. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the best 1-2 punch out of the backfield in the league. Furthermore, they happen to have a monster on the defensive side of the ball who is putting together one of the most dominant seasons in the past decade.
Myles Garrett has been a force of nature for Cleveland this year. He has almost reached Aaron Donald levels of dominance on the defensive line and is an absolute nightmare to guard for opposing offensive lines. The Browns’ defense overall has been a real strength for the team this year, which is indicative of a team who will do well when the win or go home portion of the season begins.
The biggest question mark for this team is their quarterback. Baker Mayfield is arguably the most polarizing player in the league when it comes to his performances. When he is on (like he was against the Titans) he is outstanding. However, when he is off, he plays like a third string quarterback in high school. If Mayfield can play well during the run in, then it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this team could be a sneaky contender come January. If he plays poorly, then a one and done postseason trip is almost guaranteed.
6. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
I must admit that Indy is a team I haven’t paid all that much attention to throughout the 2020 NFL season. Is it because I dislike them? No. Is it because I believe that Philip Rivers is the most boring man alive? Maybe! However, one thing I cannot deny is that the Colts have quietly put together a fantastic season for a team with so many question marks going into the year.
Many wondered how Rivers would fare in a new organization for the first time in his professional career, but the veteran has put together a solid season. 20 passing touchdowns to go along with 3,507 yards through the air to only nine interceptions. Those are solid numbers for a team who have also struggled with injuries during the course of the season.
Indianapolis’ defense is a big reason why this team is still in the hunt for the AFC South title. Now I will admit that at the start of the year I thought this defense was overrated, and to a certain extent I am right. Whenever the disruptive Darius Leonard is not on the field this team looks lost. They can’t stop the run and all too often find themselves with a deficit which is too much to overcome. When he is on the field though, this defense are able to lockdown their opposition and give their conservative offense a chance to build a lead.
If this team still had Andrew Luck under center then I firmly believe that they would be right in the mix for the top seed in the conference as they have one of the best offensive lines in the whole of football, and a defense which will keep them in any game they find themselves in during the postseason.
Unfortunately, with Rivers under center this team has a distinctive ceiling. If they are able to overhaul the Titans and secure a divisional title then this team could still surprise people in the playoffs, but don’t expect any upsets over the true heavyweights at the top of the conference.
7. Miami Dolphins (8-5)
If you would have told me two years ago that the Miami Dolphins would be in the playoffs then I would have told you ought to go and get checked out for a concussion. In 2020 however the Miami Dolphins hold onto the final spot in the AFC playoffs and have a very real chance of continuing their season in January. And honestly: Miami could be one of the AFC’s biggest banana skins.
Another team with a great defense (there seems to be a trend here. It’s almost as though defense wins championships. Someone should write that down!), they find themselves right in the mix for the postseason dance. Furthermore, the Dolphins might just have the best defensive unit of the bunch.
Their pass defense is the best in the league. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones form arguably the best cornerback tandem in the entire league, making it extremely tough to throw the ball on Miami. They are susceptible to a good ground attack, but this team forces enough turnovers that they will get the ball back enough to keep themselves in games. What is really impressive though is that Miami has manufactured a pass rush that is more than capable of getting after the quarterback.
Miami’s success hinges on their offense. Although Tua Tagovailoa has seen some great highs in his debut season, we have also watched as the Fins offense has stagnated for long stretches in games. Not that they are lacking firepower; Devonte Parker on his day is a top 15 wide receiver, and Mike Gesicki is a matchup nightmare over the middle of the field. If the Dolphins can give Tua enough time then he is more than capable of picking teams apart with his elite accuracy, giving this team a real shot at securing a playoff berth.
If Miami can somehow hold off the Ravens who have a much easier schedule to close out the season, then they could be a tough matchup for any team they end up paired off against during the playoffs, but an acid test awaits them this weekend when they face old rivals New England in what should be a blockbuster.
On the outside looking in
Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
No matter which way you look at it, this season has been a disappointment for the Ravens. Lamar has regressed significantly in his third year, and their offense is nowhere near as explosive as it once was. To right off Baltimore though would be a mistake. They still have one of the best defensive units in the league, and their ground game can completely overwhelm teams. Lamar Jackson is still an elite playmaker at quarterback, and this team could still force their way into the postseason. Their fate is currently out of their hands, however if there is any team currently out of the playoffs who pose the biggest threat to win a Super Bowl in February, then it is the Ravens.
Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)
The Raiders were dealt a body blow on Thursday Night Football when they were handed their seventh defeat of the season courtesy of Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers. The only team to have beaten the current World Champs now find themselves with a mountain to climb to even stand a chance of continuing their season past December. Destiny no longer favours the Black and Silver to make the playoffs, but if Jon Gruden has proven anything during his long and illustrious career as a head coach. It’s that you should never count him out.
New England Patriots (6-7)
Speaking of coaches with long and illustrious careers: Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots find themselves in unfamiliar territory. On the outside looking in. It is highly unlikely that the Pats make it to the postseason this year, but with a crucial game coming up this Sunday against the Dolphins, and a momentum building performance last time out against the Chargers you just never know. If the Patriots do find a way to win on the road in Miami this Sunday, then they would hold a tiebreaker against every team ahead of them in the playoff hunt. Which could be huge when the final round of games come to an end.