NASHVILLE – Mike Vrabel said it multiple times in the days leading up to the end of the NFL’s 2021 regular season. Winning takes care of everything.
With their 28-25 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans took care of one significant piece of business. They clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC with no regard for what happened in any of the day’s other contests. That meant they earned homefield advantage throughout the conference championship and a bye into the divisional round.
The same was not true for other franchises such as Pittsburgh, New England, Las Vegas and the Los Angeles Chargers, teams whose seeding – or their very playoff lives – hinged upon what happened elsewhere.
“They don’t give you a hat or t-shirt or anything like that, but we understand … we have moved on to the second round of the playoffs without having to play a playoff game,” Vrabel said Sunday. “We have to take advantage of the time and we have to be great as coaches, be great on our training staff, our physical therapy, and strength and conditioning. We will allow these guys to have some time off, heal, and then get to work.”
Ultimately, the lineup behind the Titans was not set until the final contest of the season, a win-and-in matchup between the Raiders and Chargers.
Here is a team-by-team look at the AFC playoff field, in order of their seeding:
1. TENNESSEE (12-5)
They needed 91 different players over the course of 17 games to navigate a season in which they endured an inordinate number of injuries, most notably the broken foot that cost running back Derrick Henry the final nine games. A seven-game win streak that started in mid-October included six straight against 2020 playoff teams.
Key statistic: 84.6 rushing yards allowed per game. That ranked second in the NFL, and the only time during the Titans era (1999-present) the defense did better in that regard was 2003, a season that concluded with 10 wins in the final 11 games.
Player of note: Kevin Byard, free safety. He is one of three members of the defense who started every game, and he is the franchise’s first player since linebacker Greg Bingham in 1982, to lead the team in tackles and interceptions (Bingham tied for the lead with one interception). Byard finished with 88 tackles and five interceptions.
2. KANSAS CITY (12-5)
A 27-3 loss to the Titans in Week 7 was the catalyst for a major turnaround. Kansas City won its next eight and nine of its final 10, which forced Tennessee to defeat Houston in Week 18 in order to claim the top seed in the conference. Kansas City has won at least 10 games in seven straight seasons and has finished first in the AFC West each of the last six years.
Key statistic: 52.2 percent third-down conversion rate. That is the best in the NFL this season and the first time since New Orleans in 2011 that a team finished better than 50 percent. The Chiefs’ offense converted 60 percent or better in six games.
Player of note: Travis Kelce, tight end. Over the past six seasons he has caught 565 passes, the most by a tight end over that span. In fact, his total is 106 more than the next most productive tight end during the same period. In the last two postseasons (six games) he has added 50 receptions and seven touchdown catches.
3. BUFFALO (11-6)
Buffalo followed up its 2020 division title with another, which makes this the first time since 1988-91 they finished on top in consecutive seasons. They made it to the AFC Championship game last season and looked very much like a Super Bowl contender when they won four in a row and scored at least 35 points in each early in the year. They responded to a mid-season slump with victories in their final four.
Key statistic: 2 shutouts. The Bills are the only NFL team to hold more than one opponent scoreless this season – and they did so emphatically with a 40-0 victory over Houston in Week 2 and a 35-0 triumph over Miami two weeks later. They also thumped New Orleans 31-6. Not surprisingly, their point differential of plus-194 led the NFL.
Player of note: Josh Allen, quarterback. He has 101 touchdown passes and 31 rushing touchdowns for his career, which makes him the first player in NFL history with at least 100 and 30, respectively, in his first four seasons. He also joined Cam Newton as the only quarterbacks ever with at least five rushing touchdowns in each of their first four years.
4. CINCINNATI (10-7)
With three wins in their final four games the Bengals went from worst-to-first, which made this the 17th of the last 19 seasons that at least one NFL team accomplished the feat. It was a big jump given that Cincinnati brought up the rear in the AFC North each of the previous three seasons and had just six victories in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Key statistic: 12 plays of 50-plus yards (source: TryMedia). That is the most in the NFL and twice as many as any other AFC playoff team (Tennessee is next with six). Quarterback Joe Burrow had at least one completion of 50 yards or more in eight different games, including each of his last three.
Player of note: Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver. He set an NFL rookie record with 1,455 receiving yards (he actually broke the record in 16 games) and is the first rookie – the fifth player ever – with multiple 200-yard receiving games in a season. His 266 in Week 17 against Kansas City are the most in a single game by a rookie.
5. LAS VEGAS (10-7)
The Raiders overcame an unexpected midseason coaching change to earn their first playoff appearance in their new home and their first since 2016. Jon Gruden resigned on Oct. 11 amid an email scandal. Vegas soon lost five of six from mid-November to mid-December but closed out the season with four straight victories, including head-to-head triumphs over the Chargers and Indianapolis, the first two AFC teams on the outside looking in.
Key statistic: 15 takeaways. That is the fewest among all playoff teams and Las Vegas’ minus-9 turnover ratio is worst among all of this year’s postseason participants in either conference (Tennessee is next at minus-3). The defense forced one turnover in six games from Nov. 25-Jan. 2, yet the Raiders won four of those contests. Before Sunday, they had multiple takeaways in a game just three times, the last in Week 7.
Player of note: Maxx Crosby, defensive line. A first-time Pro Bowler in his third season, he led the NFL with 91 quarterback pressures, which was a little more than one for every 10 snaps he played (per Pro Football Focus). Those pressures resulted in eight sacks and 30 hits on the quarterback. Only five others across the league had at least 30.
6. NEW ENGLAND (10-7)
The Patriots are back in the playoffs after their run of 11 straight appearances (and division titles) ended last season. However, this is the first time under coach Bill Belichick that they got in without winning their division. With a Week 17 victory over Jacksonville, Belichick joined Don Shula as the only coaches in NFL history with 20 seasons of 10 wins or more. Each has exactly 20.
Key statistic: 50 points scored. New England became the first team since the 2014 Green Bay Packers to score at least 50 points in two games (Dallas did the same with its victory over Philadelphia on Saturday). There was a 54-13 victory over the New York Jets and a 50-10 rout of the Jaguars. The Patriots have three of the league’s eight most lopsided wins this season.
Player of note: J.C. Jackson, cornerback. He finished second in the league with eight interceptions, his third-straight season with at least five, and led the NFL with 23 passes defended. He has 25 interceptions for his career, which makes him the fourth player of the Super Bowl era with at least 25 in his first four NFL seasons.
7. PITTSBURGH (9-7-1)
The Steelers are the obvious sentimental choice as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger approaches the end of his career. They added to the drama with a come-from-behind Week 18 win, 16-13 in overtime against Baltimore, after a 26-14 victory a week earlier against Cleveland in what likely was Roethlisberger’s final home game.
Key statistic: 169 points scored in the fourth quarter. That is the most in the NFL and accounts for 49.3 percent of their total (they also got six in overtime, courtesy of a pair of field goals). Pittsburgh’s next highest-scoring quarter is the second with 77 points. Not surprisingly, Roethlisberger leads all quarterbacks with seven game-winning drives this season.
Player of note: T.J. Watt, outside linebacker. He tied the NFL’s single-season record with 22.5 sacks and made it three years in a row he has led the league in a notable statistic. His 15 sacks in 2020 topped the list in that regard as did his eight forced fumbles in 2019. He notched multiple sacks in eight of the 14 games he played this season and at least half a sack in 11 contests.