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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Except for Chiefs, coast is pretty clear for Patriots in AFC playoffs

barry chin/globe staff

The Chiefs had the last laugh in Week 1, beating the Patriots, 42-27.

By Globe Staff 

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The AFC playoff field wasn’t set until 7:30 Sunday night, when the final two wild-card spots were claimed.

And wouldn’t you know it, it all played out perfectly for the Patriots.

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Four teams battled for those two wild cards. Two of them — the Ravens and Chargers — could conceivably come into Gillette Stadium and give the Patriots trouble, if not win outright. The other two — the Titans and Bills — are just happy to be in the postseason and don’t scare the Patriots at all.

Naturally, the Titans and Bills sneaked into the playoffs with the fifth and sixth seeds, while the Ravens and Chargers will be watching the playoffs from their couches.

Now Patriots fans don’t have to worry about John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco ruining their January, or Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram tossing Tom Brady around like a rag doll. Instead, the Patriots could face a struggling Titans offense or a third matchup with Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor.

The Patriots have the No. 1 seed, and historically it treats them well. They have reached the Super Bowl on five of the six occasions when they have earned the top seed under Bill Belichick, including 2014 and 2016.

Can anyone in the AFC stop the Patriots’ march to Minneapolis? Probably not. But here’s how we rank the field:

1. CHIEFS

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Regular-season record: 10-6.

Seed: 4.

Would play Patriots in: Divisional round.

The Chiefs stumbled in October and November, losing six out of seven games in one stretch. But don’t sleep on this team.

The Chiefs have bounced back nicely with a four-game winning streak to end the season, and have all of the elements to give the Patriots a tough game in Foxborough.

They protect the football, with only 11 giveaways this season, fewest in the NFL. They win the turnover battle — second in the league at plus-15, with 12 turnovers created in their last four games alone. They have a dynamite running back, with Kareem Hunt rushing for 1,327 yards and averaging a healthy 4.9 yards per carry. They have speed mismatches in Hunt (11 total touchdowns) and Tyreek Hill (1,183 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns), and a dominant tight end in Travis Kelce (1,038 yards, 8 touchdowns).

Justin Houston has 9½ sacks. The Chiefs have physical cornerbacks who can press at the line of scrimmage (which the Patriots have struggled with for the past month-plus).

barry chin/globe staff

Tyreek Hill had 133 receiving yards and a touchdown in Week 1.

And Andy Reid’s team always gives the Patriots problems. Two of their worst losses in the Belichick era have come against Reid and the Chiefs over the last four years.

The Chiefs are well-coached, disciplined, and use a ton of presnap motions, shifts, bunch formations, and other elements that the Patriots have struggled with all year.

And last but certainly not least, the Chiefs came into Gillette just four months ago and pounded the snot out of the Patriots, 42-27.

The Patriots will likely see the Chiefs in the divisional round. It won’t be an easy game by any stretch.

2. STEELERS

Regular-season record: 13-3.

Seed: 2.

Would play Patriots in: AFC Championship game.

They continue to be a punch line here in New England. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers have lost five in a row to the Patriots, and even when they finally play the Patriots tough, they trip all over themselves and hand the game away in embarrassing fashion.

But don’t forget that the Steelers enter the playoffs having won 10 of their last 11 games, and it easily could have been all 11. Antonio Brown should be back from his calf injury for the playoffs, though his effectiveness is in question. The Steelers did control most of the Week 15 game against New England, possessing the football for 35:07. Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell can score from anywhere on the field. And the defense surprisingly led the league in sacks with 56.

But ultimately, the Steelers just don’t match up well with the Patriots. Specifically, they don’t have the personnel to handle Rob Gronkowski. They tried playing press-man coverage the entire game on Gronk and the other receivers, and he still lit them up for 168 receiving yards. Whether they play zone or man, the Steelers don’t have the size at linebacker or safety to stop Gronkowski.

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The Steelers had no answer for Rob Gronkowski in Week 15.

The Patriots also should have Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead, James White, and maybe Alan Branch back. I just don’t see the Steelers coming into Gillette and winning a rematch.

3. JAGUARS

Regular-season record: 10-6.

Seed: 3.

Would play Patriots in: AFC Championship game.

This is the darling “sleeper” team for those looking to pick someone other than the Patriots. But if the Jaguars do make it to the AFC Championship, they aren’t built to win in New England.

No doubt, the Jaguars have a nasty defense. They finished No. 2 in points allowed (16.8 per game), total defense, and sacks (55). They can get pressure without blitzing, with Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, and Malik Jackson combining for 42½ sacks (the Patriots as a team had 42). They have a physical and talented secondary, with A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, and Tashaun Gipson combining for 14 interceptions.

But I don’t see how the Jaguars can function on offense against the Patriots. They have a decent running game led by Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging a good-but-not-great 3.9 yards per carry. And they did a good job of protecting and minimizing quarterback Blake Bortles; the Jaguars’ 527 rushing attempts led the NFL.

But Bortles is going to have to make plays and protect the football to beat the Patriots, and he does neither. The Jaguars enter the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, turning the ball over seven times in those games. And this is a season-long trend; the Jaguars’ 23 giveaways are second-most among playoff teams.

stephen b. morton/AP

Fourth-year quarterback Blake Bortles had 21 TD passes and 13 interceptions this season.

The Jaguars also aren’t quite as tough on the road, finishing with a 4-4 road record and losing at San Francisco two weeks ago, 44-33.

The Jacksonville defense could make life tough for Brady, but they’re far too one-dimensional on offense. There’s just no way Bortles is going to be able to piece together multiple 10-play drives and finish with touchdowns instead of turnovers against the Patriots.

4. BILLS

Regular-season record: 9-7.

Seed: 6.

Would play Patriots in: Divisional round.

The Patriots won both matchups this season, by a cumulative score of 60-19. But this won’t be a cakewalk. The Bills actually led, 16-13, in the third quarter two weeks ago before packing it in. Sean McDermott’s defense was feisty in both games, holding Brady to 482 passing yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

The problem, as always, is the quarterback play. Taylor wasn’t able to make any plays with his arm in the two games, and the Patriots contained Buffalo’s explosive running game. There’s little reason to think that the Bills would be able to keep pace with the Patriots and score 20-plus points at Gillette.

matthew j. lee/globe staff

Malcolm Butler strips Tyrod Taylor of the ball in Week 16.

Also, the whole “it’s tough to beat a team three times in one season” angle might be a bit overplayed. Since the 2002 realignment, teams are 4-2 in the third matchup after sweeping their opponent in the regular season.

5. TITANS

Regular-season record: 9-7.

Seed: 5.

Would play Patriots in: Divisional round.

There’s just not much to like about this team. The Titans have the most turnovers of any playoff team (25) and the worst turnover differential (minus-4). They lost three of their last four games, and were 3-5 on the road.

Marcus Mariota had just 13 touchdown passes against 15 interceptions, finishing 27th in passer rating (79.3). Running back DeMarco Murray has a third-degree MCL tear and his status is unclear. And the defense is average, finishing 17th in points allowed and 21st in takeaways. Their pass rush produced 43 sacks, but they don’t have a dominant edge rusher.

Mariota and the Titans took a small step forward by finally reaching the playoffs, but they aren’t ready to take on the Patriots yet.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.