The Achilles heel of every AFC playoff team
The 2022 NFL Playoffs are set, and as is usually the case, the cream has risen to the top. On the AFC side of the bracket the Los Angeles Chargers failed to make the postseason and were ranked more highly by most metrics than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders, but aside from that outlier we really do have the best teams available.
And while each of these teams have plenty of merit in their bid to win a Super Bowl, they also each have a major concern that could cost them the ultimate prize. Today let’s take a look at the Achilles heel of every team left in the AFC.
Buffalo Bills: Trouble with Tough Teams
Statistically the Bills had one of the better seasons of any team in the NFL, but a closer look at the schedule reveals they benefited from a soft slate with two games against the Jets and only six games against playoff teams.
In those games against playoff teams, the Bills were hardly impressive, going 2-4 overall. One win was dominant as they trounced the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football back in Week 5, but the dominance they showed against the league’s lower class wasn’t really on display against teams of similar strength.
The Bills' defense is almost certainly overrated as a result of Buffalo's favorable matchups throughout the year, and the offense needs to prove it can consistently score points against playoff-caliber defenses.
Cincinnati Bengals: Strength of Schedule
Speaking of strength of schedule, the one team in the playoffs that benefited the most from an easy schedule was the Cincinnati Bengals. While the AFC North was hotly-contested, it featured no elite teams and the rest of the Bengals schedule was as easy as it gets because of their last-place division place in 2020.
Every single team in the AFC North besides the Bengals had a negative point differential for the year, and the Bengals racked up wins against the last-place Jaguars, Lions, and Broncos.
This is a team that had a breakout in 2021, and will almost certainly have a regression in 2022. The Bengals simply can’t be trusted due to having the easiest schedule of any playoff team entering this postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs: Defensive Conversion Rates
Through the first half of the season the Chiefs had one of the worst defenses in the league. It greatly improved in the later half of the year, but still showed it is far from dominant when it gave up 34 points to the Bengals and 24 points to the Broncos in the closing weeks.
For the whole season, they finished fifth worst at stopping teams from converting first downs. 75% of the time the opposing offense was able to convert a first down into a new set of downs. Keeping your offense on the field against Kansas City is important to beating the Chiefs because it keeps their powerful offense off the field.
Compare the Chiefs’ 75% number to the Bills’ 66% number, and it is easy to foresee a Conference Championship game in which Mahomes finishes the game on the sideline while the opposing offense continues to get first downs in critical moments due to the inability of the Chiefs defense to get off the field.
Las Vegas Raiders: Secondary and Passing Defense
The Las Vegas Raiders earned their playoff spot with one of the most remarkable regular season games we’ve seen in years.
But now they must face the league’s best passing offenses, and they have the worst passing defense of any teams remaining. They are 22nd in the league in opponent passing percentage, and as we saw against Justin Herbert and the Chargers, even on fourth and long they can’t seem to force a team off the field when it matters most.
The Raiders’ pass defense and safety position especially are simply not good enough to win a championship.
New England Patriots: Injuries
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is notorious for listing lots of players on his injury report and forcing opponents to question availability and effectiveness. It's an amusing if not annoying tactic that is within the rules of the sport.
But even for the Patriots, this team has a lot of players on its injury list. At last count, 15 players on its two-deep are listed. Cornerback Jalen Mills is arguably the biggest one as he is now on the COVID-19 list and his availability for Super Wild Card Weekend is in question.
The rest of the defense is banged up as well, and this isn’t a deep secondary to begin with. New England has had the best "next man up" culture in the league for many years, but the Pats are going to need a lot more injury luck than they have right now to overcome all of these concerns.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Passing Offense
It is a bit of a logistical miracle that the Pittsburgh Steelers even made the playoffs. They did what they had to do, but were also major benefactors of fate and other teams’ outcomes.
Their luck isn’t a weakness, but it also points to the fact they failed to earn their way as convincingly as other teams because they simply aren’t as good.
And the one area that they are most clearly inferior is in the passing game, where veteran Ben Roethlisberger struggles to strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenders. The Steelers have the worst passing offense in the playoffs by a large margin, checking in at 30th in yards per attempt.
Big Ben does not have the arm strength to challenge defenses deep like he once did, and the result is an offense that was just 21st in the league in points per game.
Tennessee Titans: Peaked Too Soon
The Titans earned the top-seed in the AFC thanks to an incredibly impressive mid-season run, defeating multiple elite teams in consecutive weeks. From Weeks 6 through 10 they defeated Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis, the Los Angeles Rams, and New Orleans.
That streak propelled them to an 8-2 record and a first place position they would never relinquish, but their efficiency numbers really tailed off after that time, especially in the passing game
The Titans ended the season 4-3, with two of those wins coming against hapless Jacksonville and Houston. Injuries certainly didn’t help, especially to AJ Brown, but their passing efficiency got progressively worse and has never recovered to the same highs we saw during their impressive streak.
The Titans were at their worst around Week 16, and have climbed back to league average in dropback EPA to close the season, but average isn’t good enough to win even three consecutive games in the NFL playoffs.