In a year when two-thirds of the NFL playoff field is new, the AFC still features fixtures Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger , who have seven Super Bowl rings between them, and Alex Smith, who is coming off his best season of his 13-year career.
The trio of graybeard QBs led their teams to division titles again this year, and for the second straight season they won’t have to worry about Von Miller wrecking their Super Bowl hopes. The Broncos missed the playoff party again along with the Texans, Raiders and Dolphins, who were here last year.
The Bills are back for the first time in 17 seasons , the Jaguars for the first time in a decade and the Titans return for the first time since 2008.
The AFC gets wild-card weekend started Saturday with the Titans visiting the Chiefs, who haven’t won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in 14 years. On Sunday, the Bills visit the Jaguars.
New England has its customary bye week — its seventh straight — and Pittsburgh earned its first bye since 2010.
Strength and weakness of each of the six AFC playoff teams:
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 51, 34-28 OT over Atlanta on Feb. 5, 2017.
Hope: Tom Brady still plays like he’s 30, not 40. He’s a leading MVP candidate again with a league-leading 4,577 yards passing and 32 TDs. He got hit a lot more than he did last season (32 sacks in ‘17 after just 15 in ‘16). But it hasn’t stopped the Patriots from having the league’s second-ranked offense, averaging 28.6 points. A healthy TE Rob Gronkowski , who missed last year’s playoffs, has given the Patriots a huge lift with 69 catches for 1,084 yards. WR Brandin Cooks added 65 receptions for 1,082 yards.
Nope: Brady heads into the playoffs without his favorite target, WR Julian Edelman (knee), who got hurt in the preseason. Gronk, Cooks and RB Dion Lewis have picked up the slack. But there are still other injury concerns with WR Chris Hogan, RB James White and RB Mike Gillislee all ailing. The defense also is very banged up. LB Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) was lost for the season in October, and the list of nagging injuries has grown throughout the season. Using the bye week to heal up will be huge for New England’s prospects.
The Dope: “I think we’ve got some work to do. We are not where we want to be and that’s what practice is for. The great thing about it is we’ve got one more chance to be able to go out there and play our best.” — Cooks.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 over Arizona on Feb. 1, 2009.
Hope: The “Killer Bs” are in full flight for the AFC North champions. Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell and K Chris Boswell are all headed to the Pro Bowl — if the Steelers aren’t playing in the Super Bowl — and rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has given Pittsburgh a youthful jolt. The Steelers averaged 29.9 points a game during the second half of the season and appear plenty comfortable when things get tight. They went 9-2 in games decided by six points or less.
Nope: One of those losses was a 27-24 setback to New England on Dec. 17, a game the Steelers led at home throughout until Brady and Gronkowski got going in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone on a fake spike when kicking a field goal and going into overtime made plenty of sense. That means a rematch with New England, if it happens, would be in Foxborough. Pittsburgh has not proven it can cover Gronk effectively — he averages over 100 yards receiving against the Steelers in his career.
The Dope: “It’s time to lock in and take this as serious as we can because we know how hard it is to get here and the opponents we have to play. We have a lot of belief in each other.” — LT Alejandro Villaneuva.
3. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6). No Super Bowl appearances.
Hope: Defense wins championships. The Jaguars have one of the best D’s in the league — they rank second in points allowed (16.8), interceptions (21), sacks (55) and yards (286) — and they gave up 10 or fewer points in half of their games. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and linebacker Telvin Smith are the cornerstones of a unit that gives Jacksonville a chance in every game.
Nope: QB Blake Bortles has five interceptions the last two weeks, raising concerns about his ability to carry the offense in the clutch. Bottom line is he needs more help around him. The NFL’s top rushing attack has stalled, slowed because of injuries to rookie Leonard Fournette and the offensive line, and Jacksonville’s young receivers have started dropping passes, messing up routes and looking far from ready for the playoff stage. The Jaguars are coming off nine consecutive losing seasons, so this is new to them.
The Dope: “I know he’s going to do everything he can to get back on that horse and lead us the right way and lead from the front. And everybody’s going to do their job around him and do a little bit more. It’s time to step it up, and that’s not just him, that’s everybody.” — TE Marcedes Lewis on Bortles.
4. KANSAS CITY (10-6). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.
Hope: Smith had the best season of his 13-year career , helped along by the best supporting cast he’s ever had. WR Tyreek Hill is a game-changer not only on offense but as a punt returner, RB Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, and TE Travis Kelce has arguably supplanted Gronkowski as the best in the game at his position. And should anything happen to Smith, rookie Patrick Mahomes II proved a capable starter and reliever in K.C.’s 27-24 win at Denver last week, when he returned to lead the team’s successful 2-minute drill to beat the Broncos.
Nope: The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium since January 2004, a year before Hunt was born. They have lost games in every manner, too — shut out by Baltimore in 2010, beaten by Pittsburgh despite holding the Steelers without a touchdown last year, even losing to the Colts in a game in which nobody punted. Perhaps they’re just cursed.
The Dope: “Everybody that is left still playing is good. Everybody is amped up and the season is on the line. It’s win or go home. I think all that just adds to the intensity a lot of times, and a lot to the stage, because the ramifications are so big and so real. But it’s still football at the end of the day.” — Smith.
5. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7). No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 34 to St. Louis Rams in 2000.
Hope: QB Marcus Mariota has found his running mojo again . Mariota ran a career-best 10 times for a season-high 60 yards last week against Jacksonville in helping the Titans clinch their first playoff berth since the 2008 season, his best performance running the ball since breaking his right leg on Christmas Eve 2016. Mariota showed some serious swagger on the key third-and-5 run for 13 yards that featured a stiff arm on Jaguars safety Barry Church befitting the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.
Nope: Mariota has been intercepted more this season (15) than in either of his previous two years in the NFL. He also hasn’t gotten much help with opponents double- and triple-teaming TE Delanie Walker and with his receivers dropping too many passes or running the wrong routes too often. An inability to stretch the field through the air makes it too easy for defenses to load the box and stop the run.
The Dope: “We’re not just a one-hit wonder. We’re going to continue to be successful and keep winning games, so everybody should get used to this.” — S Kevin Byard.
6. BUFFALO BILLS (9-7). No Lombardis. Lost Super Bowl 25 to New York Giants in 1991, Super Bowl 26 to Washington in 1992, Super Bowl 27 to Dallas in 1993 and Super Bowl 28 to Dallas in 1994.
Hope: It took 17 years for the Bills to get back to the playoffs after losing to the Titans on the “Music City Miracle” on Jan. 8, 2000. The Bills have exceeded expectations during a season in which they overhauled their roster under the first-year tandem of HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane. They’re a resilient bunch, overcoming a QB shuffle in which McDermott benched Tyrod Taylor over his pedestrian passing numbers but went right back to him after rookie Nathan Peterman threw five first-half interceptions in a 30-point loss to the Chargers in November.
Nope: Muting their excitement over ending their playoff drought is the uncertain status of RB LeSean McCoy (ankle), who leads the team in yards rushing, receptions and TDs. The Bills are seeking to end another embarrassing drought: they haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. They don’t have a lot of grizzled veterans to lean on, either, after losing CB Stephon Gilmore in free agency and trading WR Sammy Watkins (to the Rams) and CB Ronald Darby (to the Eagles) in August. Then, they traded their highest-paid player, DT Marcell Dareus, to Jacksonville in October.
The Dope: “I’m the forever optimist, and I know that. But when everyone was talking about us tanking, I was looking around and saying, ‘Man, we better get rid of a whole lot more guys because this team is going to win some ballgames.’ We were able to get hot early, sustain a bad run and make the playoffs at the end.” — C Eric Wood.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker and AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, Dave Skretta, Will Graves, John Wawrow and Mark Long contributed.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton