Chiefs atop AFC playoff puzzle for 1st time since 1997
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
For the first time in a decade, the top seed in the AFC playoffs goes to a team not led by Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
The Kansas City Chiefs earned the No. 1 seed for the first time since 1997 after switching from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes , the sensational second-year star who reminds so many of Brett Favre.
The New England Patriots lost five times on the road but still managed to win their customary first-round bye, slipping past the Houston Texans to earn a week off to rest for the 10th consecutive year.
They’re the only teams back in the AFC playoffs following a year of comebacks.
The Texans return from a year’s absence thanks to the remarkable rebounds of J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson . The Chargers rode a refined Philip Rivers to their first playoff berth in five years, and the Colts crashed the playoff party for the first time since 2014 behind Andrew Luck’s rousing return .
The Colts visit the Texans on Saturday in the wild-card round, and on Sunday the Chargers play at Baltimore, where the Ravens ended a four-year drought by rallying behind Lamar Jackson , the last of the “Big Five” rookie QBs drafted in the first round, but the first to make it to the playoffs.
Strength and weakness of each of the six AFC playoff teams:
1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (12-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 4. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.
SHOOTOUT: The Chiefs haven’t had a true franchise QB since Len Dawson led them to their only Super Bowl title. But after letting him learn the ropes under Alex Smith, Mahomes broke out with one of the best seasons in NFL history for a first-year starter (5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns ). K.C. scored at least 26 points in every game, the only team ever to do so.
STRIKEOUT: The defense is a dud. Their four losses this season came when they put forth as much resistance as tissue paper: shootout losses to the Rams, Patriots and Seahawks and a fourth-quarter meltdown against the Chargers. Of course, those are all playoff-bound teams. Don’t forget on offense the ouster of RB Kareem Hunt , who had 14 TDs. The Chiefs have gone 3-2 since cutting last year’s rushing champ.
SHOUTOUT: “I always feel like there is a bull’s-eye every week, and that’s OK. That’s the way you want it. We’ve earned the right to be in this position.” — Coach Andy Reid.
2. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 5 (tie). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 51, 34-28, OT, over Atlanta on Feb. 5, 2017.
FAR OUT: At 41, he finally showed signs of age this season. But having Tom Brady on their roster makes the Patriots a title contender. Coming off an MVP season, Brady fell off — by his lofty standards — with 4,355 yards, 29 TDs and 11 interceptions. Getting a week off to rest is important because the Patriots have not been a wild-card team since 2009, when they were blown out by Baltimore.
FLAME OUT: Every time Brady has won a Super Bowl ring, he had a star-studded defense helping him. The Patriots have given up 30 or more points five times this season, going 2-3. They haven’t been able to get to the quarterback like last year, when they were tied for seventh in the league with 42 sacks. This season, they tied for 30th with just 30 sacks.
SHOUTOUT: “11-5 is nothing to be sad about. I mean, we fought pretty hard and put ourselves in a decent position here, and now we’ve got to go try to take advantage of it.” — Brady.
3. HOUSTON TEXANS (11-5). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 7. No Lombardis.
ROUT: QB Deshaun Watson is healthy again as evidenced by his eight TD throws and no interceptions in the last six games while running for 276 yards and four TDs. DeAndre Hopkins was second in the NFL with a career-high 1,572 yards receiving. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney combined for 25 sacks and 34 tackles for loss. Watt also forced seven fumbles after playing just eight games over two injury-shortened seasons.
POUT: The Texans enter the playoffs thin at receiver behind Hopkins after losing Will Fuller (knee) midseason and Demaryius Thomas , a trade deadline pickup from Denver, to a torn Achilles tendon last month. There is also concern about the porous O-line after Watson was sacked an NFL-leading 62 times this season. That kind of duress can negate any franchise QB. Adding to the pressure is a less-than-impressive ground game.
SHOUTOUT: “This team is one of the few teams to come back from 0-3 and to qualify for the playoffs and win the division. We have a tough football team.” — Coach Bill O’Brien.
4. BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-6). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 9. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 47, 34-31 over San Francisco on Feb. 1, 2013.
BREAKOUT: The Ravens are dangerous if rookie QB Lamar Jackson shows the same poise he displayed in leading Baltimore on a 6-1 streak after taking over from an injured Joe Flacco. With Jackson efficiently operating the run-pass option , Baltimore controlled the clock and the rested defense manhandled opponents. John Harbaugh’s Ravens boast the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack and No. 1 defense.
DROPOUT: Baltimore beat the Chargers in L.A. on Dec. 22, but QB Philip Rivers should be ready for the rematch against a defense that last week was burned by Baker Mayfield for 376 yards and three TDs. Jackson ran for nearly 700 yards, but with only one career game of 200 yards passing, there’s still some question whether he can bring Baltimore back from a deficit with his arm.
SHOUTOUT: “This is what a real team looks like. They block out all the outside, turn to each other for strength and are there for one another. … This is the best team I’ve been around.” — Harbaugh.
5. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (12-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 5 (tie). No Lombardis. Lost Super Bowl 28 to San Francisco 49-26 in 1995.
CLOUT: Philip Rivers had a 105.5 passer rating in 2018, equaling his career best. Melvin Gordon had 1,309 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs and Austin Ekeler emerged as a change-of-pace back. Keenan Allen led the team in catches again but Mike Williams developed into another big-play receiver. The Chargers also aren’t fazed by hitting the road , where they were 7-1 with wins at Seattle, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
DOUBT: The Chargers head into the playoffs with only one healthy starter at linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown are out with season-ending injuries and their replacements are undersized, something opponents will certainly scheme to exploit. They’ve been outscored 43-14 in the first quarter of the past six games as Rivers has thrown an interception on the first drive in each of the last three games.
SHOUTOUT: “We just had to be in the playoffs. Our goal is to try to make a run and try to get to the Super Bowl.” — CB Casey Hayward Jr.
6. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 8. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 41, 29-17 over Chicago on Feb. 4, 2007.
BLOWOUT: The Comeback Colts got into the playoffs with a three-pronged combo they’ve rarely had: balanced offense, stout defense and championship-caliber QB. Andrew Luck came back from a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder with the best overall season of his career. The revamped O-line allowed a league-low 18 sacks and the Colts have allowed 16.4 points over last eight games.
BURNOUT: The Colts will spend the playoffs on the road with a roster that lacks much postseason experience. Only four players from Indy’s last playoff team in 2014 will be active Sunday: Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Castonzo and Adam Vinatieri. Take out three players who own Super Bowl rings — Vinatieri, Jabaal Sheard and Najee Goode — and the other 46 players on the roster have a total of six playoff wins.
SHOUTOUT: “That’s every team’s goal at the beginning of the season, to get into the dance, and we have climbed the mountain far enough to get into the playoffs. But our ultimate goals are still out there.” — Vinatieri.
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With contributions from AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta, Kyle Hightower, Kristie Rieken, Dave Ginsburg, Joe Reedy and Mike Marot.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton