It's that time of the year! We are now entering the NFL playoffs and, luckily for Kansas City Chiefs fans, KC has the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye! As a result, we get to watch the six other AFC playoff teams compete for the right to join the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
Of these six teams, there are only two who could not play the Chiefs in the Divisional Round: the No. 2 Buffalo Bills, led by quarterback and rightful MVP contender Josh Allen, and No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers, led by the league's top defense in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play.
So who are these other four teams that could be coming to Arrowhead next week?
No. 4 Seed: Tennessee Titans
First up, we have the team that the Chiefs beat in last year's AFC Championship Game, the Tennessee Titans. The Titans are led on offense by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver A.J. Brown, three players who are truly some of the better players at their respective positions. They are joined by tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Corey Davis, who are also having good seasons, combining for 1,432 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Titans started the season 5-0, but then regression hit hard, as they lost three out of four games after (lost to the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts; defeated the Bears). After that skid, though, the Titans bounced back with a 30-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens and a 45-26 win over the Colts. They clinched the AFC South in Week 17 by beating the Houston Texans 41-38 in dramatic fashion.
The Titans finished the regular season ranked first in EPA per run (0.095) and fourth in EPA per dropback (0.295), one of two teams to finish top five in both EPA per run and EPA per dropback. The other just so happens to be the Chiefs, who finished second in both with a 0.317 EPA per dropback and a 0.082 EPA per run. The combination of Tannehill, Henry and Brown is clearly one of the NFL's very best offensive trios.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, there is one huge weakness for the Titans, and that is their defense. It's not really a big secret either, their fanbase is quite vocal on Twitter about their displeasure with their defense, and rightfully so. They finished the season ranked 28th in overall EPA allowed per play (0.139) and 29th in EPA allowed per dropback (0.244). The Titans also have eight different players who have allowed at least three touchdowns in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), including five different cornerbacks. In contrast, the Chiefs only have four players who have allowed at least three touchdowns in coverage (Bashaud Breeland with five, Daniel Sorensen with four, Juan Thornhill with three and Charvarius Ward with three).
The Titans will have a tough matchup on their hands with a rematch with the Ravens, but they could have had a much worse outcome, especially if they didn't win the AFC South, where they could have finished as the No. 7 seed and faced the Buffalo Bills or even missed the playoffs entirely. Speaking of which, our next team...
No. 5 Seed: Baltimore Ravens
It has been a wild season for the Ravens. They started the season as expected, with a 4-1 record and a +73 point differential in their first five games with their lone loss coming to the Chiefs. After that, things went south quickly with a two-point win against the Eagles, a loss to the Steelers and a three-game losing streak to the Patriots, Titans and Steelers over a six-game span. At that point, they had dug themselves into a 6-5 hole and had a wildly uncertain future ahead.
Then, with a 7-5 record, they got into one of the best games of the season with the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football, where they had a big lead, lost it, had quarterback Lamar Jackson in the locker room and Trace McSorley under center as the time was ticking away. Then, like a superhero, Jackson returned to the field just in time for a 4th-and-5 with two minutes remaining and threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown to take the lead. After the Browns responded with a touchdown of their own to tie it, Jackson came up clutch again with four passes for 38 yards to set up a Justin Tucker 55-yard field goal to win it.
Since then, the Ravens played three really easy games against the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals and won all three comfortably to finish with an 11-5 record.
The Ravens offense finished the season seventh in overall EPA per play (0.129) and they continued to be a top rushing offense, finishing the regular season in third in EPA per rush (0.080). The passing offense lagged behind it though, finishing 12th in EPA per dropback (0.176).
As for the defense, they were quite good this season, finishing the season eighth in overall EPA allowed per play (0.005). They also finished in the top ten in both EPA allowed per rush (-0.085, ninth) and EPA allowed per dropback (0.057, eighth), so they are a good all-around defense too.
This chart really makes the Ravens one of the top teams in the league, being the seventh-ranked offense and eighth-ranked defense in EPA per play. This makes them one of four teams to finish in the top ten in both offensive EPA per play and defensive EPA per play, along with the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks. If Lamar Jackson can have a great playoff run, this team could absolutely make some serious noise over the next month.
No. 6 Seed: Cleveland Browns
What a time to be alive! The Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002! Unfortunately for them, they are already dealing with some difficulties in advance of their playoff game in Pittsburgh against the Steelers, losing head coach Kevin Stefanski for the game due to a positive COVID-19 test, but Stefanski himself seems to believe that his absence won't be too damaging for the team's performance.
The Browns are 11-5, but most of those five losses are a really bad look for them, such as a 38-6 loss to the Ravens, a 38-7 loss to the Steelers, a 16-6 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders and a 23-16 loss to the New York Jets! On the other hand, really only a couple of their wins were a great look for them, with those wins being a 32-23 win over the Colts and a 41-35 win over the Titans. This doesn't mean that the Browns aren't one of the best teams in the AFC, but it could signal that they aren't a real threat to the Chiefs.
The Browns' offense seems legit. They finished the regular season ranked sixth in overall EPA per play (0.159), EPA per dropback (0.250) and EPA per rush (0.032). Baker Mayfield has been pretty good this season, and it helps to have all of the weapons he has, with running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, wide receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight ends Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant and David Njoku. On top of that, he has a great offensive line to work with, Wyatt Teller, Joel Bitonio (who will not play against the Steelers due to COVID), J.C. Tretter and Jack Conklin. For their fanbase's sake, I hope that this weekend is one to remember for Browns fans, and they certainly have the offense to make that happen.
Besides a bad Baker Mayfield performance, this is what can hold the Browns back. Their defense is ranked 18th in overall EPA allowed per play (0.057) and they are 19th in EPA allowed per dropback (0.131). With cornerback Denzel Ward and both of their top linebackers (Malcolm Smith and B.J. Goodson) out due to COVID and edge defender Olivier Vernon out due to a ruptured Achilles suffered in Week 17, their defense will also be weaker than it was in the regular season when they face the Steelers. They will need some of their top defensive pieces, such as Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Karl Joseph, Terrance Mitchell and Adrian Clayborn, to step up big in the coming game(s).
No. 7 Seed: Indianapolis Colts
The last team in the AFC side of the playoffs are the Colts, led by a familiar face for Chiefs fans, Phillip Rivers. His top weapons this season are T.Y. Hilton, their top receiver for many years now, and Jonathan Taylor, who is in dominant form at the moment. Taylor, the rookie running back out of Wisconsin, has had 723 yards and eight touchdowns over his last five games. The offensive line, led by Quenton Nelson, has obviously been a big factor in this stretch, but Taylor himself has also been outstanding, avoiding 29 tackles over 97 carries during this five-game stretch. As a result, Taylor has the second-highest rushing grade (90.5) from PFF during this period, only trailing the Titans' Derrick Henry (91.1).
The Colts, like every other team here, finished with an 11-5 record and they made it all the way to Week 17 in their pursuit for the AFC South title and a home playoff game. Unfortunately for them, they can only really point the finger at themselves, as they lost the first game of the season in a stunner against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That was the only game that the Jaguars won all season long, as they finished 1-15 and they now have the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The wild reality for the Colts is that their best win is just as good as their worst loss is bad. They faced the Green Bay Packers back in Week 11 and they pulled off an incredible comeback, going from down 28-14 to going up 31-28 in about 14 minutes of game time. After the Packers forced overtime, they won the coin toss, but they threw it away after a Marquez Valdes-Scantling fumble immediately gave the Colts the ball in field goal range. The Colts pulled it off, winning the game with a Rodrigo Blankenship 39-yard field goal.
The Colts have undoubtedly the worst offense of the four teams here, ranked 12th in overall EPA per play (0.084), being the only team not ranked in the top 10 for offensive EPA per play of the four. While Taylor and the Colts' rushing offense has been great lately, its season ranking has been much more disappointing, ranked 13th in EPA per rush (-0.035). The one thing they are ranked top 10 for on offense is EPA per dropback, but they are still merely 10th there (0.200), which still trails both the Titans and Browns by a large margin.
When people talk about the danger of the Colts in these playoffs, it's likely that the first thing that would be mentioned is their defense. Early in the season, that was true. In the first five weeks of the season, the Colts' defense was third in EPA allowed per play (-0.070), only trailing the Buccaneers and Steelers. However, in the 12 weeks since then, they have flatlined. Since Week 6, the Colts defense is 20th in EPA allowed per play (0.074). As a result, they finished the season as the 14th ranked defense in EPA allowed per play (0.035). This is not a defense to be fearful of anymore. In fact, it's a defense that the Chiefs should feel highly confident against.
Who should Chiefs fans want the most and the least?
Based on the teams available, the team I would want the most here are the lowest seed, the Indianapolis Colts. Phillip Rivers is probably the worst quarterback of the four, their weapons are pretty weak and the defense is no longer one of the elite defenses like they were in the early part of the season. This would have a second major benefit as well, as they face the No. 2-seeded Bills, who I would consider the clear greatest threat to the Chiefs making it to Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV.
The team I would want the least is the highest seed here, the Tennessee Titans. Ryan Tannehill is the best quarterback of the group, as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL in each of the last two seasons. Their weapons, such as A.J. Brown, Derrick Henry, Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis, are all dangerous players to deal with for the Chiefs' defense. Thankfully, the Titans' defense is quite poor, but I would still rather face a good offense and good defense like Baltimore's than an elite offense and a poor defense like Tennessee's. I would have considered Cleveland here as well, but the number of players they are missing and could miss next week would really make them more desirable to play than they would be if they were fully healthy.