Midseason Playoff Predictions: AFC

 

 

 

Chip Bayless
By Chip Bayless

 

 

 

 

#1 Seed: New England Patriots

Unfortunately, it looks like the Patriots are going to take the first seed once again. Some of you out there might say the Chiefs are stronger but the Chiefs are 6-1, the Pats are 5-2, the Patriots just beat the Chiefs (albeit, barely), and the Chiefs and Andy Reid have a tendency to tail off towards the end of the season.

My bet is the Patriots end up either a game ahead of the Chiefs or tied with them for the AFC crown at the end of the year in terms of overall record, but the Patriots will end up taking the first seed either way since they now have the tiebreaker due to their 43-40 victory over the Chiefs last week.

As usual in the AFC East, no one else is even really contending with the Patriots. The Jets are their usual brand of sub-par while the Bills are just flat out terrible (the Bills have actually scored the least points in the NFL as they only have 81 on the season so far). Granted, the Dolphins are looking as good as they have in years and have a roster that is talented enough to make the playoffs.

 

The only problem is when the Dolphins and Patriots faced off a couple of weeks ago the Patriots dominated the Dolphins 38-7. Maybe the Dolphins pull off a miracle and hang with the Patriots as the season goes on and find a way to beat them later in the year and take the division crown, but I doubt their season records will be within two games of each other. In the midst of it all the Patriots are looking their usual brand of scary. Gronk and Sony Michel are both injured but it doesn’t even seem to matter as James White and the receiving corps picked up the slack to hang 38 points on the Khalil Mack and the Bears defense on Sunday.

 

By the way, per a report by Adam Schefter of ESPN Michel underwent an MRI that revealed no structural damage to his knee and is now considered week-to-week. So there is hope that he could be at 100% for the Patriots playoff push.

Edelman is back, Chris Hogan is still effective, and Josh Gordon is slowly becoming the deep threat the Patriots haven’t had since Randy Moss. Gordon is now appearing in any offensive sets with two or more receivers, and he led the Patriots in receiving this week as he had his first 100-yard game and averaged 25 yards per catch. By the way, just gonna throw this stat here because I love it:

While we are talking about stats, James White has been a remarkable jackknife of sorts for the Patriots this season as he has at least a touchdown or five catches in every game so far this year as he has 45 catches to go along with seven TDs and is actually a top 10 NFL back in fantasy football in PPR scoring.

 

 

 

#2 Seed: Kansas City Chiefs

The Broncos and Raiders look lost for the season, and while the Chargers are riding a four-game winning streak and are one of the most underrated teams in the league, the Chiefs have too much firepower on their roster to not take this division with an early lead.

 

The Chiefs look like one of the best teams in the NFL right now as they are coming off a dominant win over the Bengals where they decimated them 45-10, one week after just barely losing to a Patriots team that might have the best record in the AFC when it is all said and done (the Chiefs still managed to score 40 points too). Make no mistake about it, Mahomes balled in that Patriots game and might have out-played Tom Brady in Foxborough. Brady threw for 340 yards and one TD with no interceptions while Mahomes threw for 352 yards and four TDs with two interceptions.

 

Even if Mahomes didn’t out-play Brady, he at the very least hung with him. Even if you don’t play fantasy football, the fact that Mahomes is currently the #1-ranked QB in the league in all of fantasy has to mean something. Not to mention, Mahomes leads all QBs in yards and TDs with 2,223 yards and 22 touchdowns to go along with only five interceptions. At this rate Mahomes could finish the season throwing for over 40 TDs to go along with ten or less interceptions.




Mahomes obviously isn’t the only playmaker on this team, and in fact many debate how much of his production might be a result of the immense talent around him. Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt are all players who are probably top five talents at their positions. Hill currently leads the league in TD receptions with seven and is eighth in average yards per game amongst receivers with 90.7.

 

Kelce is second in yards, receptions, and TDs amongst tight ends to only Zach Ertz as Kelce has 563 yards and 3 TDs on 38 catches through the first seven weeks. Meanwhile Hunt is fifth in yards per carry with 4.6, third in rushing yards with 542, and fifth in rushing touchdowns with five.

 

Once the defense gets Eric Berry and Justin Houston back, the talent on the Kansas City Chiefs will keep both opposing offensive and defensive coordinators up at night.

 

 

 

#3 Seed: Houston Texans

Houston will likely take the AFC South crown and end up with a better record than any AFC North team due to the fact that Houston gets to play the Titans, Jaguars, and Colts twice a year, which is pretty significant considering the lack quality talent and coaching across the division. The Titans are their closest competitor and they just lost by a point because Mike Vrabel decided to go for the win instead of overtime.

That doesn’t mean Mike Vrabel is a bad coach or the Titans are talentless (far from it), but in today’s NFL you have to play for overtime. Instead, the Titans tried throwing a slant from the two and it whizzed over everyone and out of the end zone after it was tipped by a Chargers defender.

 

Those types of plays happen all the time in a football game, but that is all the more reason to kick the extra point and play for overtime. If you believe in your coaching and the talent on the team, then you have to be confident enough to kick the extra point and take the extra period and try and dominate on multiple plays instead of letting the game come down to one throw.

While Mariota seems to be recovering well from an early-season elbow injury, he hasn’t produced like even a top 20 NFL QB. He has thrown for more than 250 yards just once, thrown even a single touchdown in a game just twice, and hasn’t added much on the ground either as he has rushed for more than 50 yards once. Thus far in 2018 Mariota has thrown five interceptions while only scoring four total touchdowns.

 

The Jaguars look like a surprising mess now with the benching of Blake Bortles for Cody Kessler. The fucking Browns cut him in case you forgot. That’s where Cody Kessler came from. Not to mention the vaunted Jags defense is not playing like the 2017 Jags. So far in 2018 only the abysmal Colts have allowed more points than the Jaguars in the NFC South as the Jaguars have allowed 146 points through seven weeks.

 

The 2-5 Colts are rebuilding for seemingly the tenth year in a row, and are about to ruin Andrew Luck as he is currently on pace to break the record for most passing attempts despite the fact that Luck has missed basically three years getting shoulder surgery and rehabbing his shoulder. Luck is currently on pace to throw over 700 passes.

 

Yes, he only threw 23 passes last week against the Bills, but that was largely due to Marlon Mack’s dominance over a woeful Bills defense. Additionally, the Bills are probably the least talented team in the NFL—outside of maybe the Raiders. The week before that against the Jets he had 43 attempts, and the prior week he had 59 attempts against the Patriots.

 

All that being said, the Texans are not just a product of a weak division. Deshaun Watson might not be playing at the same level from his rookie season pre ACL tear but I think as the season progresses he will find his rhythm and reduce his inconsistency. While Watson has thrown for at least 300 yards and two TDs in half his games, he has also thrown seven picks through seven weeks and threw for under 200 yards in the other half of his games.

The Texans owe much of their success to the defense’s stellar play and the fact that DeAndre Hopkins is flat out balling this year. His worst statistical week came on Sunday against the Jags and Jalen Ramsey when Hopkins had 3 grabs for 50 yards and a TD. His day included an impressive one-handed catch and a leaping TD reception that both came against Ramsey, and both came after Hopkins torched Ramsey in press coverage, easily swiping the corners hands away and sprinting by him. So far Hopkins is third in the NFL in receiving yards with 707 as he trails only Adam Thielen and Julio Jones for the league crown. Hopkins does however lead the league in catches for over 20 yards as he has 13 on the year—just one ahead of Chiefs speedster Tyreek Hill’s 12.

Look for the 4-3 Texans to get better down the stretch and finish on top of the division with a record somewhere between 9-6 and 11-5.

 

 

 

 

#4 Seed: Baltimore Ravens

 

Sep 11, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley (57) is congratulated by linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) after recovering a fumble in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

 

Right now, the AFC North is pretty tight as the 3-2-1 Steelers, 4-3 Bengals, and 4-3 Ravens are all neck and neck for the division lead. Aside from the smothering defense that is the 2018 Ravens, think about this for a second: Who do you trust more to finish a season and be prepared for playoff success when it is all said and done? The Bengals and Andy Dalton, the Steelers minus Le’Veon Bell who couldn’t beat the Browns, or the Ravens and Joe Flacco?

 

I’ll take the Ravens and Flacco. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those sociopaths that thinks Flacco is elite, but John Harbaugh and Flacco have enough past playoff experience and success that I’ll take them this year over the Bengals and Dalton (who are often garbage towards the end of the year) and the 2018 Steelers.




Now let’s get back to that defense. Through seven weeks they have let up 20 points only twice. The first time happened in week two before this team had an identity when they let up 34 points to the Bengals. The second time happened last week when the Ravens lost to the Saints by a score of 24-23 due to a missed extra point. The Ravens have allowed the least points in the league actually as they have only allowed 101 points so far. The next closest defense is the Seahawks defense which has allowed 117.

C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle are playing out of their minds along with the rest of the defense, and by the way Mosley’s combination of coverage skills and play-reading ability in the running game might make him the best middle linebacker in the league period.

 

Flacco has been at the very least effective this year, if not pretty damn good. He is actually fifth in yards this year with 2,067, ranking just behind Jared Goff at #4 who has 2,130 yards. Flacco has thrown for at least 200 yards in every game in 2018 and his lowest yardage total came in week one when he had 236 yards and 3 TDs with no INTs against the Bills. Add in Lamar Jackson’s occasional spark plays and the fact that John Brown is looking like Brandin Cooks in this offense and the Ravens look scary on both sides of the ball.

Last week against the Saints, Brown rattled off 134 yards and a TD on seven catches. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Brown is currently on pace for 1,275 yards and nine TDs on just 64 catches. Brown is finally capitalizing on his elite combination of speed, agility, and deep ball skills as the Ravens are finding unique ways to find the speedster deep downfield. Of Brown’s 49 targets, 42.9 percent have come on throws of 20 yards or more downfield.

Flacco has not targeted a receiver on deep passes at that rate since Torrey Smith, per Pro Football Focus. Look for John Brown and the Ravens to keep shredding defenses on Wild Card Weekend at least as they are looking in good shape for the fourth seed in the AFC as the AFC North champs.

 

 

 

Wild Card Winners

 

#5 Seed: Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are 5-2 and riding a four-game winning streak that is itself riding Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon. Rivers is third in passing touchdowns with 17—one more than Tom Brady who is fourth with 16—, has only thrown three interceptions, is eighth in yards with 2,008, and is second in QB rating with 117.8 to only Drew Brees with a 121.6 QB rating.

 

Meanwhile the other staple of the Chargers offense is among league leaders as well as Melvin Gordon is fifth in rushing yards with 466, tied with Alvin Kamara for third in rushing TDs with 6, seventh in total yards from scrimmage with 745 (just ahead of Kamara at #8 who has 725), and has done it all while averaging a phenomenal 5.1 YPC.

Throw in Joey Bosay and Melvin Ingram giving QBs nightmares every week and the Chargers have the components of a playoff team on both sides of the ball.

 

 

 

#6 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers

As much as I hate to say it, the 3-2-1 Steelers will likely make the playoffs in some fashion. Obviously, as evidenced by these predictions, I think it is more likely they will make it as the sixth seed due to the Ravens having a superior defense. Also, the AFC north has not had a team win the division title three consecutive season since 2002.

As much as I would like to say the Le’Veon Bell situation or Antonio Brown’s antics are distractions or the Steelers aren’t as good as they think they are, the fact is AB is still dominant as he has at least five catches and a TD in every week with the exception of week two when he had nine catches for 67 yards and no TDs against the Chiefs. Also Bell’s replacement, James Connor, is looking like an absolute stud and leads NFL running backs in a number of categories.

 

Connor is second in rushing TDs with 7 to only Rams phenom Todd Gurley who has 11, seventh in yards with 453, and is tied for third in rushes for over 20 yards as he has five so far in 2018. Granted, some of Connor’s success is due to the fact that the Steelers have one of the few dominant offensive lines left in the NFL. In particular, blindside tackle Alejandro Villanueva’s progress has been key for the Steelers success. Villanueva is currently tied for least QB pressures allowed with five, per Pro Football Focus.

 

Look for the Steelers o-line to keep plowing over opponents and giving Big Ben the time he needs to make his reads as the Steelers look to keep their grip on the division lead.




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