The Patriots are in the driver’s seat to secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
Although much is left to be determined about the playoff picture over the final two weeks of the regular season, we know the general field of contenders, so we examined what kind of threat they could pose to New England.
Here is a look:
Threat level: High.
Current playoff position: No. 2 seed. The Steelers won the AFC North, but need to win one more game than the Patriots over the final two weeks to climb into the top seed. On top of that, Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville early in the season, so a first-round bye is not secured.
Final two opponents: at Houston, vs. Cleveland.
Why they’re a threat: Sunday’s performance. These Steelers can go toe-to-toe with the Patriots. And they did not play afraid, as many teams do against New England. But they unraveled in the final 2 minutes. Even without arguably the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown, for most of the game, the Steelers were thisclose to pulling out the victory. The Steelers exploited mismatches on running back Le’Veon Bell in the passing game, their remaining receivers stepped up in place of Brown, and they won the time of possession battle by a wide margin, playing to keep Tom Brady off the field.
Why they could flop: Self-inflicted wounds. The question in the playoffs becomes: Can they avoid shooting themselves in the foot? They fell back into their zone defense on the Patriots’ go-ahead drive, allowing tight end Rob Gronkowski to slip free for three straight catches for 69 yards. But even after the Patriots retook the lead with less than a minute left, the Steelers put themselves in position to score a game-winning touchdown before everything fell apart. Tight end Jesse James couldn’t complete a catch and had an apparent touchdown overturned. Then receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey did not get out of bounds after a three-yard gain on second and 10, thanks to good tackling by cornerback Malcolm Butler. A fake-spike-turned-disaster was . . . a disaster. None of what happened in the final 2 minutes — including the Steelers having only one play ready after the overturned touchdown — can happen in the playoffs if the Steelers want to beat the Patriots.
Threat level: Moderate to high.
Current playoff position: No. 3 seed. The Jaguars have clinched a playoff spot for the first time in 10 years and could clinch the AFC South this week with a win or a Tennessee loss. Believe it or not, they still have a shot at the top seed in the conference.
Final two opponents: at San Francisco, at Tennessee.
Why they’re a threat: Defense and quarterback Blake Bortles (I know, I know, but just hear us out). This defensive unit is on track to achieve something no team has since the merger: Lead the league in scoring, sacks, and takeaways. Through 14 games, the Jaguars have rolled up 51 sacks, 20 interceptions, and 11 fumbles while giving up 14.9 points per game, including eight contests in which they allowed 10 or fewer points. This is the unit that intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times earlier this season, raising the question from the QB himself if he still had it. They employ a Cover 3 scheme, mixing man and zone. Cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey have been stellar, accounting for half of the team’s interceptions and a combined 34 passes defended. That has allowed a ferocious pass rush to flourish. Defensive ends Calais Campbell (14.5) and Yannick Ngakoue (11.0) rank in the top six in the league in sacks and have combined to force nine fumbles. Defensive lineman Malik Jackson (8.0) and defensive end Dante Fowler (7.5) have gotten in on the action too.
In Bortles’s first three seasons, he threw 69 touchdowns and had 51 interceptions and notched a league-high 63 turnovers. But in December, he has statistically performed better than any other quarterback. A weird sentence to read (and type), but it’s true. The former No. 3 overall pick, who Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney called “trash” and Seahawks safety Earl Thomas called “subpar,” has compiled this stat line over the last three games: 71.0 completion percentage, 903 passing yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions. Those performances came against the Colts, Seahawks, and Texans. And he did it with a cast of “who the heck is that?” receivers.
Why they could flop: Injuries, inexperienced receivers, and Bortles. The Jaguars have been decimated at wide receiver by injuries. Their primary receivers in Week 15 were a pair of rookies and a second-year man who spent part of last season on Oakland’s practice squad: Keelan Cole (25 catches in his previous 13 games), Jaydon Mickens (one catch in his previous seven games), and Dede Westbrook (20 catches in his previous four games). Against the Texans, Cole had seven catches for 186 yards and a touchdown; Mickens had four catches for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns; and Westbrook had two catches for 21 yards.
Jacksonville has been without their A team receivers for various points in the season. Allen Robinson has missed the season with a torn ACL, Allen Hurns has missed five straight games with an ankle injury, and Marqise Lee suffered an ankle injury early against Houston. Running back Leonard Fournette (quad) was sidelined in Week 15. But linebacker Telvin Smith, the team’s leading tackler, did return against Houston after missing two weeks in concussion protocol.
Yes, Bortles has played well over the last three weeks. But can he sustain it, especially come playoff time? His shaky track record works heavily against him, as does the Jaguars’ thin and inexperienced receiving corps.
Make your reads: 1) The Jaguars are headed to the playoffs — with a chance to do some damage. 2) The Jaguars’ defense is on the verge of making NFL history. 3) The best defender you’ve never heard of could push the Jaguars’ defense over the top.
Kansas City Chiefs
Threat level: Moderate.
Current playoff position: No. 4 seed. The Chiefs can win the AFC West this week with a victory, a Chargers loss, or a tie plus a Chargers tie.
Final two opponents: vs. Miami, at Denver.
Why they’re a threat: Defense and running back Kareem Hunt. When the Chiefs are hitting on all cylinders, they can beat the Patriots, as they did in Week 1. Through the first five weeks of the season and in Weeks 14 and 15, the Chiefs looked potent and capable of a real run in the postseason. The last two weeks, the rookie Hunt has found his footing again, rushing for 247 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 10 catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. In that stretch, he displayed his explosive running style and versatility seen at the start of the season. Credit goes to Hunt, who is second in the league in rushing yards, for finding himself again, but the offensive line got back on track, too, after a rough stretch in the middle of the season.
In its last two outings, the defense forced seven turnovers (five interceptions and two forced fumbles), held the Raiders scoreless through three quarters, and held a Chargers team, which had won four straight and averaged 32.8 points per game in that stretch, to just 13 points. The run defense also hunkered down, allowing just 70 yards against Oakland and 98 against LA. And in his return from one-game suspension, cornerback Marcus Peters intercepted Philip Rivers twice and did not allow a catch.
Why they could flop: Inconsistency and offensive line play. The team went 1-6 from Week 6 to Week 13, a slump that ended in three straight losses to the Giants (2-12), Bills (8-6), and Jets (5-9). The Chiefs lost those last three games by an average of 5.3 points, so they were winnable and Kansas City just did not take care of business.
During that seven-game stretch, quarterback Alex Smith threw four of his five interceptions, his completion percentage dipped five points below his season average, his passer rating fell 10 points below his season mark, and the offensive line gave up 12 of the 34 sacks on Smith. The ground game and offensive line performance were brutal, as Hunt was largely bottled up, averaging just 45.9 yards per game. In five of those games he was held under 50 yards, including 17 yards against the Bills.
If the midseason Chiefs show up in the playoffs, Kansas City will not make a postseason run.
Threat level: Low.
Current playoff position: No. 5 seed. The Titans sit ahead of the Bills and Ravens based on conference record. They have not lost at home since Week 1 and play their final two games in Nashville, although their final two contests are against two of the hottest teams in the league.
Final two opponents: vs. LA Rams, vs. Jacksonville.
Why they’re a threat: No huddle offense and run defense. To open against the 49ers, Marcus Mariota and the offense gained 72 yards on 18 plays. Then they switched to the no-huddle, in which Mariota excels, scoring 17 points over the next three drives as they gained 225 yards on 32 plays, according to ESPN. Mariota’s teammates wondered after the narrow loss why they didn’t operate primarily in the no-huddle, when Mariota has more control over the play calls.
Just four times this season has an opponent rushed for more than 100 yards against the Titans and only once in the their last nine games. They rank third in rush yards per game (87.2) and yards per carry (3.5).
Why they could flop: Slow starts and turnovers. The Titans are 6-1 this season when they score first and 2-5 when they don’t. Over the last four games, they have scored just nine first-quarter points (all against the Colts in Week 12) and have averaged just 8.25 points per first half. They have gone 2-2 in that stretch.
The Titans’ 16 interceptions, 14 by Mariota, are tied for fourth-most in the league. They have lost seven fumbles, leaving them with a minus-7 turnover margin, which ranks 26th.
Make your reads: 1) Do the Titans have the best chance with Marcus Mariota calling plays in no-huddle offense? 2) Titans should relish the chance to prove everyone wrong.
Threat level: Low.
Current playoff position: No. 6 seed.
Final two opponents: at New England, at Miami.
Why they’re a threat: Scrappy play against the Patriots. They run the ball well (129.1 yards per game, sixth in the league), leaning on zone blocking and utilizing the athleticism of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy. They do a decent job in taking care of the ball and taking it away. Their plus-seven turnover margin is tied with the Patriots and Chargers for fifth in the league; their 16 interceptions are tied for fourth-most and 15 forced fumbles are tied for fifth-most.
Why they could flop: Tomato cans, to borrow a Dan Shaughnessy phrase.
Make your reads: At 8-6, Bills have several paths to snap 17-year playoff drought.
Threat level: Moderate.
Current playoff position: In the hunt for the No. 6 seed. If the Ravens beat the Colts this week, they jump into the No. 6 seed.
Final two opponents: vs. Indianapolis, vs. Cincinnati.
Why they’re a threat: The Ravens are not afraid of the Patriots, and they know how to beat them in the postseason. The Ravens have won four of their last five, playing good football at the right time of year. The lone loss was to the Steelers by one point. In that span, the defense has forced 15 turnovers and quarterback Joe Flacco has completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 1,150 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Ravens lead the league in interceptions (22) and total takeaways (33) and are tied for seventh in sacks (38.0). Punter Sam Koch leads the NFL in punts inside the 20 (37).
Why they could flop: Breaking stride. Baltimore hasn’t played pretty the last few weeks, but they have played gritty and well enough to put their playoff fate in their own hands. However, whether they keep it all together come playoff time is another matter. “There are still questions about the Ravens’ downfield passing attack and quarterback Joe Flacco’s accuracy,” The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston wrote. “There are still concerns about the Ravens’ pass defense without No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith. And whether it can mount a consistent pass rush from their front four.”
Make your reads: 1) ‘Joe Cool’ showing signs of heating up at his usual (playoff) time for Ravens. 2) Ravens remain on path to playoffs, thanks to NFL’s best big-play defense.
Follow Rachel G. Bowers on Twitter @RachelGBowers.