AFC playoff seeding predictions
Yesterday, we looked at how the NFC playoff picture should look in three weeks from now once the games are played, and the most import games that will determine these teams’ fates. Today, we move on to the conference with even more drama: the AFC. Here are our prediction for how the AFC will be seeded at the end of the regular season, and the biggest matchups that matter most.
1. New England Patriots
The Patriots have a very talented roster, but they are hurting. They have 16 players on the roster with a PFF grade above 75—over half of them are either injured or just came back from injury. Just in the past week, their best running back, LeGarrette Blount (76.0) and best defensive tackle, Dominique Easley (81.5), landed on injured reserve, and free safety Devin McCourty (84.9) is missing practice.
Despite all of the injuries, they are the favorite to get the top seed, because they have a one-game lead over Denver and Cincinnati, and their schedule is easier. They end the season with a home game against the Titans, and then they travel to face the Jets and Dolphins. Even if they just win two of those three games, they should still comfortably get the top seed. If the Bengals win out, the Patriots own the tiebreaker. If the Broncos win out and the Patriots lose a game, the Broncos own the tiebreaker. It’s unlikely the Broncos will win out, with games against the Steelers and Bengals coming up. Even with all of the injuries, the Patriots can afford to get healthy to make their playoff push.
2. Denver Broncos
The first step towards the postseason for the Broncos is winning the AFC West. The easiest path to the division is winning two of their next three games. In Week 17, they should win in a home matchup against the Chargers, which means they need to beat the Steelers or Bengals before then. The key matchup to both ensure the division, as well as the second seed, is the Week 16 game against Cincinnati.
The Broncos should be favorites in the game, with A.J. McCarron as the Bengals’ quarterback. Although it was on a small sample size, last weekend it became clear that the way to stop McCarron is to get pressure on him. When there was no pressure, he completed 75 percent of his passes and averaged 10.9 yards per attempt. When he was under pressure, he was sacked 20 percent of the time, completed just 58.3 percent of his passes, and averaged 3.4 yards per attempt. The weak point in the line is Andre Smith, who has a 41.0 PFF pass block grade. He has two games where he has allowed five or more pressures this year, and he will be facing Von Miller, who is averaging more than five pressures per game.
As long as the Broncos can defeat the Bengals and Chargers, even if the Chiefs win out and the Bengals win the rest of their games, the Broncos will wrap up the first round bye.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
As mentioned above, a loss to the Broncos would likely mean Cincinnati won’t be taking Wild Card weekend off. It’s impossible for them to fall to the fourth seed, due to their lead over the AFC South teams, but they still need to win the AFC North to avoid falling to the fifth or sixth seed. The easiest way for the Bengals to do that is by defeating the Ravens in Week 17. With a win, they (at worst) would tie the Steelers’ record, but win the tie-breaker for the division record.
The Ravens’ offense has 11 players who have a PFF grade above 68, but four are on injured reserve and one is suspended. As long as they can stop Baltimore’s biggest weapon, Kamar Aiken (84.2), they should win the game and the division. While there are other scenarios in which Cincinnati keeps the division lead, this one is the most clean-cut, and most likely.
4. Houston Texans
Regardless of what happens, the AFC South winner will be the fourth seed, and not any higher. Technically it’s a three-team race between Houston, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville, but the odds are not in the Jaguars’ favor. They are currently one game behind both the Colts and Texans. The victor between the Texans and Colts in Week 15 will get another win, and both teams face the Titans, which should be a second win. Due to the Jaguars’ poor division record, they won’t win tiebreakers, so that leaves the Texans and Colts. Chances are the winner of this week’s Texans and Colts game ends up with the AFC South title.
Both teams are hurting at quarterback, but the Texans’ players outside of the quarterback position have outplayed the Colts’ players this season. In the first matchup of the season, the Colts ended up winning, but their best players from that game are unlikely to play as well this time around. Two of their top-five graded players were Henry Anderson and Khaled Holmes, but one is on injured reserve, and the other hasn’t been starting. Matt Hasselbeck and Andre Johnson had their best games of the season, but with how well the Texans’ defense has been playing of late, that is unlikely to continue.
The Texans started Ryan Mallett (51.1) that day, and T.J. Yates (57.8) has outplayed Mallett in his small sample size this year. It should be a close game that’s a toss-up, but the Texans have the better players overall, which should give them the edge.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
In the wild card race, the Chiefs, Steelers, and Jets all have the same record. If all three team’s win out, and none of them get a division victory, the Chiefs gets the fifth seed. It’s perfectly possible for the Jets to lose to the Patriots and the Steelers to lose to the Broncos, which means the Chiefs could very well lose one of their next three games and get the third seed. The Chiefs play at Baltimore, home against the Browns, and against the Raiders.
The most difficult game on that schedule is the matchup with the Raiders. In Week 13, the Chiefs came out victorious. More often than not, the Raiders had success in the game, but lost the turnover battle. It was Derek Carr’s only three-interception game of his career. The Chiefs have the third-best defense in the league by PFF cumulative grading, but have the 10th-worst offense. The Raiders, on the other hand, are better-rounded with the seventh-best offense and 13th-best defense, anchored by Khalil Mack (97.1). As mentioned before, even if the Chiefs lose this one, they could very well end up with the fifth seed anyway; but this could be one of the best Week 17 matchups to watch.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
The final spot in the AFC might be the most exciting playoff race remaining, since the team that doesn’t make it could very well be the only team in the NFL with a winning record, but without a postseason bid. Plenty of teams in the AFC are two games back of the Steelers and Jets, but they both have enough games they should win remaining that none of those trailing teams have a strong chance. The Steelers end the season with the Ravens and Browns, while the Jets play the Cowboys this week.
Assuming those three games go as expected, the games that will decide the sixth seed are the Broncos versus the Steelers this week, the Jets and Patriots the following week, and the Jets and Bills in Week 17. All three would need to go in the Jets’ favor in order for the Jets to make it over the Steelers. Even if you consider each game a coin flip, the Jets would need the coin to land heads three times in a row. It’s possible, but difficult.