New England looking tough but odds are short
Steelers have league's best offence
1 New England
Record v playoff teams 5-2
Leading passer T Brady 4,577
Leading rushers D Lewis 896, M Gillislee 383, R Burkhead 264
Leading receivers R Gronkowski 1,084, B Cooks 1,082, D Amendola 659
Positives Bill Belichick as head coach and Tom Brady at quarterback for a start. The pair have won five Super Bowls together and cool head Brady has a strong offensive supporting cast led by tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Negatives Their defence was close to a shambles in the first few weeks of the season, although it has greatly improved. They haven’t been tested against a top team in the last couple of months, apart from their narrow win in Pittsburgh.
Verdict You can never write off the Patriots (even when they’re 28-3 down in a Super Bowl), merely argue about whether their price is too short. Given that Kansas City and Pittsburgh could be the playoff visitors to Foxborough, they don’t look great value.
Record v playoff teams 2-2
Leading passer B Roethlisberger 4,251
Leading rushers L Bell 1,291, J Conner 144, S Ridley 108
Leading receivers A Brown 1,533, J Smith-Schuster 917, L Bell 655
Positives Their offensive weapons are the best in the league. Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been one of the best players in the league this season, running back Le’Veon Bell is a livewire and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, the youngest player in the NFL, is an emerging force.
Negatives Their defence don’t always convince and they have been hit hard by injuries, including losing linebacker Ryan Shazier to a serious spinal injury, while cornerback Joe Haden has only just returned from a broken leg.
Verdict They can beat anyone on their day but it’s hard to see their defence being strong enough for the tough challenges that will face them in the playoffs.
Record v playoff teams 1-3
Leading passer B Bortles 3,687
Leading rushers L Fournette 1,040, C Ivory 382, B Bortles 322
Leading receivers K Cole 748, M Lee 702, A Hurns 484
Positives They boast the best defence in the AFC, packed with high draft picks earned in their less successful years. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette is a force and they have done a good job of concealing the weaker parts of QB Blake Bortles’ game.
Negatives The nagging suspicion that bad Bortles could return. Back-to-back defeats in Weeks 16 and 17 have created a slight concern that teams have found a way to attack them.
Verdict No one will be looking forward to facing the Jaguars, who have had a great season. They destroyed Pittsburgh on the road in Week Five, having battered Baltimore 44-7 at Wembley two weeks earlier. They should be able to make the last eight at least.
4 Kansas City
Record v playoff teams 2-2
Leading passer A Smith 4,042
Leading rushers K Hunt 1,327, A Smith 355, C West 72
Leading receivers T Hill 1,183, T Kelce 1,038, A Wilson 554
Positives Veteran QB Alex Smith is a safe pair of hands, leaving rookie running back Kareem Hunt and the speedy Tyreek Hill to wreak havoc. The Chiefs enjoy a strong home advantage at noisy Arrowhead Stadium.
Negatives The Chiefs rested most of their starters last week and sometimes teams can find it hard to pick up the pace after a week off. Smith’s safety-first approach is not always what is required in the post-season.
Verdict The Chiefs seem to have their mojo back after a mid-season lull – they won their first five games but lost six of their next seven before finishing with four wins. It’s no surprise that their revival has coincided with workhorse Hunt featuring more prominently in their gameplan and they will have more confidence than most if they have to go to New England having won there in Week One.
Record v playoff teams 2-2
Leading passer M Mariota 3,232
Leading rushers D Henry 744, D Murray 659, M Mariota 312
Leading receivers D Walker 807, R Matthews 795, E Decker 563
Positives Quarterback Marcus Mariota finally showed a spark last week having looked subdued for most of the season while dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries.
Negatives Head coach Mike Mularkey was an uninspiring choice and the feeling is that the Titans have made the playoffs in spite of him rather than because of him. Veteran running back DeMarco Murray has picked up an injury at the wrong time.
Verdict The Titans looked a really promising team at the start of the season but it hasn’t really come together for them and a first-round exit seems most likely. Tennessee defend the run well but their pass defence will look vulnerable whoever they meet.
Record v playoff teams 2-4
Leading passer T Taylor 2,799
Leading rushers L McCoy 1,138, T Taylor 427, M Tolbert 247
Leading receivers C Clay 558, L McCoy 448, D Thompson 430
Positives Confidence will be sky-high after the Bills made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is an underrated performer.
Negatives Star running back LeSean McCoy won’t be fully fit even if he is able to shake off an ankle injury to play this week. A tight end and running back were their top two receivers. They have suffered some hefty defeats this season, including two to the Patriots.
Verdict The Bills have a puncher’s chance as they have drawn Jacksonville in the first round, one of the few teams who don’t have a significant advantage in terms of playoff experience. But they lost four of their six games against playoff qualifiers this season and even if they get over the first obstacle they must play every game on the road having gone 3-5 in away games this season.
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