It seems like every year a few teams are hyped up as “the team no one wants to play” in the playoffs. In 2015 the TNOWTP in the AFC were the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2014, it was also the Steelers. In 2013, it was the Chiefs.
The TNOWTP in 2016 are, no surprise, the Steelers and the Chiefs. It’s not just because they’re the only two teams not relying on a back-up quarterback, but they’ve both been playing exceptional defense, ranking 9th and 5th in points allowed per game. The Steelers have locked up the #3 seed, while the Chiefs are playing week 17 to see if they’ll be the #2, #5, or #6 seed.
Don’t be surprised if most of wild card weekend coverage is laced with the notion that the Steelers and the Chiefs are the TNOWTP because in all of these conversions, the New England Patriots are “No One.”
Whenever you hear a discussion about the AFC playoff teams, remember that the conversation is through the lens of which team can gives the Patriots the biggest challenge in the playoffs. It’s been predetermined that the winner of the AFC will either be the Patriots, or will have to go through New England; so the real question is whether the Steelers or the Chiefs are able to beat the Patriots.
And, yes, the answer is of course. The Steelers have plenty of playoff experience and they have the second-best quarterback in the AFC playoffs in Ben Roethlisberger, the best running back, and the best wide receiver. Pittsburgh is on a 6-game winning streak with wins over all three divisional rivals and three teams in the playoff hunt: Colts, Giants, and Bills.
The Chiefs have gone 9-2 since their bye week, with only a pair of 19-17 losses against their record. They’ve beaten the Raiders and Broncos, twice apiece, along with the Falcons. Alex Smith is the third-best quarterback in the AFC playoffs, while Travis Kelce is the best healthy tight end in the NFL. Add in a defense flush with elite talent like SS Eric Berry, CB Marcus Peters, NT Dontari Poe, ED Tamba Hali, and ED Justin Houston, and the Chiefs present a fairly complete team.
Both the Steelers and Chiefs could very well beat the Patriots in the playoffs, as could the Miami Dolphins. But the Patriots are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference in almost every measure.
The Patriots average 27.1 points per game, which is 4th in the NFL and 2nd out of AFC playoff teams behind the Oakland Raiders (27.3, 3rd). The Patriots offense ranks well ahead of the Raiders by DVOA, too. The Raiders have lost QB Derek Carr, so it’s not a stretch to say the Patriots are a better offense- and when you factor in the Patriots offense is dragged down by the week 4 performance by QB Jacoby Brissett, then the argument disappears.
The Chiefs have TE Travis Kelce, WR Jeremy Maclin (if he’s healthy), and sparkplug Tyreek Hill- but they’ve exceeded 270 passing yards just twice all season. Kansas City is also 4-4 when they allow the opposing team to score 19 or more points. This is not a consistent offense.
The Steelers passing game consists of WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell, and a handful of lesser role players. In fact, the Steelers and Chiefs combine to have five players with 500+ receiving yards on the year. The Patriots have five players with 500+ receiving yards on their own. QB Tom Brady boasts a passer rating of 110.7, which the best in the AFC. His 8.2 yards per attempt is also best in the AFC. No team has a more balanced passing attack than the Patriots.
And while the Patriots rushing attack is lesser than the Steelers with RB Le’Veon Bell, the production from RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Dion Lewis, and RB James White stacks up against or surpasses all other AFC contenders.
The 5th ranked Chiefs defense limited the Raiders to 23 points in their two games combined, but they also allowed 43 to the Steelers; 28 to the Falcons; and 27 each to the Chargers and Broncos. Kansas City still has a great defense- they rank 12th in DVOA, including 8th against the pass- but if people are going to hold the 31 points by the Seahawks against the Patriots defense, then it might be important to note that Seattle was the only team to score more than 25 points against the Patriots all season.
The 9th ranked Steelers defense allowed 27 points to the Patriots in week 7 and Sunday marked the first time all year that Pittsburgh won after allowing more than 20 points; they are 1-5 when opposing teams score 21+ points. So long as teams can move the ball against the Steelers defense- and the Patriots have proven they can- Pittsburgh fails to keep up.
And we know the Patriots defensive statistics. #1 in the NFL in points allowed per game, points allowed per drive, and drives that result in scores. #10 in yards and yards per play. They’ll bend, but they won’t break.
Outside of the 31 point game against the Seahawks, with a defense that didn’t feature CB Eric Rowe, LB Kyle Van Noy, or ED Jabaal Sheard, the Patriots have allowed more than 17 points just five times all year. The Patriots achieved a 99% chance of victory in three of those games before or around halftime.
There is no team in the AFC that offers the same offensive and defensive balance as the Patriots. The other two TNOWTPs struggle to win when they allow roughly 20 or more points in a game. New England has the best offense and the best defense in the AFC; they hold the current #1 seed for a reason. Just be prepared for no one to talk about it.