The AFC playoff field may be underwhelming and top heavy, but the process it took to formulate the final six was beautiful—a manic late slate capped off by a 49-yard touchdown pass from the hapless, out-of-contention Bengals with 53 seconds to play to beat the Ravens. So Baltimore is sitting at home, and the Bills, who did what they needed to do by beating the Dolphins in Miami, are going dancing for the first time since 1999, when Wade Phillips was head coach and Doug Flutie was the team’s leading passer.
The Titans also played their way in with an ugly win over the Jaguars, who insisted on fielding all starters on Sunday.
But … back to Baltimore. On a fourth-and-12, Andy Dalton lined up in the shotgun with three wide receivers split out and two bodies in the backfield for protection. Sensing a bit of pressure from the outside, Dalton stepped up and dropped one of the finest passes of his career just over the outstretched hand of C.J. Mosley. There was a window of about two yards between Eric Weddle and Maurice Canaday that Tyler Boyd snuck into. After he turned toward the goal line, it was a foot race between Boyd and Canaday. On the sideline, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh had the look of a man trying to figure out how he’d explain what happened to his superiors.
Outside of Patriots games this January, the AFC games will not be aesthetically pleasing matchups, but for those who crave defensive, almost SEC-style football, this side of the postseason might be the more enjoyable. Jacksonville and Buffalo face off in the first round in what promises to be a brutal throwback fistfight. The winner gets to do it a week later against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Top wild-card matchup
Tennessee at Kansas City. Mike Mularkey has dealt with a lot on the injury front this season, but there’s no doubt his window-dressing offense has lost a bit of panache from last season’s stunning turnaround. The hope is that we get the best from Mularkey and Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy—both of whom prefer a mixture of downhill running and collegiate-style zone concepts. The Chiefs were a breath of fresh air this season, much like the Titans were a year ago, and seeing a divergence from the typical pro-style game will be a nice break in the old-fashioned AFC.
New England. The Steelers are banged up and are the only team that pose a significant threat -- unless Jacksonville can stun teams offensively in the post season. This is an obvious choice; New England has the easiest road because they are the best prepared and most talented team in the division. They are also relatively healthy at a time when teams are seriously reeling. The Bills will struggle to get top weapon LeSean McCoy on the field. The Steelers will be rushing Antonio Brown back to game play after a serious calf injury sustained in December's thrilling loss to the Patriots. Those betting against New England have to also believe that a rapidly improving defense and likely MVP winner will falter at the hands of a scattered field of incomplete teams.
Jacksonville. A less offensively thrilling version of the Super Bowl XLVIII-champion Seahawks? There wasn’t much Doug Marrone was putting on display in a loss to the Titans on Sunday, but Jacksonville’s offense has been good enough at scoring during the regular season and could hit that point again. This is a complete defense that can cause serious damage in cold-weather playoff games; a much higher-voltage version of the quarterbackless Texans, who could have easily upended the Patriots in Foxborough last year with a little help from their passing game.