Photo Courtesy of QuinceMedia
Every September, 32 professional football teams compete for 17 grueling weeks with the common goal of winning the Super Bowl. Once the dust settles, only 6 teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi trophy in each conference (AFC and NFC), each of whom must now play an additional two to three games in order to reach the final stage. With the playoff season in full swing, let’s take a look at the teams that remain standing, and take a look at the road each team has taken to get to their current position in the American Football Conference:
Baltimore Ravens (14-2):
How They Got Here: A dominant running game, headed by MVP-frontrunner Lamar Jackson, who in his second season, has proven he is a capable thrower. The Ravens ran for a total of 3,296 yards this season, breaking a 41-year old record set by the 1978 Patriots. Jackson himself ran for 1,206 yards, breaking Michael Vick’s record for most yards on the ground for a quarterback, but also led the league with 36 passing-touchdowns. He is a generational quarterback and the Ravens have capitalized on his talents to establish an offensive juggernaut. Pro-Bowl running-back Mark Ingram Jr. has also helped spearhead the Raven’s rushing attack, with 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Biggest Surprise: With multiple starters lost in free-agency in 2019, many thought the Ravens were due for a decline. However, the offseason pickup of Earl Thomas and the midseason trade for Marcus Peters has paid big dividends for the Ravens and their 4th ranked defense. The breakout play of Matthew Judon and Marlon Humphrey has helped the Ravens not miss a beat defensively. This unit has also held AFC-contenders such as the Patriots, Texans, and Bills to 20, 7, and 17 points respectively.
Defining Victory: Week 9 vs New England Patriots. The defending Super Bowl champs came to town on November 3rd, and on Sunday Night Football, the Ravens proved to the world that they were the real deal. In a dominating 37-20 victory, in which the Ravens outscored the Pats 20-7 in the second-half, Lamar Jackson passed for 163 yards and a touchdown, while adding 61 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Patriots’ dominant defense had no answers for Jackson and the Ravens, and Baltimore continued on with its winning streak.
Biggest Weakness: Does this team even have one? The offense has put up the most points in the league, the defense is a top-5 unit, and the special-teams still boasts the best kicker in football in Justin Tucker. This team has 12 Pro Bowlers and 5 First-team All-Pros. Any team that comes to Baltimore has to play their best football of the season in order to even have a shot at knocking off the Ravens.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4):
How They Got Here: The offense runs through reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. He was off to another hot start in the first quarter of the season, passing for 1510 yards and 10 touchdowns, as the Chiefs were off to a 4-0 start. Then, injuries began to hobble him, and the Chiefs began to slow down after Mahomes went out for 3 weeks. Mahomes was never really able to regain his MVP form, and the defense has been inconsistent at best. Despite this, the Chiefs finished the season on a 6-game winning streak, and were still able to clinch a first-round-bye.
Biggest Surprise: Although losing an MVP would cripple most teams, the Chiefs stayed right on track as veteran Matt Moore came in relief of Mahomes. In a three-game stretch, Moore threw for 659 yards, 4 touchdowns, and had no turnovers as the Chiefs went 2-1 in that stretch. A loss to the Packers was overshadowed by a stellar victory against the Vikings, and put the Chiefs in a stable position in the AFC.
Defining Victory: Week 9 vs Minnesota Vikings. The 5-3 Chiefs were coming off of a crushing loss against the Packers and against another NFC powerhouse, Matt Moore was able to lead the Chiefs to a stellar 26-23 victory. In a back-and-forth game, wide receiver Tyreek Hill took over the game with 140 receiving yards and a touchdown. The Chiefs were able to kick a field goal to tie the game with 2:30 left in the game, and after forcing a three-and-out, the Chiefs quickly stormed the field for a game-winning field goal.
Biggest Weakness: There are questions as to whether or not the defense is able to hold up against other playoff contenders. There are also questions as to whether Patrick Mahomes can regain form in the playoffs and lead the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. For now, however, the defense has been central to the Chiefs’ 6-game winning streak. If that unit can hold up, the Chiefs have a shot at knocking off any team in the conference.
New England Patriots (12-4): OUT in Wild Card Week
How They Got Here: Let’s be real here, the Patriots have not looked great this season on offense. Their defense has carried them to the third seed and some can even argue that the Patriots have had the benefit of playing one of the easiest schedules in the league. The Pats boast the top ranked defense in the league and have held their opponents under 20 points eleven times. Losses to the Chiefs, Texans, and Ravens however, tells the story that this is the weakest New England has ever been.
Biggest Surprise: The biggest surprise this season is easily the Patriots’ loss to the Dolphins in Week 17. You talk about a team that had previously lost 43-0 to the Patriots earlier in the season. In a game where the Patriots with a win could clinch a first-round-bye, especially while playing in front of a home-crowd, you expect the Patriots to finish off the season in dominating fashion against an inferior opponent. While the Dolphins have improved drastically throughout the season, there are no excuses for the Patriots’ embarrassing defeat. Now, the Patriots must play on wild-card weekend for the first time since the 2009 season.
Defining Victory: Week 16 vs Buffalo Bills. Facing a threatening Bills defense, Tom Brady played one of his best games all season, passing for 271 yards and a touchdown to clinch the division. Entering the final quarter down 17-13, the Patriots scored 11 unanswered points and defeated Buffalo in dominating fashion in the 4th quarter.
Biggest Weakness: To put it lightly, the Patriots’ offense has sputtered this season. Aside from Julian Edelman, the receivers have failed to earn Tom Brady’s trust, and the Brady’s play himself has finally begun to reflect his age. The Patriots’ defense this season has shown their inability to stop the Ravens’ powerful running game. Playing against the Titans and NFL-leading rusher Derrick Henry, the defense must prove that they can show up against legitimate competition to avoid an upset.
Houston Texans (10-6):
How They Got Here: The NFC South this season has been one of the more competitive divisions this season, and ultimately, the Texans were able to sneak away with the division. This team runs through quarterback Deshaun Watson. His ability to make plays with his arm and his legs has frustrated most teams, but his questionable decision making at times has also almost cost his team the game. Eight of the teams’ ten wins have come in one-score games, proving the team’s resilience late game.
Biggest Surprise: Carlos Hyde has carried the load of the Texans’ running game this season. Acquired from a pre-season trade, Hyde has rushed for 1,070 yards and 6 touchdowns, and has been a solid player out of the backfield after starter Lamar Miller tore his ACL.
Defining Victory: Week 15 vs Tennessee Titans. Up to this point, the Titans had won 6 of their last 7, and were tied for the division entering the game. Despite throwing 2 interceptions, Deshaun Watson threw for 2 touchdowns and Carlos Hyde ran for 104 yards as the Texans held off a late rally from the Titans for a 24-21 victory in Tennessee. The victory gave the Texans a one game lead in the division, a lead that they would give them the division crown.
Biggest Weakness: Quite honestly, this team has had some bad losses this season. The team has played sloppy football in the second half of the season, most evident in their 38-24 losses against the Broncos, who had Drew Lock making just his second start. The team almost gave up a game against the Buccaneers, a game which saw the Bucs turned over the ball 5 times. Quite frankly, this team is just outclassed by the Ravens in every way, which was made evident in their 41-7 blowout loss against Baltimore in Week 11. Against the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round, the team must limit its mistakes to avoid an upset.
Buffalo Bills (10-6): OUT in Wild Card Week
How They Got Here: The Bills boast the 3rd ranked defense in the league, led by cornerback Tre’Davious White. This defense has been able to make enough plays to make up ground for their underwhelming offense, and has helped the Bills reach their best record since 1999. Quarterback Josh Allen has made steady improvements since his rookie season, and rookie Devin Singletary has been tremendous with 775 rushing yards while developing into a starting role late into the season. This team has been competitive down the stretch and is good enough to give any team in the playoffs a headache in the game.
Biggest Surprise: The Bills acquired wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasely in the offseason and both had an impact for Buffalo this season. Brown has developed into a solid WR1, with 1,060 yards and 6 touchdowns, and Beasely added with 778 yards and 6 touchdowns of his own. For a team devoid of receiving options the season before, they have helped make Josh Allen’s job a lot easier.
Defining Victory: Week 13 vs Dallas Cowboys. On Thanksgiving’s Day in Dallas, the Bills came to town and dominated the Cowboys 26-15. Josh Allen played his best game of the season as he completed nearly 80% of his passes and threw for 231 yards and a touchdown, while adding 43 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Wide receiver John Brown also threw for a 28-yard touchdown on a trick play. Despite a good game from Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys weren’t able to take advantage of their opportunities on offense to score points.
Big Weakness: That being said, however, this offense is not nearly as threatening as their defense. In 5 games against teams over .500 (won over 50% of their games), the Bills failed to put up more than 17 points. The defense can only do so much for this team, and if the offense can’t put up points themselves, the Bills are looking at a quick playoff exit. Against the Texans, however, if the team is able to frustrate QB Deshaun Watson, the Bills have a chance for an upset.
Tennessee Titans (9-7):
How They Got Here: The switch to new quarterback Ryan Tannehill has led Tennessee to a 7-3 finish to the season. Tannehill himself passed for 2598 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games starting and has propelled Tennessee to another playoff bid. Running back Derrick Henry has also had a dominating season, leading the league with 1540 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. He has been nearly unstoppable to end off the season, averaging well over 6 yards a carry over the last 6 games of the season. With a balanced attack on offense, the Titans have established themselves as a fluid team on paper.
Biggest Surprise: Rookie wide receiver AJ Brown was a force to be reckoned with this season, with 1051 yards and 8 touchdowns. He had five 100-yard games and established himself as a reliable target for Tannehill and the Titans moving forward. He finished the season on a hot note, having over 100 yards in 4 out of his last 6 games, including 2 against the division-rival Texans.
Defining Victory: Week 10 vs Kansas City Chiefs. The Titans were able to initiate a game-winning touchdown drive with under 2 minutes left in the game and knocked off the Chiefs 32-27. Despite a 446 yard and 3 touchdown performance by opposing quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Derrick Henry ran for a monstrous 188 yards and two touchdowns to keep Tennessee in the game and in the playoff race.
Biggest Weakness: This team is below-average defensively and against any team with a solid offense in the playoffs (Texans, Chiefs, Ravens), the team is gonna rely too much on the offense to generate high point totals to win games. Fortunately for the Titans, they have a chance to knock off the slumping New England Patriots out of the playoffs in the wild-card round. The road that follows, however, will be an uphill battle.
WILD CARD WEEKEND:
Patriots vs Titans: Titans 30, Patriots 23
Actual Score: Titans 20, Patriots 13
Texans vs Bills: Texans 20, Bills 16
Actual Score: Texans 22, Bills 19
Chiefs vs Texans: Chiefs 30, Texans 20
Ravens vs Titans: Ravens 37, Titans 24
Ravens vs Chiefs: Ravens 35, Chiefs, 28