The season is now moving into December and there’s a clear indication of which teams are in it and which teams are not. The AFC has five very good teams in the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Los Angeles Chargers. It’s almost a safe projection to put those teams in the playoff picture. At 8-3 and currently in second place in the AFC standings, the Patriots still have four games left to put themselves in a strong position to get a first round bye, if not home field advantage altogether.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs lead the AFC in record and point differential by a significant margin. Their offense has four players who can score on any given play between Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce. There isn’t an NFL team that can consistently match up against that skill group, which is why the Chiefs are one of the best scoring offenses in the NFL. They can put up 40 on anyone if they execute, as they showed in the Patriots’ 43-40 win in week 6 after the New England defense held them to 9 points in the first half. This is what makes them the hardest team to beat in the AFC. However, the Chiefs do have exploitable flaws: they are, for example, susceptible to the run on defense. The Patriots have the offense capable of exploiting it, as they exhibited in week 6 when Sony Michel went off for a 112-yard game on the ground.
2. Houston Texans
The Patriots have not had a lot of success against Bill Belichick’s former assistant coaches or players this season, going 1-2 in such contests. The one win came against the Houston Texans in week 1 in which the Patriots comfortably won 27-20. Back then, the Patriots were able to exploit a patchwork Texans offensive line and a clearly limited Deshaun Watson to pressure him on 58% of his passes. The Texans started the season 0-3, but are red hot with eight straight wins. Granted, most of those wins come in the AFC South where the Texans are 3-1, but they’re clearly the best team in the division. Watson has taken a step forward in year two as a dual threat quarterback, and the Patriots have historically fared poorly against QBs who are legitimate run-threats. The Patriots will have to keep Watson in the pocket while also limiting their top receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who is having an All-Pro season, in order to slow down their offense.
The Ravens are the one team that always seems to play with strong fundamentals on both sides of the ball, which makes them a tough opponent. Baltimore is one of the best teams at pressuring quarterbacks, led by future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs. The Ravens also have three receivers with 500+ yards between John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead. Brown is the deep threat with Crabtree as the primary chain mover and Snead operating out of the slot. In addition to those receivers, the Ravens have a good up-and-coming receiving tight end in Mark Andrews, who could create a matchup problem for the Patriots. The good news is that Joe Flacco is having a mediocre year statistically despite the quality weapons around him.
4. Los Angeles Chargers
If it weren’t for the Chargers’ historic ability to come up small in big games, I would take them as a more serious threat as they are second best team in the AFC in point differential. A recent injury to star running back Melvin Gordon also moves them down the list as the Chargers’ run game is not nearly as potent without him. Philip Rivers is still a solid quarterback who can beat you with short and intermediate passes, which has been the recipe to defeating the Patriots. In addition to a solid offense with weapons across the board, the Chargers defense has playmakers at every level, especially in its front seven. Melvin Ingram is having another Melvin Ingram-type season, making plenty of stops in the opposing backfield. The key to beating the Chargers will be forcing them to be one-dimensional (pass) and play tight man-to-man coverage against the receivers to disrupt their release.
Andrew Luck is back and better than ever. The Colts have placed their hopes on his shoulders most of the season and he has delivered of late. After starting 1-4, the Colts have vaulted themselves into the playoff race by winning give of their last six games behind the arm of Luck. The Patriots have already played the Colts this year with a convincing 38-24 beating that would have been worse if the Patriots didn’t gift-wrap a couple interceptions to the Colts. The Colts have a very dangerous weapon in Eric Ebron, who is finally playing up to his draft status and victimized the Patriots defense in that week 5 game. The Colts were also short-handed back then, which isn’t going to be the case in a possible rematch. The key to beating Indianapolis will be utilizing the ground game and Michel to beat up the team’s defensive front seven and set up the passing game as the Colts lack the talent in the secondary to match up against the Patriots offense.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers clearly have locker room issues, but when clicking they are a very dangerous team. They have a great offensive line, a solid running back in James Conner, who has effectively replaced an All-Pro in Le’Veon Bell, and arguably the best receiver in the game in Antonio Brown. Their complementary pieces on offense are also a problem with tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James, who take advantage of single coverage with the attention paid to Brown, and the other boundary receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who can take over a game. It’s an offense that should put up 30+ a game no problem, although the limiting factor is Ben Roethlisberger, who looks like a quarterback past his prime. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of torching an overmatched defense, as evidenced by his perfect passer rating against the Panthers just three games ago. The Steelers defense has some decent players, but it lacks the talent at linebacker and safety to handle the Patriots’ backs and tight ends — and if the Steelers go zone defense Tom Brady and Co. will slice it apart for 35+ points.
The Broncos are clearly a Jekyll and Hyde team. They have some impressive wins and looked solid against the best teams in the AFC with wins against the Steelers and Chargers and playing tough against the Chiefs. It’s a battle-tested team although from a talent level perspective, I think they fall a bit short given the quarterbacks in the AFC. Case Keenum is a solid game-manager type player, but he’s not going to be able to win a game when forced into the spotlight. The key to beating Denver will be taking away their running game and that starts with limiting Phillip Lindsay, who somehow continues to fall under the radar. If the Patriots force Keenum to beat them and their tight man coverage, he won’t.
The Titans are another inconsistent team, although their -28 point differential suggests they won’t stay in the race for too much longer. The Titans beat a short-handed Patriots team that had no horses on offense badly in week 10. They also seem to exhibit the pattern of winning an important game before laying a turd in their next one, which is why they’re at the bottom of the list. The Titans play in the AFC South, so I can’t rule them out completely, although the two teams ahead of them are red hot right now and are tougher foes in a future matchup. They do have some decent weapons with Dion Lewis at running back, Corey Davis at wide receiver, and a solid offensive line. The one limiting factor in their offense is Marcus Mariota, a very mediocre a quarterback. Take away Davis (Stephon Gilmore + safety help) and the Titans offense goes nowhere fast.
The Patriots themselves control their destiny for a playoff bye thanks to a head-to-head win in week 1 against the Texans. In order to secure that, they will need wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills to create a tiebreaker with the Chargers, who in a 2-team tie would win on strength of victory if both teams were leading their division. In order to get home field, the Patriots need to win out and hope that the Chiefs lose to the Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, or Ravens in Weeks 14-16. I expect the Patriots to be able to secure a first round bye but end up finishing 12-4 on the season, I don’t expect the road game in Miami to go that well although it’s less daunting in December than September.
Which team do you think presents the toughest head-to-head match-up with the Patriots in the postseason?
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