So often, uneasy is the head that wears the crown. Yet the Kansas City Chiefs followed up their first Super Bowl title in half a century by posting the NFL’s best record at 14-2, earning the AFC’s only first-round bye in the expanded playoff format.
The Chiefs didn’t dominate teams as much as they withstood challenge after challenge like a champion boxer who knows how to avoid the big hit while chipping away until he wears down his opponent.
Mahomes won his last seven starts by 2, 4, 3, 6, 6, 3 and 3 points.
While the Chiefs get another week’s rest, the six other AFC playoff teams get going this weekend.
On Saturday, the Indianapolis Colts visit the Buffalo Bills, who ended New England’s 11-year reign as AFC East champ with their first division title since 1995 and earned their first home playoff game since 1996.
The Cleveland Browns make their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season on Sunday, when they visit Pittsburgh, where they haven’t won since 2003, and the Tennessee Titans host the Baltimore Ravens.
For just the second time since the 1970 league merger, every team in the AFC playoffs has at least 11 wins. It also happened in 1980.
1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (14-2)
AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 1. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 54, 31-20 over the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 2, 2020, at Miami. Last year: No. 2 seed, beat Houston 51-31 in divisional round, beat Tennessee 35-24 in AFC championship to reach the Super Bowl, where they overcame a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit. Sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs and fifth consecutive AFC West title.
HOPE: The Chiefs won 10 straight games before playing their backups in Week 17. Patrick Mahomes has had another MVP-caliber season, throwing for 4,740 yards with 38 TDs and six interceptions, and is surrounded by an even more dynamic supporting cast than last season. TE Travis Kelce has had a record-setting season with 105 catches for 1,416 yards and 11 TDs, WRs Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins should be healthy, and rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire could return from a high ankle sprain.
NOPE: The Chiefs won seven consecutive games by one possession, which could be taken as proof of their championship mettle or evidence that they have been riding razor-thin margins to victory. The only team to beat the Chiefs when they played their starters was Las Vegas, which built a big enough lead early in the fourth quarter in Week 5 to weather a patented late KC comeback.
DOPE: “We always rise up and play better in the big games. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I know I’m going to get the best effort possible out of everybody on this team. I’m excited for it. I know what this team can do.” — Mahomes
2. BUFFALO BILLS (13-3)
AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 3. No Lombardis in four Super Bowl appearances. Last year: No. 5 seed, squandered 16-0 third-quarter lead in 22-19 overtime loss at Houston in a wild-card playoff. Third trip to the playoffs in four seasons under coach Sean McDermott after snapping a 17-year playoff drought in 2017. First AFC East title since 1995.
HOPE: Josh Allen led a record-setting offense in Buffalo that included Stefon Diggs’ NFL-high 127 catches and produced a franchise-best 501 points. Allen completed 69.2% of his passes, up from 52.8% as a rookie in 2018. In winning six in a row and nine of its last 10, Buffalo became the NFL’s first team to close a season winning three straight by 25 points or more since the 1996 Packers. Over the final 10 games, Buffalo had 19 takeaways and allowed just 38 of 120 conversions on third down.
NOPE: Allen leads a clock-chewing offense that can neutralize opponents’ strengths, but can he take that same poise and precision into the playoffs? He faltered in his postseason debut last year. Questions linger about Buffalo’s ground game should defenses smother Allen and his WRs. In their three losses the Bills allowed 601 rushing yards, and who can forget the 43-yard Hail Mary they allowed to DeAndre Hopkins in a 32-30 loss at Arizona?
DOPE: “We’re nobody’s little brother, we’re not nobody’s little cousin, little dog, no. We are here. You’re going to respect us. You’re going to play us hard. You’re going to circle us on your schedule, and we’re going to give you the hardest 60 minutes of football you’ve ever seen.” — LT Dion Dawkins
3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4)
AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 6. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 1, 2009, at Tampa, Florida. Last year: 8-8. Ninth playoff appearance in coach Mike Tomlin’s 14 seasons. First AFC North title since 2017.
HOPE: T.J. Watt led the league with 15 sacks and the Steelers tied their franchise record with 56 QB takedowns, fueling their best-ever 11-0 start. QB Ben Roethlisberger bounced back from right elbow surgery to throw for 33 TDs with 10 interceptions and was sacked an NFL-low 13 times in 621 drop-backs. Rookie WR Chase Claypool can flip the field at a moment’s notice and the Steelers have grown comfortable playing close games, going 6-0 in contests decided by five points or less.
NOPE: Have you seen their running game? The Steelers haven’t since early October. Pittsburgh finished dead last in the NFL in rushing. That puts an awful lot of pressure on Roethlisberger and the short passing game. The Steelers’ 1-4 finish was fueled by defenses jamming Pittsburgh’s receivers at the line and disrupting Roethlisberger’s timing. The league’s third-ranked defense is missing injured LBs Bud Dupree and Devin Bush and CB Joe Haden is out for the wild-card round due to COVID-19 issues.
DOPE: “The only thing I really have left is the Super Bowl and that experience of what it would be like for the team, the city, the fans. That would be amazing to get that done. I would love to see it, would love to be a part of it.” — G David DeCastro
4. TENNESSEE TITANS (11-5)
AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 9. No Lombardis. Last year: No. 6 seed, won AFC wild card at New England 20-13, won divisional game at Baltimore 28-12, lost AFC championship 35-24 at Kansas City. Second consecutive trip to the playoffs. First AFC South title since 2008.
HOPE: Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill give the Titans as potent an offense as there is in this 14-team playoff field. Henry is the eighth 2,000-yard running back with 2,027 yards and a league-best 17 touchdown runs. Tannehill threw for a career-best 33 TDs and ran for seven more, also a career high. The Titans had 11 100-yard receiving games with only Kansas City averaging more yards of offense per game. The Titans also ranked fourth, averaging 30.7 points a game.
NOPE: Tennessee’s defense isn’t anywhere near as potent as its offense, and that can be a huge problem in the playoffs. Although the Titans led the league with a plus-11 turnover differential, their defense ranked dead last in the NFL on third downs, allowing teams to convert 51.4% of the time, which denied their dynamic offense more opportunities to pile up points. Their pass rush is nearly nonexistent with 19 sacks, the fewest by a playoff team since Denver had 19 in 1979.
DOPE: “It’s something we set out this year to do is to go win the division, and we were able to do that. We’ll enjoy that. We’ll enjoy being able to play a playoff game at home and have a big opportunity this week to go get another win.” — Tannehill
5. BALTIMORE RAVENS (11-5)
AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 7. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 47, 34-31 over the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 1, 2013. Last year: No. 1 seed for first time in franchise history, lost divisional home game to Tennessee 28-12. Third consecutive trip to the AFC playoffs.
HOPE: The Ravens’ multi-faceted QB Lamar Jackson rushed for 1,005 yards as part of the league’s top-ranked ground game. Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, is equally adept at darting downfield on planned keepers or when flushed from the pocket. Rookie J.K Dobbins (805 yards) and Gus Edwards (723 yards) provide ample support to Jackson in grinding out big gains on the ground for a team that’s tough to beat when playing with the lead.
NOPE: The Ravens own the league’s 32nd-ranked passing attack at 171.2 yards per game and don’t really have a legitimate deep threat outside of Marquise Brown. Jackson is 0-2 in the playoffs, in part because Baltimore fell behind early on both occasions and had to rely primarily on passing the football instead of running it. The Ravens are 11-3 in the playoffs when leading at halftime and 1-7 when trailing at the break.
DOPE: “I do love the team. I love the players and the coaches. I love what we’ve been through — the adversity even, (and) the challenges — because it forges you and it makes you who you are. So, that’s exciting, man. You’re living in the moment, and it’s an exciting thing to be in the playoffs in the National Football League. I know we all feel the same way about it.”– Coach John Harbaugh
6. CLEVELAND BROWNS (11-5)
AP Pro 32 Ranking: No. 12. No Lombardis. The Browns are one of four NFL teams (Lions, Jaguars, Texans) that have never played in the Super Bowl, although the Lions and Browns won championships prior to the AFL-NFL merger. Last year: 6-10. First trip to the playoffs since 2002.
HOPE: Cleveland’s offense has plenty of firepower, starting in the backfield with Pro Bowl RB Nick Chubb (1,067 yards, 12 TDs) and Kareem Hunt (861, 11 TDs). QB Baker Mayfield joined Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning as the only QBs in NFL history with at least 3,500 passing yards and 20 TD passes in each of their first three seasons. He made better decisions in the season’s second half, opting to make the smart play and not the spectacular. He always stepped up in big games in college, but that was college.
NOPE: The Browns will play their first playoff game in 18 years without rookie coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 along with Pro Bowl LG Joel Bitonio, and several coaches. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will replace Stefanski, but it will be hard to find a quality substitute for Bitonio as backups Nick Harris and Chris Hubbard recently sustained season-ending injuries. The reeling defense took another blow this week when end Olivier Vernon ruptured an Achilles tendon. The Browns have lost 17 straight games in Pittsburgh, and snapping that streak short-handed could be asking too much.
DOPE: “The team at every corner has taken on these challenges. We have had weeks where we do not practice very much, and we have had weeks where we were without players or without a coach. It speaks to the team’s resilience that they are going to get the job done no matter what.” — Stefanski
7. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (11-5)
AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 10. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 41, beat the Chicago Bears 29-17 on Feb. 4, 2007, at Miami. Last year: 7-9. First trip to the playoffs since 2018.
HOPE: Indianapolis has three key ingredients for postseason success: a dominant offensive line, a workhorse running back who continues to get stronger, and one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses. Those features could help this dome team, which will spend the rest of this season outdoors. The Colts also have an experienced quarterback in Philip Rivers, who is 5-6 in the postseason. Plus, Indy has demonstrated it can win in a variety of ways.
NOPE: The Colts are just 2-4 against playoff foes, primarily because they’ve had difficulty consistently stringing together four good quarters. Yes, Indy rallied from a 28-14 halftime deficit to beat Green Bay in overtime. Then it blew a 17-point, third-quarter lead in a loss at Pittsburgh. Indy also has had trouble, at times, throwing downfield. The pass defense has struggled recently, too.
DOPE: “We believe we have a team that is good enough to win it all. That has to start by getting into playoffs. Now that we’re here, that’s our belief. I feel like our running game is ascending at the right time going into this time of year. I believe our run defense will continue to shine, and we feel really good with where we are as a football team.” — Coach Frank Reich