The Key AFC Matchups to Watch During Super Wild Card Weekend
The AFC playoff picture went through several alterations over a 10-hour span this past Sunday afternoon, and it took until the last possible moment in the last game of the longest season in NFL history to set the field.
The day began with the Indianapolis Colts blowing a golden opportunity to secure a playoff spot with their confounding loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, opening the door for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers kept the door open with an overtime victory over the Ravens, but those playoff aspirations were nearly extinguished several hours later when it appeared the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers would tie, allowing them to each claim the final two wild-card spots.
But with the Raiders punching their ticket to the playoffs with a victory on Daniel Carlson’s 47-yard field goal on the final play of overtime on Sunday night, the final playoff berth was determined with no time left in OT in the last game of the season for the first time in NFL history.
But now take another deep breath because the NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend is upon us.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday, 3:30 ET, NBC)
Line: Bengals by 5.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Bengals 66%
Reasons to watch: Something will have to give as two of the franchises with the longest active droughts of playoff futility square off. The Bengals have the longest active streak since their last postseason victory at 30 seasons, last winning a 1990 wild-card game before losing to the Raiders in the next round. The Raiders have the fourth-longest active playoff drought at 18 years, with their last postseason victory coming over the Tennessee Titans in the 2002 AFC championship. While the Raiders have only been to the playoffs once since losing Super Bowl 37 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bengals have seven appearances since their last playoff win – including five trips since 2011 – with the team losing in the wild-card round each time.
There’s reason to believe this time could be different for the ill-fated Bengals.
Cincinnati’s march to the playoffs and its first AFC North crown since 2015 essentially began with a 32-13 victory at Las Vegas in Week 11. The team arrived in the desert coming out of a bye having dropped its previous two games, and the win over the Raiders propelled the Bengals to five victories over a seven-week span.
Prior to keeping Joe Burrow at home for the regular-season finale with the AFC North crown already wrapped up and the QB a bit banged-up, the Bengals’ offense was humming. Cincinnati rolled to a 575 total yards – its most since 1990 – in a 41-21 win over the Ravens in Week 16 and followed that up with 475 yards in a 34-31 comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs seven days later.
Burrow threw four TD passes without an interception in each of those games while completing 78.8% of his 85 attempts for 971 yards. It was the 49th instance of a QB throwing at least eight TD passes without a pick over a two-game span, but Burrow’s 971 passing yards were 109 more than the next-closest entry – Ben Roethlisberger in 2014.
Burrow’s former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase is one of the league’s most dangerous big-play threats and is the front-runner to win NFL Offensive Rooke of the Year after racking up 1,455 receiving yards – the most for a first-year player in the Super Bowl era.
Chase’s eight TD receptions of 20 or more yards are the most in the NFL and his average of 14.42 burn yards per target trails only Tyler Lockett’s average of 14.72 for the highest in the league, among those with at least 45 receptions. Chase averages 10.0 yards at the catch to create one of the most explosive tandems with Tee Higgins. Higgins’ average of 10.8 yards at the catch is the seventh highest in the league (min. 45 receptions), making the Bengals the only team with a pair of receivers with an average of 10.0 yards at the catch.
The offense will also have Joe Mixon – the league’s No. 3 runner with 1,205 rushing yards – as well as linemen Trey Hopkins and Quinton Spain back after they all missed the regular-season finale. Mixon had one of his best games of the season at Las Vegas on Nov. 21, rushing for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Raiders also entered the season’s first matchup with the Bengals riding a two-game skid and their season appeared to be spiralling out of control with the loss to Cincinnati. Las Vegas managed to stop the bleeding with an overtime win at Dallas the following week but appeared to be out of the playoff picture in Week 14, as it sat in last place in the AFC West at 6-7, coming off a 48-9 beatdown at the hands of the Chiefs.
The Raiders, though, managed to crawl back into the playoff conversation and sealed a berth with last week’s wild win over the Chargers, as they became the first team in NFL history to end the regular season with four straight victories by four points or fewer.
That’s been a theme all year in this strange season for the Raiders, whose wins have come by 6, 9, 3, 10, 11, 3, 2, 4, 3 and 3 points. In their seven losses they were outscored by 14, 11, 7, 27, 19, 2 and 39.
Add it all up and their minus-65 scoring differential is one of the worst by a playoff team in NFL history. The good news for the Raiders is the other teams who entered the playoffs with similar negative scoring differentials all won their wild-card games.
Vegas’ offense scored its most points since Week 12 in the season finale, but it still isn’t firing on all cylinders. After topping the 400-yard mark in each game while starting the season 3-0, Las Vegas has eclipsed 400 yards of total offense just four times since.
Derek Carr had season lows in completion percentage (55.6) and yards per attempt (5.17) in Week 18, but the Raiders managed to get the ground game going with Josh Jacobs rushing for a season-best 132 yards and a TD.
Like his Cincinnati counterpart, Carr will also be making his playoff debut – albeit he’s had a much longer wait. Only two QBs have had more starts than Carr’s 127 before making their first start in the playoffs and that was Fran Tarkenton (174) and John Brodie (134).
Key Matchup: Cincinnati’s Pass Protection vs. Las Vegas’ Pass Rush
A priority for the Bengals all season has been the health of Burrow after his 2020 rookie season was cut short when he suffered a torn left ACL and MCL in his 10th game. While Burrow has managed to avoid serious injury this season, he has taken a number of hits.
No player was sacked more times in the regular season than Burrow (51) and his 98 times knocked down were fourth most in the league. He has been sacked at least three times in each of his last five games – the longest stretch by a Bengal QB since Boomer Esiason was also sacked three or more times over a five-game span in 1985.
Burrow was sacked four times in the last game he played against the Chiefs and walked off the field with a limp due to an ailing right knee. The pinky finger on his throwing hand was also hurt, so the Bengals are hopeful after getting last week off to recover he’ll be closer to 100% in a matchup with a Raiders defense that has a knack for getting to the quarterback.
Las Vegas’ 108 QB knockdowns this season are fourth most in the NFL, with Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby registering 27 QB knockdowns and Yannick Ngakoue 23. The Raiders are just one of two teams along with the Arizona Cardinals to have two players record at least 20 QB knockdowns.
In the Week 11 meeting, Ngakoue set the tone early, registering a strip-sack of Burrow on the game’s sixth play. The Raiders ended up sacking Burrow twice more, and Burrow ended up with the fewest passing yards (148) and fewest yards per pass attempt (5.10) of his young career. Vegas’ Cover 3 also played a role in neutralizing Chase, who was limited to three receptions for 32 yards, while Tyler Boyd finished with six catches for 49 yards.
Overall, though, the Bengals’ offensive line did decent job of thwarting Vegas’ lethal pass rush. Crosby, whose 120 QB pressures were second most in the NFL to Aaron Donald’s 132, put pressure on Burrow just six times.
This time, right tackle Isiah Prince will be tasked with keeping Crosby off Burrow. Prince will be making his fourth straight start since taking over for the injured Riley Reiff, and he’s won 63.0% of his 73 one-on-one matchups. The league average for tackles is 78.4%. Crosby, meanwhile, is winning 45.6% of his one-on-one matchups and the league average for edge-rushers is 22.2%
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Saturday, 8:15 ET, CBS)
Line: Bills by 4
The Analyst Win Probability: Bills 58%
Reasons to watch: For the third time in just under six weeks these AFC East rivals meet after they split the first two matchups. The Patriots took the first one by a 14-10 final on a memorable Monday night in upstate New York in which Mac Jones attempted all of three passes amid 40 mph wind gusts as Bill Belichick let his offensive line overpower the Bills’ defensive front to the tune of 222 rushing yards on 46 attempts. The second matchup three weeks later had much more of a resemblance to a conventional NFL game of the 2020s, as Josh Allen threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-21 victory. The weather could again play a factor in this edition as the forecast projects temperatures in the single digits.
New England’s Week 13 victory at Buffalo marked the Patriots’ seventh straight win and gave them a one-game lead atop the division, seeming to signal Belichick’s team was ready to reclaim the East crown after the Bills won it in 2020 to end the Pats’ 11-year reign of dominance. New England, however, won just one of its four remaining games, with the lone victory coming over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. In its losses to the Colts, Bills and Miami Dolphins, the offense averaged 20.7 points – 6.5 fewer than its season average – while the defense registered two sacks and forced a single turnover.
The Bills, meanwhile, followed up the Dec. 6 defeat to the Patriots with an overtime loss at Tampa Bay the following week before closing the regular season on a four-game winning streak to capture a second straight AFC East crown. Granted, Buffalo had the league’s second-easiest schedule in Weeks 15-18, with victories over the Carolina Panthers, Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets – teams that ranked 30th, 15th, 29th and 26th in total offense during the regular season – but it managed to right the ship to secure the conference’s third seed and set up another meeting with New England.
Belichick, known for being a master tactician and expert at exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses, will face a division opponent in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when the Patriots lost to the New York Jets 28-21 in the division round as the AFC’s top seed. They also split both regular-season meetings that season. Since Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots began more than two decades ago, New England is 13-9 in the playoffs against teams it faced in the regular season.
Obviously, the biggest difference between those previous 22 matchups and this one is Tom Brady isn’t the Patriots quarterback. (Along those same lines, New England isn’t facing a Manning brother in this rematch.)
Key Matchup: Mac Jones vs. Buffalo’s Defense
Jones has put together an encouraging rookie season, averaging 7.30 yards per attempt – just a smidge behind Brady at 7.39 – while completing 67.6% of his passes – just a tick ahead of Brady at 67.5%. With 3,801 passing yards and 22 passing TDs, he’s just the fourth player to reach those numbers in his first NFL season, joining Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston and Justin Herbert.
Belichick hasn’t asked Jones to do too much and he’s had the luxury of playing behind a dominant offensive line. As part of Belichick’s commitment to the ground game – the Patriots’ run 46.5% of the time for the sixth-highest rate in the NFL – Jones is finding success throwing off play-action calls.
Among all quarterbacks with at least 30 pass attempts out of play-action, Jones’ well-thrown percentage of 83.0 ranks third and his catchability percentage of 81.8 ranks fourth. Only Matt Ryan, Lamar Jackson and Brady have attempted more passes on play-action calls than Jones’ 88.
Buffalo, however, did a good job of snuffing out the play-action in the last matchup, with both of Jones’ interceptions in Week 16 coming on play-action. The Bills also sacked Jones once as he compiled season lows in completion percentage (43.8), yards per attempt (4.53) and passer rating (31.4).
That’s been the case all season for Buffalo, which has been making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. The Bills ranked first in defensive EVE (minus-0.907), allowed the fewest pass yards per game (163.0) and the fewest passing touchdowns (12) in the regular season, as well as the lowest completion percentage (56.0) and passer rating (65.3) to become just the fifth team in the Super Bowl-era to finish a season leading the league in those four categories.
Overall, Buffalo’s defense is keeping the opposition’s pass offense in check and preventing the gains through the air that can be expected in any given offensive situation.
Bills Pass Defense EVE Rankings With NFL Rank
|Category||Expected Yards||NFL Rank|
|Expected Pass Yards Overall||-1.39||1st|
|Expected Pass Yards on Expected Rush Plays||-2.40||2nd|
|Expected Pass Yards on Expected Neutral Plays||-1.87||1st|
|Expected Pass Yards on Expected Pass Plays||-1.16||1st|
|Overall Defensive EVE||-0.91||1st|
For the most part, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to pass on the Buffalo defense. So, the Patriots’ strategy would seem to be take the ball out of Jones’ hands. Well, at least, have him simply hand it off and not throw it.
In the last meeting, however, by the time the Pats got the ball for the first time in the third quarter, they found themselves down 13 points and in more passing situations. This came after New England ran 13 times for 66 yards while Jones was 5 of 13 for 47 yards in the first half. The Pats still finished the game with 149 rushing yards and a season-best 5.52 yards per attempt while gaining a first down on 40.7% of all rushes – a season high at that point – so sticking with the ground game would seem to be the answer.
In that last matchup, 20.8% of the Patriots’ running plays were designed to get the ball carrier into space with a lead blocker, while three running plays were designed to go between the tackles with a lineman pulling from the backside as a lead block for the running back. In the first matchup, New England ran nine plays between the tackles with a backside lineman pulling while 15.5% of the running plays were designed to get the ball carrier into space with a lead blocker.
On the season, the Patriots are seventh in rushing EVE, averaging 0.369 yards over expected on running plays this season. Left guard Mike Onwenu is winning 89.0% of his one-on-ones in run blocks while right tackle Trent Brown is winning 85.1% of his. The league average for guards in run blocking is 74.2% and tackles is at 72.7%.
Damien Harris has tormented the Bills this season, rushing for 103 yards on 18 carries in Week 16 after running for 111 yards on just 10 attempts in the first meeting when Buffalo knew New England was going to run. Rhamondre Stevenson, who was a bit banged-up in the regular-season finale but is good to go for the playoffs, has been a threat in recent weeks of breaking a big play with 16.2% of his carries going for 10+ yards since Week 10.
Although Jones has been steady this season and has the opportunity to be the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game since Russell Wilson in 2012, having him hand the ball off may be New England’s best chance at success against a formidable Buffalo pass defense.
The scoreboard, however, could dictate that decision.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 8:15 ET, NBC)
Line: Chiefs by 12
The Analyst Win Probability: Chiefs 71%
Reasons to watch: A final opportunity to watch Ben Roethlisberger play an NFL game? All signs point to Big Ben retiring after the season, and given the way these two teams matched up three weeks ago at Arrowhead Stadium, little suggests the Steelers’ season will extend past Sunday. With that being said, however, little suggested Pittsburgh would be even make it to the playoffs.
The Chiefs appeared to deal a significant blow to the Steelers’ postseason chances by rolling to a 36-10 victory in Week 16. Kansas City scored the game’s first 30 points and kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone until less than 3 minutes to play, with the Steelers amassing 126 of their 303 total yards in the fourth quarter when the outcome was already decided. Pittsburgh bounced back from that Dec. 26 embarrassment a week later with a 26-14 win over the Cleveland Browns in what was likely Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field and closed the regular season with an overtime win at Baltimore to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. The football gods smiled upon the Steeler nation with the Jaguars’ stunning upset of the Colts before making them sweat it out into their Terrible Towels late Sunday night as a tie in the Chargers-Raiders game looked like it would end Pittsburgh’s season. Las Vegas pulled out a victory from the jaws of a tie, however, completing Pittsburgh’s improbable run to a postseason berth.
While the Steelers are in the playoffs for the 12th time since Big Ben’s 2004 rookie season, an argument can be made they’re in the playoffs in spite of the play of the two-time Super Bowl winner not because of the future Hall of Famer.
Roethlisberger has really been showing his age lately, looking every bit of a 39-year-old QB playing at the end of his NFL career. Since Week 15, he ranks last in average air yards (5.81), has thrown seven pickable passes (tied with Mac Jones for the fourth most) and has an open-target percentage of 72.7 (sixth worst among the 29 QBs with a minimum of 70 pass attempts). In these last four games, he’s also averaged just 4.49 yards per attempt – the lowest by any quarterback over a four-game span in the Super Bowl-era with a minimum of 150 pass attempts.
With Roethlisberger dinking and dunking the ball, the offense hasn’t been much of a threat. In these last four weeks, they’ve scored four offensive touchdowns and managed just six plays of 20+ yards – one more than the New York Giants for the fewest in the NFL.
Going up against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs with a punchless offense spells doom, as Pittsburgh is ill-equipped to get into a shootout. Kansas City has scored at least 28 points in each of its last five games – averaging 35.4 in those contests – while Pittsburgh has reached the 28-point mark just three times all season.
The Steelers have been undone by their sluggish starts, averaging a pathetic 6.7 points in the first half – beating out only the Giants at 5.9 – and were 3-7 in games when trailing at halftime. (Only the Jets, Giants, Jaguars and Detroit Lions had more games this past season trailing at the half.) Kansas City, meanwhile, led the NFL with nine touchdowns on its first offensive possession, averaged 14.9 first-half points (third best) and went 8-2 when going into halftime with a lead.
With an offense not built to score in bunches, the pressure is on Pittsburgh’s defense to keep Mahomes in check.
Key Matchup: T.J. Watt vs. Patrick Mahomes
While Pittsburgh’s offense doesn’t evoke much fear, a defense led by Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick has fueled Pittsburgh’s playoff push.
Aside from the Steelers’ ugly loss to the Chiefs in Week 16, Pittsburgh’s opportunistic defense forced nine turnovers while recording 16 sacks in its other three games since Week 15. Watt had four sacks against the Browns in Week 17 and one more last Sunday to tie Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5 set back in 2001. Heyward has notched 10 sacks this season and the Steelers led the entire league with 55, while also ranking sixth with 101 QB hits.
Despite the Steelers’ success on defense, it’s hard to forget that disastrous showing at Arrowhead the day after Christmas. The Chiefs scored on each of their five first-half possessions in taking a 23-0 lead into the break with Mahomes completing 19-of-25 passes for 205 yards with two TDs while being sacked only once.
A defense that had been so disruptive all season never was able to apply pressure on Mahomes, and he was able to pick the Steelers apart. Overall, Mahomes was pressured just nine times – his fewest in any game since 2019 – and hit only twice – also his fewest of the season. When Mahomes doesn’t have a defender in his face, he’s deadly. Among all QBs with at least 200 pass attempts when not under pressure this past season, he led the NFL with an open-target percentage of 88.5.
In the first meeting, however, Watt was playing with a cracked rib and was limited to 38 snaps, finishing with 1.5 QB hurries and without a QB hit. His rib is no longer an issue, as he’s amassed 8.5 QB hurries and eight QB hits in two games since the trip to Arrowhead. He’ll be matched up with left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who has won 87.5% of his one-on-one matchups and has an adjusted sack-allowed percentage of 0.4% – the third-best rate among all left tackles.
The Chiefs will also be a bit healthier for this meeting after playing the last one without Travis Kelce due to COVID-19 protocols. Kelce will play in the rematch, as will Pro Bowler Tyreek Hill, who hurt his heel in pre-game warmups last Saturday and appeared in just 14 offensive plays. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is also slated to return after injuring his shoulder against the Steelers and missed the final two regular-season games.
Although they’ve been a bit banged-up in recent weeks, the Chiefs have been balanced on offense, gaining 125+ rushing yards and 250+ passing yards in each of their last three games – the first time ever the franchise has reached those numbers in three consecutive games.
Kansas City may be heavy favorites over a Pittsburgh team that has lost its last two playoff trips since winning at Arrowhead in a 2016 division game, but the Steelers feel like all the pressure is on the Chiefs. While Kansas City is trying to reach a third straight Super Bowl, Pittsburgh is playing carefree with the players enjoying the ride and viewing this game like they have nothing to lose.
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Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Design by Matt Sisneros.