Sizing up the AFC playoff field: Who can give the Kansas City Chiefs the most trouble?

·8 min read

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has spent the past three decades in the NFL — from Green Bay to Philadelphia to Kansas City — so when he says the conclusion to this NFL season is perhaps “the most exciting that we’ve had” since he’s been in the league, it carries a little weight.

As does the chaotic finish he’s referencing.

With Wild Card Weekend looming, the AFC playoff field looks quite different than the oddsmakers and forecasters anticipated it might. The Colts and Chargers, undone by upsets in the regular season finale, are out. In their place, the Raiders and Steelers are in. The Steelers march into Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday (7:15 p.m., NBC), a matchup one model predicted had just a 4.5% chance of happening. Yet here we are.

The first installment of Week 18 dramatically shook up the crop of the AFC competitors trying to prevent the Chiefs from reaching a third straight Super Bowl. On paper, it looks as though it weakened it. The Chiefs were most likely to face the Chargers a third time — a team that beat them once and took them to overtime in the rematch — and instead host the Steelers, whom they defeated 36-10 just three weeks ago.

Yes, we can just look back to Week 18 as a reminder things don’t often unfold according to plan in this league. But for now, the statistics and results are all we have to go, right?

So let’s dig in.

As the Chiefs attempt to win the AFC for a third consecutive season, this time as the No. 2 seed, here’s how their competition lines up.

No. 1 seed: Tennessee Titans

Why they’re here:

• Even without Derrick Henry, the rushing offense still accounted for 141.4 yards per game, fifth most in the NFL. And Henry has rejoined his teammates at practice already, eyeing a return in the playoffs.

• On the flip side, they allow only 84.6 rushing yards per game, second fewest in football. Teams gain only 3.91 yards per carry against their stout front.

• They’ve won 11 of the past 12 games in which wide receiver A.J. Brown has played, and he’s healthy going into the playoffs.

• They bring out their best on the downs that matter the most. They covert 43.6% of third downs (8th), 62.5% of fourth downs (7th), and they have the best goal-to-go conversion rate in football at 87.5%.

Where they can be exposed:

• The Titans have played above their means — Football Outsiders ranks them as just the 20th best team in football with its overall DVOA metric, including 20th offensively and 12th defensively. For a No. 1 seed, that’s quite vulnerable.

• They allow sacks on 8.79% of quarterback drops, the seventh-highest rate in the league.

• The defensive weakness is in the secondary. The Titans allow 245.2 passing yards per game (25th).

No. 3 seed: Buffalo Bills

Why they’re here:

• You might think of quarterback Josh Allen when you think of the Bills, but it’s the defense that would cause an opponent the most concern. The Bills ranked first in total yards allowed (272.8 per game), as well as scoring defense (17 points per game).

• They’re particularly stout against the pass, something the Chiefs already learned in Week 5, allowing only 163 yards through the air per game.

• Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranks the Bills as the best team in the AFC. They rank second overall in DVOA (behind the Cowboys), including 10th on offense and first on defense.

Where they can be exposed:

• It’s not exactly a weakness, but it’s worth noting that Josh Allen put together a considerably worse second half of the season than he did the first half. In the first seven games, Allen had 17 touchdowns and three interceptions (including three touchdowns in a win in Kansas City) and a 103.1 quarterback rating. In the final 10 games, he threw 12 interceptions and had a 84.2 quarterback rating.

• You can win the battle up front against the Bills, and that often goes a long way to winning in January and February. Pro Football Focus rates their offensive line as the 27th-best run-blocking unit in football and the 14th-best pass-blocking unit.

No. 4 seed: Cincinnati Bengals

Why they’re here:

• They have some stars. That begins with the quarterback. Some of the grading analysts, including Pro Football Focus, say Joe Burrow had the best season of any quarterback. Per Next Gen Stats, his completion percentage of 70.4% (which led the league) was 6% better than expected.

• He had some help. The Bengals have one of, if not the, best receiving trios in the game. The Chiefs become a little too familiar with Ja’Marr Chase, who’s likely to win the offensive rookie of the year award after totaling 1,455 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. But Tee Higgins added 1,091 yards, and Tyler Boyd had 828. Pick your poison.

Where they can be exposed:

• They struggle to protect Joe Burrow. The Bengals allow sacks on a 9.91% of his drop backs, second worst in the league.

• Yes, they have Joe Mixon, who topped 1,000 yards, but when it comes to efficiency, the Bengals rushing game isn’t a relative strength. They average just 4.0 yards per carry. Only six teams were worse.

• That secondary is susceptible. The Bengals allowed 248.4 passing yards per game. In fact, the entire defense rated below average (18th) after allowing 350.8 total yards per game.

No. 5 seed: Las Vegas Raiders

Why they’re here:

• Can’t question the determination. After a tumultuous middle of the season that included coach Jon Gruden being fired, many figured the Raiders out of the playoff picture. Then they won their final four games. They needed every one of them — beating the Colts and Chargers in the last two weeks.

• Derek Carr quietly had one of his best seasons. His 4,804 yards were fifth most in the league. His 7.7 yards per attempt was seventh (six spots ahead of Patrick Mahomes).

• A lot of teams tend to try to pick on the Raiders’ secondary, but they allow 6.3 yards per dropback, the sixth-best mark in football.

Where they can be exposed:

• You wouldn’t guess it if you watched their season finale against the Chargers, but the defensive line doesn’t get home all that often. They rank 23rd in sack rate.

• No playoff team is worse at forcing turnovers. Nobody in all of football is worse at intercepting passes. The Raiders had just six picks and 15 overall takeaways.

• Running back Josh Jacobs hasn’t been able to replicate his rookie year. Partly an indication of the faults along their offensive line, he managed only 4.0 yards per carry. As a team, the Raiders were at 3.9 per tote.

No. 6 seed: New England Patriots

Why they’re here:

• Tough to move the ball against a Bill Belichick defense. Tougher yet to do it through the air. The Patriots allowed the fifth fewest yards in the NFL and the second fewest passing yards.

• They’ll also take it away from you. The Patriots intercepted 23 passes, trailing only the Cowboys in that stat. J.C. Jackson had eight of those.

• It’s a formidable backfield, and a deep one that allows the Patriots to keep guys fresh. Damien Harrison rushed for 929 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Rhamondre Stevenson ran for 606 and five. They both averaged 4.6 per rush.

Where they can be exposed:

• Offered a glimpse of the AFC No. 1 seed, the Patriots stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their last four, two of them two-possession losses to teams left out of the playoffs.

• The Patriots had only one game with 300 team passing yards all season, and it’s always a mystery how a rookie quarterback (in this case Mac Jones) will respond to his first taste of the playoffs.

• Can they outscore you if you crack through the defense? The Patriots gave up more than 24 points only four times all season, but they lost all four.

No. 7 seed: Pittsburgh Steelers

Why they’re here:

• T.J. Watt is an absolute game-wrecker. He totaled 22 1/2 sacks, tying an NFL single-season record. But the pass rush stretches beyond his talent. Cameron Heyward had 10 sacks from the inside, and Chris Wormley added seven more.

• Nobody gets rid of the ball more quickly than Ben Roethlisberger, whose average release comes 2.38 seconds after he gets the snap. (The second fastest was Tom Brady at 2.5 seconds.) With Roethlisberger, it’s partly a recognition of his own weaknesses, but it also can neutralize even a good pass rush.

Where they can be exposed:

• They are the only team that ranked outside of the top-20 in both total offense and total defense to still reach the playoffs. They were 23 in yards and 24th in yards allowed. That’s not usually the makings of a playoff team.

• It’s the farewell tour for Ben Roethlisberger, and it hasn’t been a particularly remarkable one. His mobility is virtually non-existent these days, and he accounted for 233.8 passing yards per game, the lowest of his last 13 seasons (minimum of three starts). The overall playoff experience might concern you. The recent history should not.

• While their pass rush can get home, it’s been exposed in the run game. The Steelers finished dead last in both rushing yards allowed per game (146.1) and yards per carry (4.99). That’s not indicative of the Steelers teams of this era.

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