Written by Aydan Koyles
After the longest regular season in NFL history, we have finally reached the best time of the NFL season: the playoffs. We spend most of the season discussing who deserves to make the postseason and now we finally know exactly which teams are in. There are a few surprises but also several teams that everyone knew would be here. So lets breakdown the seven teams from the AFC who will fight for the chance to play in Superbowl LVI on February 13.
In this preview, I will take a look at how each team got to this point and who the team MVP was. Finally, I will estimate the ceiling for each team by sorting them into the following categories: SB contender, Conference Championship contender, or Just Happy to Be Here. The teams will be listed in order of seeding and I will also include their chances to win the Superbowl based on FiveThirtyEight’s ELO projections.
- Tennessee Titans (12–5)
Superbowl Odds: 12%
How they got here: Early in the season, the Titans were exactly who we expected them to be. A team wholly reliant on Derrick Henry to win any game. The defense was below-average and the passing game was completely dependent on the success of the run game. And when Henry went down for the rest of the season with a foot injury in week 8 (the Titans were 6–2) we all starting writing the Titans off as true contenders in the AFC. They promptly responded by going 6–3 without Henry and locking up the AFC No.1 seed and the only bye week in the AFC bracket. The defense, led by Jeffery Simmons, began to stifle opponents and the offense managed to eke out enough points from week to week to stay competitive. Since week 7, the Titans defense has ranked fourth in EPA/play allowed. Although the offense has crumbled since losing Henry, it has done just enough to let the defense carry this team. Perhaps most impressively, the Titans own wins over several AFC playoff contenders including the Chiefs, Bills, and Colts (twice). Henry may come back in time for the divisional round of the playoffs, which is why securing that bye week was pivotal for the Titans.
Team MVP: Jeffery Simmons. This was incredibly difficult to choose as the whole Titans defense deserves credit for this team’s success. And before his injury, the clear answer here would have been Derrick Henry. But the Titans have had one of the most injured teams in the NFL and Simmons has been one of the few constants. Simmons is an incredible run-stopper and pass-rusher as an interior lineman and has the ability to wreck opposing offenses. In the Titans win over the Rams (first game post-Henry), Simmons was a one-man wrecking crew all game, leading his team to victory. Just look at the way Simmons(98) manhandles this guard and pushes him straight into the QB:
The Titans defense deserves credit for their recent success, and Simmons is the engine that drives them.
Ceiling: Conference Championship contender. Listen, this team deserves credit for succeeding as they have this season. But even with the potential return of Henry, I don’t see how this team can compete with the best teams in the AFC. Lack of cohesion on offense and the potential for defensive regression are too much to overlook.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12–5)
Superbowl Odds: 21%
How they got here: Remember when the Chiefs were 3–4 and questions were being asked about the team’s chances to make the playoffs? This team has since ripped off a 9–1 record including 8 wins in a row. After the defense began the season as one of the worst units in NFL history, it has recovered to become one of the more solid units in the league. In weeks 1–6, the defense posted an EPA/play allowed that was better only than the Jaguars, but have since posted the tenth best value in that metric. And while the offense struggled with the increase in two high coverages and a lack of explosive plays early in the year, they have found a new identity and are starting to look like the inevitable Chiefs’ teams of the last few years. Despite early season turnover regression, Mahomes and co. have still posted solid numbers and have put this team right where everyone expected them to be. It may not have been pretty, but the end result was the same.
Team MVP: Patrick Mahomes. Listen, this hasn’t been Mahomes best season by any means and the offense has been a shade of its former self. But when a ‘down’ season means you finish ‘just’ fifth in QBR rankings, and top 10 in yards, touchdowns, and DVOA, you can get away with it and still be one of the best QBs in the league. Thats not to mention that Mahomes is still making throws like this one:
Mahomes makes mind-boggling throws on what seems to be a weekly basis and he elevates the Chiefs offense to a new level. Despite the struggles this season, he has still been an electric QB and has put the Chiefs in prime position to compete for another Superbowl.
Ceiling: Superbowl contender. This Chiefs team may not be the offensive juggernaut we remember from years past, but they are also much better than the team we saw early in the year. The defense has recovered from an early-season slump and there are a lot of different ways the Chiefs can beat you.
3. Buffalo Bills (11–6)
Superbowl Odds: 8%
How they got here: This team came into the season with one goal in mind: Overcome the Kansas City Chiefs. With a team built to beat the Chiefs, the Bills looked primed to recover from last year’s loss in the conference championship and push for a Superbowl. Although the Bills did handle the Chiefs in the regular season, they have struggled with most other playoff teams on their schedule. They have also faced the second-easiest schedule in the NFL and taken full advantage of that. The offense has disappeared a few times, most notably in losses to the Jaguars and Colts, and that presents concerns as the playoffs approach. But despite a push from the Patriots, the Bills managed to lock up the division crown for the second year running and gave themselves the opportunity to compete. The defense spent much of the season as the top unit by DVOA and is finished with the second best EPA/play allowed. If the offense can find some consistency against good teams, the Bills have as good a chance as anyone to represent the AFC in the Superbowl.
Team MVP: Josh Allen. Although he has regressed from last year’s incredible performance, he still gives the Bills a versatile weapon that can beat teams with his arms and legs. For an offense that lacks a consistent running game, Allen has provided the spark necessary to win the division and gives the Bills their best chances moving forward. In recent weeks, the Bills have used him as a designed runner more, and the results have been promising thus far. Against the Falcons, Allen had one of his worst games as a passer but scored two touchdowns on the ground to give the Bills a victory. Though the defense has been very good, Josh Allen will be the one who carries the Bills as far as they can go.
Ceiling: Superbowl contenders. It hasn’t looked pretty all year and the offense has been inconsistent, but this team is talented across the board and has the ability to beat anyone when they are clicking.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (10–7)
Superbowl Odds: 3%
How they got here: The Bengals have been ahead of schedule all season. Despite the return of former No.1 overall pick Joe Burrow and the addition of Ja’Marr Chase, there were still questions along the offensive line and on defense. But the Bengals defied expectations and won the AFC North for the first time since 2015. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase created an electric duo and the Bengals receiving corps developed into one of the league’s best. The defense, led by Trey Hendrickson and Jessie Bates III, has been an above average unit, finishing 11th in EPA/play allowed. Perhaps the most impressive part of their run to the AFC North title was that they swept both the Ravens and the Steelers, the two teams that have combined to win 17 of the past 20 division crowns. They also beat the Chiefs in a shootout, the kind of quality win every playoff contender needs to solidify their resume.
Team MVP: Joe Burrow. This could just as easily have been Ja’Marr Chase, who broke rookie records as a receiver and was a consistent option for Burrow. But Burrow’s development into one of the better QBs in the league has spurred Cincinnati’s run to the playoffs. He continues to get better each week and threw for over 4600 yards and 34 TDs this season. He has developed an incredible amount of trust with his receivers as evidenced by this incredible throw and catch on 3rd and 27 against the Chiefs:
Most teams would try to pick up a few yards and get into field goal range, but Burrow and the Bengals took a risk and it paid off. The trust between Burrow and his receivers has developed all year and they are peaking at just the right time.
Ceiling: Conference Championship contenders. This team is exciting and young and should be competing for Superbowls for the next several years. While they are very good this year, it feels like they are a little ahead of schedule.
5. Las Vegas Raiders (10–7)
Superbowl Odds: 0.5%
How they got here: This may be one of the more surprising playoff teams. In a year full of off-field drama and a team that is not stacked with talent, the Raiders overcame the odds to make the playoffs. Between the issues and eventual departure of former coach Jon Gruden and the Henry Ruggs incident, most people had written off the Raiders long ago. And yet here they are. Derek Carr has turned in another solid season (continuing his underrated career) and the defensive line outperformed behind strong seasons from Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby. However, neither the offense or defense has been consistent and both are below average units by DVOA and EPA/play. They should be credited for winning enough games to get here, but they are one of the weaker playoff teams this year.
Team MVP: Derek Carr. In a season full of turmoil and drama, Carr has been a strong leader for the Raiders and continued his solid career. Although Carr is often overlooked, he has turned in one of his better seasons, finishing in the top 5 in yardage and top 10 in DVOA. Crosby and Ngakoue are both worthy of this as well, though the offense has been slightly better, so it goes to Carr. He has performed this well despite a midseason coaching change and a lack of receiving weapons. The Raiders also have a weak running game and the offensive line is not good, but Carr has carried this team to several victories.
Ceiling: Just Happy to Be Here. While this team has defied the odds to get to this point, the Raiders just don’t have the firepower to hang with the best teams in the AFC.
6. New England Patriots (10–7)
Superbowl Odds: 2%
How they got here: Well, that was fast. Just two years removed from the Tom Brady era the Patriots are right back in the playoffs. After a rough 2–4 start, the Patriots reeled off seven wins in a row to get to this point. They are one of the more balanced teams in the league as they finished with the fourth best DVOA behind the second ranked defense and tenth ranked offense. Rookie QB Mac Jones hasn’t been spectacular, but he has done enough to give the Patriots ample opportunity to win. Recent free-agent signee Matthew Judon and the rest of the defense have been excellent, posting the fifth best EPA/play allowed. The offense has been know to disappear at times, but it has progressed throughout the season.
Team MVP: JC Jackson. Jackson has developed into one of the premier cover corners in the NFL and was the best player on one of the best units in the league. His ability to take away the opposing team’s best receiver opened up the defensive playbook for Bill Belichick and gives the defense the ability to shut down offenses. While players like Matthew Judon, Adrian Phillips and others have been great, Jackson has been the most consistent and dominant.
Ceiling: Conference Championship contenders. This team has the defense to beat anyone and if Jones and the offense come prepared, this team can compete with anyone in the AFC. The offensive inconsistency is the only thing holding this team back.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (9–7–1)
Superbowl Odds: 0.3%
How they got here: Honestly, this team probably shouldn’t be here. Ben Roethlisberger has played like a shade of his former self, the defense has regressed from last year’s stellar performance, and the offensive line has been shaky. But somehow this team managed to eke out 9 wins and scrape their way into the playoffs. Led by TJ Watt, the defense was still able to give the offense a good chance to win most weeks, although injuries and general regression meant they were not as successful as last season. Ben Roethlisberger somehow managed to survive the season as the starter despite finishing with the fastest time to throw, second lowest intended air yards/attempt, and the third fewest completed air yards/attempt. Najee Harris provided a spark in the backfield but overall this team was well below average on offense. Though it is always impressive to reach the playoffs, this team may be the weakest in the AFC field.
Team MVP: TJ Watt. The easy answer here is Watt, who finished with a league-high 22.5 sacks (which ties the record for most in a season). His presence was often the difference between the Steelers winning and losing. His strip sack against Seattle sealed the win and his four sacks against Cleveland in week 17 helped keep the Steelers playoff hopes alive. This team went as Watt goes. Usually the QB is the most important player for a team, but the Steelers can safely say that Watt is the biggest impact player on the roster.
Ceiling: Just Happy to Be Here. The Steelers should be elated to have made the playoffs after entering week 18 with just a 5% chance, but a first round matchup with the Chiefs spells doom (they were just beaten 36–10 two weeks ago).