It’s crunch time. With just a couple weeks of the regular season left it’s time to take a look at which teams will make the cut for the post-season and who are the real contenders for the Super Bowl.
Here are the playoff entry rules: 4 division champions from each conference and 2 wild-card qualifiers from each conference (best overall records from remaining teams). These teams are seeded 1 through 6 based on their overall records.
So let’s take a look at the AFC conference landscape, division by division, with my picks for who will make the grade:
The Best: New England Patriots
The Rest: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
Was it ever really in doubt? The Super Bowl champions Patriots team started their campaign 2-2 after pre-season predictions of an undefeated season and the doubters came out in full force. With a league-worst defense through those first 4 weeks, the Pats were giving up 32 points per game and looked far from the disciplined teams we have grown accustomed to under legendary Head Coach Bill Belichick. Now as the season end draws near it all feels very familiar after the Pats went on an 8-game win streak, with a league best defense giving up a miserly 11.8 points per game during that run. Quarterback(QB) Tom Brady is 40 years old, orchestrating the best passing offense in the league and waltzing to a Most-Valuable-Player award.
“open to all conspiracies”
The G.O.A.T, Tom-freaking-Brady, football Jesus; whatever you want to call him it is surely time to question whether he has truly hacked the laws of nature and is invulnerable to ageing. I’m open to all conspiracy theories at this point.
Winner: New England Patriots. It is no mistake that I didn’t write one word about the other teams in the division, only one team has mattered here for nearly two decades.
The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Rest: Baltimore Ravens
Second only to the Patriots as Super Bowl favourites, Pittsburgh have somehow failed to totally convince this season. There have been accusations that they have played down to competition in winning unconvincingly by small margins to lesser teams. QB Ben Roethlisberger publicly considered retirement in the pre-season and again after throwing five interceptions in a horror show against Jacksonville in week 5. However, the potential is clear to see, in running back La’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown the Steelers offense boasts two studs that are possibly the best in the league at their respective positions. The electric Brown is leading the league in receiving yards as he puts together a legitimate case to be the first MVP in history at the wide receiver position. The dangerous offense has been supported by a good defense this year and it’s starting to feel like the likely AFC championship game against the Pats may be the real Super Bowl.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers. Crushing loss to the Patriots in Week 15, proved they can hang but home field advantage may prove crucial in a playoff matchup.
The Best: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Rest: Tennessee Titans
This division looks upside down from recent history with Houston and Indianapolis suffering irrelevance due to crippling injuries to their starting Quarterbacks. For years NFL fans laughed as terrible Jaguars teams were sent to play in the London games, offering a poor advertisement of NFL football to British fans. However, the 2017 Jaguars have been a revelation and it is all about the defense. The number one defense in passing yards allowed, the Jags are led by elite cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey.
“watching the titans is not fun”
A special note on Ramsey whose trash talking is so relentless he enraged an opposing wide receiver into fully losing it and bizarrely attempting to choke out the cornerback (fun YouTube). Despite the stench of QB Blake Bortles, the Jags look like a serious contender reminiscent of great defenses of the past that carried bad offenses to Super Bowl victories. With the Titans I can’t paint quite such an interesting picture. Watching Tennessee is not fun, the offense is incredibly conservative despite having the dynamic Marcus Mariota at QB. Every year there is that team that somehow grinds out wins and is worse than their record, the 2017 Titans are that team.
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars. Bortles has looked good in recent weeks and just needs to be average for this defense to make a run in the playoffs. Tennessee should be an easy win for whoever they face.
The Best: Kansas City Chiefs
The Rest: LA Chargers
The Oakland Raiders are candidates for disappointment of the season after a break out 2016 season. QB Derek Carr doesn’t look worth the big new contract and they’ll be watching the playoffs from home. Kansas City meanwhile have had a rollercoaster season. KC shockingly blew out the Pats in September’s season opener – in New England, no less – and remained unbeaten for 5 games. Looking like the best team in the league, QB Alex Smith was leading the MVP race. Well it seems that balance has truly been restored as years of evidence that Alex Smith is Mr. average have been proved correct and Kansas have gone 3-6 since.
“THE CHIEFS HAVE STALLED SINCE THEIR STUNNING START”
The defense is a real problem, sitting at 29th in yards allowed and opposing defenses seem to have figured out the tricks that catapulted the Kansas offense to the hot start. Conversely the LA Chargers are on a roll, going 7-3 after starting the season 0-4. The Chargers were the hot pick in the NFL world make a run at the playoffs prior to their loss to Kansas, led by perennially underrated QB Philip Rivers and supported by a terrifying dual-threat pass rush on defense in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The two defensive stars literally ruined the career of Buffalo Bills backup QB Nathan Peterman in Week 11, pressuring the rookie into a 5-interception nightmare debut.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs. Many were picking the hot team in LA but consistency won over flash in the Week 15 matchup between the two teams.
Wild Card Predictions:
Baltimore Ravens. Ending the season well with a great defense as-ever and an offense that is showing signs of life after being truly turgid under QB Joe Flacco to start the season.
LA Chargers. The New York Times has the Chargers with a 13% chance of making the playoffs behind the Titans and Bills, but I trust in Rivers with remaining schedules and a tie-breaking win over the Bills.