Assessing the Six AFC Playoff Contenders

jj watt

J.J Watt has been a one man wrecking ball for Houston this season

With the NFL playoffs set to begin in earnest this Saturday, there’s no time like the present to take a look at the teams who’ve made it to the NFL’s annual post-season dance. With only 12 of the league’s 32 franchises still in with a shout of lifting the Lombardi trophy in San Francisco on February 7, each team’s strengths and weaknesses will be exposed sooner or later as the playoff field gradually shrinks. To find out what to look out for when the games get underway this weekend, just keep reading.

Cincinnati Bengals

Seed: Three

Wild Card Round: v Pittsburgh (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Marvin Lewis is surprisingly yet to win a playoff game in his 13 years at the helm in Cincinnati, and if he’s to break his duck this weekend against the rival Steelers he’ll need Andy Dalton fit and firing just 27 days after he sustained a broken thumb. The chances of Dalton returning and playing are slim, although Lewis will at be able to take solace in the fact that the rest of the Bengals 53-man roster is as good as it’s been under his stewardship.

On offense Tyler Eifert has developed into one of the premier tight ends in the NFL, and his 13 touchdown receptions led the league as he became Dalton’s favourite red zone target. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, helping to give balance to Hue Jackson’s offense and taking the heat off of the passing attack. Jackson’s ability to utilise multiple weapons and lead Dalton to a career best season (25 TD’s, seven INT’s) has helped make him one of the most sought after co-ordinators in the NFL, and once the Bengals playoff run ends it’s likely he’ll earn a second shot at being an NFL head coach.

Defensively Carlos Dunlap leads the pass rush with 13.5 sacks, while interior lineman Geno Atkins (11 sacks) is an elite force in both stopping the run and pass. Adam Jones has matured into a top-end cover corner, while ballhawking safety Reggie Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions with eight. Those two in particular will need to be at their best as they aim to keep Ben Roethlisberger and the high octane Steelers passing attack in check on Saturday, especially if Dalton isn’t ready to go and A.J McCarron is once again under centre.

Biggest Strength: Weapons at the skill positions on offense

Biggest Weakness: Uncertainty over the QB position and an 0-4 playoff record over the last four seasons

Denver Broncos

Seed: One

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

Denver clinched the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a hard earned win over San Diego in week 17. A loss would’ve seen them drop all the way to the five seed, and much of the credit for avoiding that fate lies with Peyton Manning after the veteran QB engineered the team’s comeback having replaced Brock Osweiler midway through the third quarter. Manning looks a shoe in to start for Denver at Mile High Field in two weeks time, when they’ll face the lowest remaining seed in the AFC, although the future hall of famer still has much to prove after his interception-laden start to the season.

The Broncos real strength lies in their defense, led by a ferocious pass rush featuring veteran DeMarcus Ware and elite linebacker Von Miller. The secondary also contains star talent, with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris just two of a number of ball-hawking defensive backs on the Denver roster. While the offense has often relied on the defense to bail it out over the course of the 2015 season, Gary Kubiak will need players such as running back C.J Anderson and wide reciever Demaryius Thomas to step up and help the weak-armed Manning put up enough points to keep pace with some of the high octane offenses they’re likely to face on their path to Superbowl 50.

Biggest Strength: Pass rush

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent QB play

Houston Texans

Seed: Four

Wild Card Round: v Kansas City (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

It takes a special type of player to enter the MVP discussion in consecutive years despite playing on the defensive side of the ball, but everyone is well aware of the threat J.J Watt possesses when he puts his hand on the ground. Watt was complimented well by Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) during the regular season and between them they offer a significant threat to the health of opposing quarterbacks. Mercilus has helped Houston get over the disappointing play of Jadaveon Clowney, the number one overall pick in 2014, who for the second straight year underwhelmed with just 4.5 sacks.

Brian Hoyer has played well under centre when not injured, although last week was his first appearance since he suffered a second concussion of the season during a December loss to New England. Hoyer has had the good fortune of being able to throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins when healthy, with Hopkins emerging as the Texans number one receiver after the off-season departure of Andre Johnson. Hopkins hauled in 111 receptions and topped 1,500 yards, while his 11 touchdown catches also led the team by some distance. Other than Hopkins, however, Hoyer has a dearth of options with the loss of Arian Foster to a torn achilles in October a blow most teams would struggle to overcome. Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes have done their best to fill Foster’s large shoes, but unfortunately for Houston they’ll have to navigate the playoff field without their star rusher.

Biggest Strength: J.J Watt

Biggest Weakness: Limited offense

Kansas City Chiefs

Seed: Five

Wild Card Round: at Houston (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Winners of ten straight games (yes, ten), Andy Reid’s Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL. Having started the season 1-5 and lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the season, Reid and his players could’ve been forgiven for looking towards next season and a high pick in the draft in May, yet they’ve turned their campaign around in incredible fashion and now head to Houston to take on the AFC South winner Texans. It’s been a long time since Reid won a playoff game (early 2009 with Philadelphia), but he’s a seasoned coach with extensive playoff experience having once led the Eagles to four straight NFC Championship game appearances (including an appearance in Superbowl XXXIX.

Once Charles went down Charcandrick West took over at the running back position, and the previously unknown player excelled with over 800 multi-purpose yards and five TD’s in just over half a season of play. West is ably supported by Spencer Ware, and quarterback Alex Smith is no slouch himself with his legs, forcing opponents to focus on what has become a productive rushing trio for Kansas City. Free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin has been everything the Chiefs would have hoped for and more, giving Smith a genuine deep threat on the outside to pair with dangerous tight end Travis Kelce.

The real strength of the Chiefs lies on defense, however, with a host of household names including Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson leading the way. Rookie corner Marcus Peters could well win the rookie of the year award, and other familiar names include Tamba Hali, Sean Smith and Dontari Poe. It would take a brave man to bet against the rolling Chiefs, and make no mistake about it – they’re a team everyone in the AFC wants to avoid on their path to the Superbowl.

Biggest Strength: Elite defense

Biggest Weakness: Occasionally conservative offense, lack of dynamic weapons

New England Patriots

Seed: Two

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

The defending Superbowl champs earned a bye in this first round of the post-season largely on the back of 10-0 start. However New England faded badly down the stretch, finishing 2-4 after injuries ravaged their offense and the offensive line failed to protect legendary QB Tom Brady. The time off before their first game in January should prove invaluable, as wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman return to full health. However breakout running back Dion Lewis is done for the season, as was his replacement LeGarrette Blount. The offensive line has also been a revolving door and no single lineman started all 16 games, which would make a fifth title of Brady’s career both unlikely and also immensely impressive, should he upset the odds and achieve it. Crucially, star tight end Rob Gronkowski has stayed fit all season and hauled in over 1,100 yards receiving and 11 touchdown receptions.

The Patriots defense has fared a little better on the health front, however, with last year’s Superbowl star Malcolm Butler emerging as a legit NFL cover corner. Chandler Jones leads the pass rush and his 12.5 sacks were nicely complimented by 8 from Jabaal Sheard and 6.5 from Rob Ninkovich. Devin McCourty remains the standout player in the secondary, and the safety recorded 67 tackles on the season.

Biggest Strength: Tom Brady and a versatile passing attack

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent line play, lack of a running game

Pittsburgh Steelers

Seed: Six

Wild Card Round: at Cincinnati (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Having snuck into the playoffs at the expense of the New York Jets, the Ben Roethlisberger led Steelers are a potential banana skin for any of the higher AFC seeds. In fact, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, the two wild cards, may be the two form teams in the entire conference despite not winning their respective divisions. Roethlisberger may have lost running back LeVeon Bell to a season ending injury, but with Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown as deadly weapons on the outside the Steelers offense has still operated at a high click since Big Ben returned from his four game injury absence earlier in the year. Heath Miller remains a reliable option at tight end, and Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays with his unique physique affords Bryant and Brown plenty of time to get open down the field.

Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t close to the force it was earlier in the century, and that has the potential to hold them back against some of the high octane offenses they’ll face over the next few weeks. Lawrence Timmons still mans the middle of the defense and amassed 119 tackles during the regular season, while Cameron Heyward led the team in sacks with just seven. Mike Mitchell registered three interceptions from the safety position, and he’s the unquestioned leader of a secondary unit that will need to exceed expectations if the Steelers are to make it deep into January.

Biggest Strength: Explosive passing game

Biggest Weakness: Lack of playmakers on defense

Who do you think will emerge victorious from the AFC? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

 

 

 

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