At long last, the 2021 NFL Playoffs are here, albeit a week later than what we’re accustomed to seeing. The league’s first 17-game, 18-week season officially ended when the Las Vegas Raiders chose a victory over a tie in a Jan. 9 showdown with the rival Los Angeles Chargers.
The Raiders are back in the postseason for the first time in five seasons and are one of the AFC’s seven teams. Las Vegas, the No. 6 seed, joins No. 1 Tennessee, No. 2 Kansas City, No. 3 Buffalo, No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 5 New England, and No. 7 Pittsburgh among the AFC franchises gunning for a spot in Super Bowl 56.
Of those seven teams, which is the best — or, depending on your outlook, the scariest — entering this year’s postseason? For this list, we have factored everything in from the quarterback situation to what the team’s injury report looked like after Week 18. Although a team’s final record and overall seeding played a role in where they might have ranked, the No. 7 seed is not automatically the worst team, and the No. 1 seed is not automatically the top team.
Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the AFC’s best and scariest teams stack up as follows:
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1, No. 7 seed)
Don’t let the thrilling narrative of Ben Roethlisberger’s final ride fool you into thinking the Steelers are a frightening playoff matchup. The two-time Super Bowl champion looked every bit of his 39 years over the last month, and the Steelers finished 3-1 in spite of his lackluster play.
Overly optimistic Steelers fans will point to talented running back Najee Harris (1,667 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage) and All-Pro pass-rusher T.J. Watt (22.5 sacks) as reasons why Pittsburgh can shock the world. However, Kansas City routed Pittsburgh 36-16 on Dec. 26, and there’s no reason to believe things will change in the Wild Card Round.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers have shocked the world before, but they’re not doing so this time.
6. Las Vegas Raiders (10-7, No. 5 seed)
The Raiders chose not to play for a tie on Sunday night, and they earned a first-round showdown with Joe Burrow and the Bengals as a result. Veteran quarterback Derek Carr had another impressive season and finished the year with a 68.4 completion percentage, 4,804 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 14 touchdowns despite the Raiders’ constant distractions.
Theoretically, the duo of Carr and veteran wideout Hunter Renfrow (103 catches, 1,038 yards, and nine touchdowns) could be enough to keep up with most teams. However, the Bengals’ high-octane offense will likely present too many challenges for the Raiders next weekend.
If there’s any good news for Raiders fans, it’s that Carr, barring an unexpected injury or positive COVID test, will finally get to start a game in the playoffs after nearly a decade of waiting. Whether or not this will be his last game in the Silver and Black is another conversation.
5. New England Patriots (10-7, No. 6 seed)
Which Patriots team will we see in the postseason? The group that lost three of its final four games, only routing the dreadful Jacksonville Jaguars, or the squad that won seven straight games from Oct. 24 through Dec. 6? Patriots fans should hope for the latter, especially considering New England defeated Buffalo, its Wild Card Round opponent, 14-10 during that winning streak.
Before doing anything else, New England must wonder if Mac Jones finally hit the rookie wall. The Alabama product threw five interceptions in his final four games and struggled throughout the Dec. 26 home loss to Buffalo. If Jones can avoid turning the ball over, don’t be surprised to see the Patriots celebrating yet another Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks.
4. Buffalo Bills (11-6, No. 3 seed)
If not for Devin Singletary, we may have ranked New England ahead of Buffalo here. The Bills finally saw the light and started giving the third-year running back more carries after a Week 14 loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Singletary ran for 323 yards and scored six total touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving) in the Bills’ final four regular-season games.
If teams want to get far in the NFL Playoffs, a capable running back and a strong defense (a league-best 17 points allowed per game) will always help. Singletary’s recent emergence is significant news for an extremely talented Bills team.
3. Tennessee Titans (12-5, No. 1 seed)
On the one hand, Tennessee is the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and the Titans earned a first-round bye for a reason. You are what your record says you are. However, quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s disappointing 2021 season (his 14 interceptions marked the most he’s thrown since 2013) and an injury-plagued offense should raise red flags about their Super Bowl hopes.
However, the Titans rank third on our list because star running back Derrick Henry could return in the Divisional Round. Despite missing over two months with a foot injury, Henry still ended the regular season ranked ninth in rushing yards (937) and tied for six in rushing touchdowns (10). If he’s healthy, he could carry the Titans to a Super Bowl appearance on his lonesome.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7, No. 4 seed)
If you still doubted Joe Burrow’s chances of succeeding in Cincinnati, let his 2021 numbers speak for themself. He completed 70.4% of his passes for 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in leading a ferocious Bengals offense to an AFC North title.
Running back Joe Mixon earned Pro Bowl honors and scored 16 touchdowns from scrimmage. Ja’Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick in last April’s draft, should be a lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year after hauling in 81 catches, 1,455 yards, and 13 touchdowns. When defenses covered Chase, Burrow had no issues throwing to Tee Higgins (74 catches, 1,091 yards, and six touchdowns) and Tyler Boyd (67 catches, 828 yards, and five touchdowns).
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, No. 2 seed)
Patrick Mahomes’ presence should say it all. The Chiefs have reached the AFC Championship Game in each of the last three years and won Super Bowl 54 in 2020. Mahomes rebounded from a tough start to the 2021 campaign and threw 18 touchdowns against three interceptions in the season’s second half.
So long as Mahomes is healthy and Andy Reid is the head coach, Kansas City should always be among the top two scariest teams in the AFC playoffs each year. Sometimes, things are just that simple.