AFC Playoff Preview

In the new playoff format where only the #1 seed earns a bye, it will be rare for anyone other than the #1 seed to be the favorite to emerge from each conference. Yet this season the Titans are not even the second most likely team to emerge from the AFC. Bettors are not impressed with their 12-5 season even though it involved wins over both the Chiefs and Bills, the two teams apparently in the driver’s seat in the AFC. Even with Derrick Henry likely to return, the Titans just don’t have the look and feel of a Super Bowl team.

The Bills and Chiefs do. That’s why they are favored. They both have quarterbacks capable of taking over the game and carrying the team on their back. They both have defenses that can pressure the quarterback and make big plays. Super Bowl teams typically need both of those elements to survive the gauntlet that is the NFL playoffs. No other AFC team is on their level.

However, the seeding dynamics make this playoff bracket interesting. The Chiefs and Bills are not invulnerable, and they will be forced to play each other in the Divisional round if they win their respective Wild Card matchups. This means that one team can make the AFC Championship without even facing either team. And anything can happen in one game, as we’ve seen time and again this season. Even though I feel that the Bills and Chiefs are head and shoulders above the rest of the AFC, this could create value on another contender that will face a much easier road.

Team-by-Team Breakdowns

#1 Tennessee Titans

Off: 13th (+0.10)
Def:
7th (+0.18)
Net: 11th

Outlook: The Titans need a healthy Derrick Henry. With Henry on the field, they have an offensive Adjusted Rating of +0.37, which would be good for 7th in the NFL. Without him, they are 20th. He commands so much attention from the defense that he opens things up for Tannehill, particularly if he has both A.J. Brown and Julio Jones at his disposal. They are a team that plays better with the lead, particularly late in games when they can lean on Henry and create easy play-action opportunities. So fast starts are important, particularly against the best teams. When they can win up front, they can beat anyone this way. But if they face an elite run-stopping unit that does not require 8 men in the box, or elite corners who can win in single coverage, I don’t want my money on the Titans. We saw what happened in last year’s playoffs when a team is able to plug the running lanes. But this year’s defense is much stronger. With good coaching and home crowds, you can’t count them out just yet.

Chance to Win AFC: 23.78% (+321)
DK: (+330)
FD: (+310)
MGM: (+325)
SharpClarke Position: Neutral

#2 Kansas City Chiefs

Off: 1st (+1.12)
Def:
25th (-0.17)
Net: 2nd

Outlook: The Chiefs have made the AFC Championship game in each of Mahomes’ three seasons and were one neutral zone infraction (and, likely, an overtime coin toss) away from making the Super Bowl in all three of those years. Nitpicking their performance in the regular season feels silly, but they’ve shown plenty of flaws on their way here. At times they have been unable to stop the run and make key stops. Mahomes has struggled against defenses that take away big plays and force him to take small gains. To beat Kansas City you have to disguise coverages, play disciplined in the secondary, and most importantly, get pressure on Mahomes without blitzing. The Bills present the toughest challenge in this respect as they lead the NFL in pressure rate while only blitzing at an average rate. This will be Mahomes’ toughest playoff challenge yet, and the Chiefs’ success ultimately hinges on whether he can learn to manipulate defenses the way Aaron Rodgers does. He has improved at this, but will need to learn quickly for a Super Bowl victory this year.

Chance to Win AFC: 27.19% (+268)
DK: (+175)
FD: (+175)
MGM: (+200)
SharpClarke Position: Bearish

#3 Buffalo Bills

Off: 6th (+0.44)
Def: 2nd (+0.54)
Net: 1st

Outlook: Late last year, everyone piled onto the Bills bandwagon as Josh Allen went scorched earth on the NFL. But they failed in a bid to knock off the Chiefs in part because they settled for too many field goals. This year, by my performance ratings, they have been a better team than last year and a better team than the Chiefs. They are more balanced and play soundly on both sides of the ball. Yet nobody seems to believe in them. I think they are the best team in the NFL and well-built to handle the Chiefs and make a Super Bowl run. The loss of Tre White will hurt them but they still play sound coverage and pressure the quarterback at an elite level, which is key come playoff time. Losses to the Titans, Colts, and Patriots led to a false narrative that they can be handled up front by power running teams. In reality, each game featured one big breakaway run that inflated the stats. They are above average against the run, and running the ball does not win championships. They have one of the league’s most versatile offenses to go with an elite defense and should be deemed the favorites to emerge from the AFC despite a tough road.

Chance to Win AFC: 28.28% (+254)
DK: (+350)
FD: (+350)
MGM: (+350)
SharpClarke Position: Bullish

#4 Cincinnati Bengals

Off: 15th (+0.06)
Def: 10th (+0.13)
Net: 15th

Outlook: Despite an underwhelming season-long ranking, the Bengals are trending up. The Bengals upgraded at offensive line in the offseason and added some key veteran defenders who have helped turn a talented but ineffective defense into a cohesive unit. But the biggest difference maker has been Ja’Marr Chase. Young players and unit improvements take time, and the Bengals have benefitted from a relatively healthy season that has allowed all the pieces to gel. The season splits on offense show their improvement: in their first 8 games, the Bengals averaged a -0.30 Adjusted Rating, but in their last 8 games (excluding Week 18) they averaged a +0.40 Adjusted Rating. This represents an improvement of around 5 points per game and a rank improvement from 21st to 7th. That is significant. When teams surprise in the playoffs it usually comes on the heels of a strong finish, so the Bengals should be deemed legitimate contenders. They also smartly tanked their final game to ensure they can avoid both the Chiefs and Bills until the AFC Championship Game. Joe Burrow is still improving, but if he can continue to hone his instincts and quick decision-making, he is capable of carrying this team to the Super Bowl. The Bengals are a true sleeper contender in the AFC.

Chance to Win AFC: 9.68% (+933)
DK: (+700)
FD: (+800)
MGM: (+900)
SharpClarke Position: Neutral

#5 Las Vegas Raiders

Off: 16th (+0.00)
Def: 13th (+0.12)
Net: 16th

Outlook: The Raiders somehow squeaked into the playoffs despite being projected to finish 4th in the division and losing their head coach mid-season. They brought a vastly improved defense into the 2021 season and a perennially underrated quarterback, and won just enough key games to get here. But they have also looked mediocre at times, particularly in losses to the Giants, Bears, and Washington. This team plays with a chip on its shoulder and should not be taken lightly as an underdog, thanks in large part to Derek Carr’s clutch play. With Darren Waller back and Hunter Renfrow playing the best football of his career, this offense can hang with anyone. They can extend drives with key third down conversions and make games ugly on defense, stopping both the run and the pass. The Raiders are very much live for an upset or two, but have not shown the ability to string together big wins. They have also struggled with discipline in key moments, most notably giving the Bengals three first downs by penalty on defense in the first half last time the teams played each other. They likely make too many mental errors to make a Super Bowl run, but this is a team that believes in itself and has the talent to spring an upset or two.

Chance to Win AFC: 3.66% (+2632)
DK: (+2000)
FD: (+2200)
MGM: (+2000)
SharpClarke Position: Neutral

#6 New England Patriots

Off: 7th (+0.43)
Def: 8th (+0.16)
Net: 6th

Outlook: When the Patriots have been good, they’ve been really good. But you don’t earn a Super Bowl berth by racking up style points in big wins against inferior competition. They are built to succeed when they can run the ball effectively and frustrate opposing quarterbacks with complex coverage and pressure schemes. Unfortunately, this means they excel against bad competition but perform below expectation against the best teams. And they only played five games this season against playoff teams, winning two: one against a depleted Titans team and one in the crazy wind game against Buffalo where they passed three times. Belichick always gives them a chance to win, and has shown the ability to frustrate the best quarterbacks in the game. And this offensive line is capable of winning any matchup. But as good as Belichick is, he’s going to have to trust his rookie quarterback to make the big plays. Mac Jones has acquitted himself extremely well this season, but mostly because he hasn’t been asked to do too much. Going on the road and winning three straight playoff matches? That’s almost certainly too much to ask.

Chance to Win AFC: 6.79% (+1373)
DK: (+1000)
FD: (+1000)
MGM: (+900)
SharpClarke Position: Bearish

#7 Pittsburgh Steelers

Off: 28th (-0.49)
Def: 12th (+0.12)
Net: 23rd

Outlook: It’s frankly mind-boggling that this Steelers team made the playoffs over the Chargers, Browns, and Colts. Their bottom-5 offense involves repeatedly running behind a weak offensive line and throwing short of the sticks on third down. They have benefitted from key defensive penalties all season and winning on razor-thin margins. Defensively, they have regressed due to injury and personnel losses in the off-season. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward can wreak havoc but they can be gashed on the ground and there are enough holes in the secondary for good quarterbacks to capitalize. I think we can all agree on one thing: the AFC playoff bracket would have been more exciting if the Raiders-Chargers game had ended in a tie.

Chance to Win AFC: 0.62% (+16029)
DK: (+3500)
FD: (+3400)
MGM: (+2800)
SharpClarke Position: Bearish

SharpClarke Prediction

Wild Card

#2 KC over #7 PIT, 27-10
#3 BUF over #6 NE, 31-14
#4 CIN over #5 LV, 23-21

Divisional Round

#4 CIN over #1 TEN, 24-23
#3 BUF over #2 KC, 31-27

AFC Championship

#3 BUF over #4 CIN, 30-13

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