A preview of AFC wild-card weekend as the No. 6 Steelers take on the No. 3 Bengals, and the No. 4 Texans host the No. 5 Chiefs.
And 17 weeks later, we're left with a total of 12 teams. On the AFC side of the 2016 NFL playoffs, the Broncos and Patriots have first-round byes, which leaves us with one divisional showdown between the Bengals and Steelers, and one less flashy, but still intriguing, matchup between two hot teams, the Texans and Chiefs. Here's a look at each game heading into the wild-card round. (And you can find our NFC wild-card primer here).
No. 6 Pittsburgh (10–6) at No. 3 Cincinnati (12–4)
Saturday, Jan. 9, 8:15 p.m. ET, (CBS): The Bengals were a couple of quarters from securing their Get Out of Jail Free card. Up 14–3 on Denver in Week 16, they would have been in position to land a first-round bye—possibly as the AFC's No. 1 seed—and to skip right past the wild-card round that has been their undoing each of the past four seasons.
Instead, Cincinnati let that lead get away. As a result, Marvin Lewis's team will be forced to fight its recent reputation as a playoff failure, in an opener against division rival Pittsburgh.
The Steelers could not be more thrilled to have the opportunity. They suffered through their own Week 16 nightmare, falling flat in an upset loss to Baltimore, and it wasn't until Buffalo closed out a win over the Jets on Sunday that Pittsburgh secured its postseason berth, becoming the last of 12 teams to claim a bid.
While there may be a few wrinkles in each team's game plan this coming week, there are no real mysteries.
“I think the people worry about the rematches, but when you know each other better that gives you a better opportunity for success,” OT Andrew Whitworth told Bengals.com. “You just see it in our series and in our division. We play each other tight. It’s a game you know each other.”
That is, except perhaps for the status of injured Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton. He was knocked from the lineup by a thumb injury suffered against these very Steelers in Week 14 and has been on the sideline since. A.J. McCarron replaced Dalton in that game (a 33–20 Steelers win) and completed 22-of-32 passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He has been up and down in the weeks that followed, including a second-half disappearing act by the entire Cincinnati offense during the Denver loss.
The Bengals' offense has been far less explosive through the air with McCarron in the lineup—he did not top 200 yards passing in any of his three starts. That's a problem in general, if Dalton cannot go, but doubly so against a Pittsburgh defense which held Cincinnati to an average of 70 yards rushing during a season-series split.
McCarron did get TE Tyler Eifert back in the mix Sunday, and the pair promptly connected on a touchdown pass. Eifert, A.J. Green and Cincinnati's passing attack could find some space against a suspect Steelers secondary, depending on how McCarron plays.
Pittsburgh has a little injury intrigue of its own leaving Week 17: RB DeAngelo Williams, who has thrived all season in place of Le'Veon Bell (MCL tear), left Sunday's win over Cleveland with an ankle injury. Should he not be available next weekend, the Steelers essentially would find themselves in a similar pinch to last year's wild-card round, when a separate Bell injury left them severely shorthanded at running back.
Of course, the Steelers will take much of their offense to the air. They can be lethal there, although Ben Roethlisberger has suffered with turnover issues. Their Week 17 win ran the full gamut, with Big Ben throwing for 349 yards and three TDs but also tacking on two bad interceptions.
The Steelers and Bengals have met just once in the playoffs. Both fan bases will remember the game well—Pittsburgh won at Cincinnati in the wild-card round, 31–17, after then-Bengals QB Carson Palmer suffered a major knee injury early.
No. 5 Kansas City (11–5) at No. 4 Houston (9–7)
Saturday, Jan. 9, 4:35 p.m. ET, (ABC): If you are a fan of up-tempo, high-scoring playoff football, well ... there are three other games next weekend.
Granted, the Chiefs have shown the ability to light up the scoreboard at times this season—during wins two through six of their current 10-game win streak, they averaged 34.2 points. Both of these teams lean on their defenses, though, and their pass rushes in particular, which sets the stage for a knock-'em-down, drag-'em-out affair.
J.J. Watt is the marquee attraction for Houston. When the two teams met ages ago, in Week 1, Watt recorded two sacks; the Chiefs won the game, 27–20. Missing that afternoon was current Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher, who has turned in by far the best season of his three-year career. He'll no doubt see some help against Watt from Kansas City's tight ends and running backs, but how well he holds his own vs. Watt will be a critical storyline.
Alex Smith's running ability could come in handy, too. The Chiefs' QB rushed for 61 yards on nine carries vs. Oakland, bumping him up to 498 yards on the season. Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson even have dialed up some options runs to take better advantage of Smith's game.
The Week 1 matchup also marked Smith's lone three-touchdown game through the air this season. His streak of 312 passes without an interception ended Sunday (he threw back-to-back picks), but Smith has had far more success getting the ball downfield of late.
Houston could have its hands full on defense. It might be in big trouble on offense. The Texans lost standout left tackle Duane Brown to a torn quad Sunday, forcing them to turn to backup Chris Clark. Meanwhile, the Chiefs' dynamic front seven is close to being healthy again—Tamba Hali played vs. Oakland and Justin Houston has been targeting a return from injury for Round 1.
A matchup between Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Chiefs cornerback/Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Marcus Peters could be among the best of what Wild Card Weekend has to offer. Hopkins did not miss a beat this season, regardless of whether it was Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates or Brandon Weeden at QB. He and Hoyer connected seven times for 89 yards vs. Jacksonville on Sunday.
Houston will be making its third playoff appearance since entering the league in 2002, and it's 2–0 in postseason openers.
The Chiefs are on a six-game playoff losing streak, dating back to 1994. Their last playoff win came during the 1993 season's divisional round, when they knocked off Houston's previous franchise, the Oilers.