BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The Kansas City Chiefs secured the top overall seed in the AFC with their 14-3 record, but they’re not assured of home field advantage through the AFC Championship Game due to the the cancellation of the game between Cincinnati and Buffalo after Damar Hamiln’s tragic, near fatal cardiac episode. Because that contest resulted in both Cincinnati and Buffalo playing one fewer game, if the Bills and Chiefs were to advance to meet in the AFC Championship game, the league mandated that it would be most equitable to play it in neutral site of Atlanta. Despite that quirk of the schedule, Andy Reid and his club enter the playoffs having won their last five games, and ten of their final 11.
Patrick Mahomes once again directed the best offense in the game, scoring 496 points and posting a 105.2 passer rating while throwing 41 touchdowns and making a collection of jaw-dropping improvisational throws, and will likely be rewarded with his second MVP Award. With Tyreek Hill now in Miami, Mahomes relied upon Travis Kelce as his go-to target, leading to 110 receptions for 1338 yards and 12 TD’s for the tight end. The pair figure to be at the heart of any Super Bowl run the Chiefs can make, and it shouldn’t matter where they have to play to get there.
Miami Dolphins (AFC 7th seed) at Buffalo Bills (AFC 2nd seed)
Suggesting that the terrifying injury suffered by Damar Hamlin could in some way inspire his teammates to perform at a higher level going forward would trivialize the value of the young man’s life. Nothing that the team could accomplish playing the game can amplify his courage and resilience or in some way heighten the recognition rightly afforded the medical personnel that helped revive him. His teammates may certainly draw strength and resolve from his plight, but winning football games should not in any way be conflated with a near-death experience. Sean McDermott has brought stability and excellence back to a Buffalo franchise that once went to four consecutive Super Bowls, but had been moribund for a quarter century until his arrival in 2017. His 62-35 record as Bills head coach includes five playoff berths in six seasons, though their first Super Bowl title continues to elude them. This edition of the team may well be the most well-rounded version in their history, finishing second in the league in both points scored and least points allowed while leading the AFC with a 169 point differential. Led by Josh Allen, whose 35 TD passes (and seven more on the ground) helped power the offense, Buffalo was nearly impossible to stop, scoring at least 17 points in every contest, and topping the 30 point mark on eight occasions. Allen’s top receiver continues to be the sure-handed Stefon Diggs, whose 108 catches and 1429 yards led to 11 TD’s. Gabriel Davis and Dawson Knox each hauled in 48 passes and combined for 13 more scores, while the running game chipped in to provide 5.2 yards per carry, second best in the NFL. Not to be overshadowed, the defense proved stingy enough to be stout against both the pass and the run, and linebacker Matt Milano led the team in tackles and tackles for loss. Von Miller’s knee injury will keep him out of the playoffs, but the Bills still feature several players skilled at putting pressure on the quarterback. Gregory Rosseau, AJ Epenesa and Shaq Lawson combined for 18 sacks, and the opportunistic secondary garnered 17 interceptions, fourth best in the NFL.
That defense will be going up against Miami’s vertical passing game, made deadly by wideouts Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, who had nearly 200 receptions between them. Waddle led the NFL in yards per reception at 18.1, but most of those big gains were delivered by Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins quarterback who will miss the playoff game due to the aftereffects of his third concussion of the season, making Skylar Thompson the starter against the Bills.The drop-off from Tagovailoa, whose 105.5 passer rating led the NFL, to either of his backups will prove too much for rookie Coach Mike McDaniel to overcome. Any game plan that does not include Tua will almost certainly focus upon Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, a pair of running backs that McDaniel deployed while coaching in San Francisco the two prior seasons. That duo combined for a hefty 4.8 yards per carry, and it would not be a surprise if a ball control strategy that keeps the clock running (and Josh Allen on the sidelines) is the tack that McDaniel chooses in his quest to upset the Bills.
Baltimore Ravens (AFC 6th seed) at Cincinnati Bengals (AFC 3rd seed)
The defending AFC champion Bengals return to the playoffs this season with a very familiar recipe for success: deploying their elite skill position assets to dominate opponents. They enter the playoffs having won 8 straight games, and fourth year coach Zac Taylor is poised to take the franchise to back-to-back Super Bowls for the first time in their history. Taylor, who went 2-14 in his rookie year in 2019 (earning the top pick in the 2020 draft, Joe Burrow), has rebuilt the roster masterfully, winning the rugged AFC North the past two seasons. He is blessed with franchise savior Burrow at quarterback, who has numerous downfield weapons in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Hayden Hurst, each of whom connected with Burrow at least 50 times in 2022. The running game isn’t quite as robust for the Bengals, where feature backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combined for barely four yards a carry, but Taylor uses them as screen play targets and check down options for Burrow, adding another 98 receptions to the bottom line for the seventh best offense in football. The Cincinnati defense was remarkably stout in 2022, allowing the sixth fewest points in the league and keeping games close enough for the offense to overcome any deficits. Trey Hendrickson is the Bengals lone defensive Pro-Bowler, accounting for eight sacks and a team best 24 QB hits. The Bengals split the two games with their AFC North rivals, with the Ravens winning 19-17 in Baltimore in October, and Cincinnati winning at home last week 27-16 to clinch the division and the third seed.
Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson did play in their October battle, though his contributions were modest in the low scoring affair. He last played December 4th against Denver, when he left with a knee injury that has not yet healed. If he is unable to start, backup Tyler Huntley will get the call, and the Baltimore offense is almost half as effective when he replaces Jackson, averaging 24 points during Jackson’s starts, and only 12 in Huntley’s. Huntley, who started the last four games of the Ravens season, went 2-2 with two TD’s and three interceptions for a 77.2 rating. Coach John Harbaugh emphasized the running game all season, and both Huntley and Jackson used their legs as much as their arms to move the offense. The Ravens were second in the league in rushing yards, and their 5.2 yards per rush was third overall, featuring a multi-pronged attack that saw Kenyan Drake, JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Jackson each get at least 87 carries. If Baltimore is to have a chance to avenge last week’s loss, they figure to depend on that clock chewing ground game to move the ball, and hope their defense, which allowed the third fewest points in the NFL, to keep the game close. Harbaugh knows he has Justin Tucker, arguably the best kicker of all time, at his disposal, meaning that a game decided by a late field goal would play to the Ravens strength. If Jackson is unable to play, however, it is difficult to imagine Huntley providing enough of an aerial assault to score points quickly, and the Bengals may stack the box to make life more difficult for that vaunted Ravens running attack.
Los Angeles Chargers (AFC 5th seed) at Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC 4th seed)
Quarterback Justin Herbert will get his first taste of playoff competition this season, and he and Head Coach Brandon Staley are looking to bring the franchise its first Super Bowl title. The Jaguars destroyed Los Angeles in week three 38-10, but the sequel may well head in a different direction. This matchup features two of the best young signal callers in the game, Herbert (who was the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft) against Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, the top overall selection in 2021. Ironically, Herbert’s third full season may have been his least productive. He improved his accuracy to a career best 68.2%, but threw only 25 TD’s (down from 38 a year ago) and had a career worst 6.9 average net yards per attempt which led to a 93.2 rating, also his lowest. Despite those marks, he fueled the Chargers to the third most passing yards in the league, a necessity given the struggles the running game endured this season behind an offensive line that lost key members to injury. Staley leaned heavily on Herbert to move the offense, eschewing the ground game. Los Angeles had the 28th most rushing attempts and the 30th yards per carry (3.8) in football, but still maximized the impact of running back Austin Ekeler, who found the end zone 18 times, tops for non-quarterbacks this past season. Ekeler had a career best 107 receptions out of the backfield (easily the highest among running backs), allowing him to use his quickness in space and providing Herbert with a reliable option when his downfield targets were covered. Herbert’s primary wideouts, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams were banged up this season, limiting them to just 129 catches between them with eight TD’s, and Williams is questionable to play Wild Card Weekend due to a back injury he suffered in the season’s final week. The Chargers defense is littered with star players: Derwin James, who had four sacks and two interceptions, Khalil Mack, who led the team with eight sacks, and the oft-injured Joey Bosa, who started only five games this season but should be ready for the playoffs. Each of those veterans can create game-changing plays, and an ordinary Los Angeles defense looked more formidable down the stretch when Bosa was back on the field, which could prove difficult for the young Jaguars to overcome.
Jacksonville is helmed by Doug Pedersen, who led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title in 2017, but was let go by Philadelphia following a 4-11-1 season in 2020. After taking last year off, Pedersen led the Jaguars to a 9-8 record and the AFC South Division title following four consecutive last place division finishes. Inheriting a team that had gone 4-29 in the prior two seasons, Pedersen unlocked Lawrence’s arm talent and vision, resulting in improvements in completion percentage (59.6 to 66.3) and touchdowns (12 to 25), while cutting his interceptions in half and rocketing his passer rating from 71.9 to 95.2. Lawrence benefited from having Travis Etienne, a 2021 first round pick who missed his rookie year with an injury, available to tote the rock. Etienne led all NFL backs in rushing yards over expected with 263, and had 1125 yards on the ground with five touchdowns while posting 5.1 yards per carry. Pedersen’s schemes and Lawrence’s missiles helped allow wideouts Christian Kirk and journeyman Zay Jones have their best seasons as pros, combining for 166 catches, nearly 2000 yards and 13 scores. On defense, Jacksonville is paced by tackling machine Foyesade Olukun, who led the NFL with 128 solo tackles, including 12 for loss, two sacks and nine QB hits. A former sixth round pick out of Yale by Atlanta in 2018, Olukun joined the Jaguars this past offseason and helped lead a remade defensive unit that was 12th in the league in points allowed. The defense also reaped the benefits of Travon Walker, the top overall pick in the 2022 draft, who helped lead Georgia to a national championship last year and contributed 3.5 sacks and ten QB hits in his rookie season. Walker had Josh Allen, Arden Key and Dawuane Smoot helping to flush opposing passers out of the pocket, and that trio added 15.5 sacks to the total for the defensive line. Jacksonville will have to hope that group can harangue Herbert into hasty decisions with the football, or at least disrupt the timing with his receivers, or the Chargers aerial attack may well overwhelm the young Jags.
Wild Card Predictions:
Los Angeles over Jacksonville
Cincinnati over Baltimore
Buffalo over Miami
Kansas City over Los Angeles
Buffalo over Cincinnati
Buffalo over Kansas City
Statistical research by Matt Vogel