The AFC Playoff Picture Is Finally Coming Into Focus – The Ringer
The 2020 NFL season has been plenty strange, and the AFC playoff race is bringing the drama right down the wire. Week 16 produced some postseason-altering results that will have significant ramifications on seeding and will determine which teams still have hope in the final week of the year. After an exciting early-afternoon slate, here’s where things stand in the AFC playoff picture:
The Steelers sit atop a tightly contested AFC North.
For the first time in the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit on Sunday, stunning the Colts to complete a 28-24 comeback win and halt a three-game losing streak. But the most surprising part wasn’t the comeback. It was that it happened because of the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns in the second half, and went 6-for-9 on passes 10 yards or more downfield for 133 yards and two scores, according to Pro Football Focus.
This contest had division-crown implications for both teams, and we’ll get to the Colts in a bit. The Steelers offense entered Sunday trending in the wrong direction, and their dominant defense had injuries piled up within nearly every position group. Both were issues during a first-half shellacking at the hands of Philip Rivers and Co. Indianapolis built a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter and seemed firmly in control of things when Pittsburgh’s offense finally awakened. Roethlisberger, who entered the game tied for 27th among quarterbacks in intended air yards per attempt (6.9) and 34th in air yards per completion (4.5), connected with Diontae Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown and JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 25-yard go-ahead score with 7:38 remaining. Smith-Schuster’s celebration after the play was muted, but for the first time in a while, Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense looked like they were enjoying themselves. Big Ben finished Sunday with a season-high 342 yards and three touchdown passes.
“I just felt like we weren’t having fun,” Roethlisberger told reporters after the game. “I felt like it was important to come out in the second half [and have fun]. It’s not easy to do when you’re losing.”
Roethlisberger’s performance, in tandem with Pittsburgh’s defense holding the Colts to three second-half points, led the Steelers to the 12-win mark and their first AFC North title since 2017. It also prevented the team from potentially needing to fight off the Browns and Ravens in Week 17.
The Browns, meanwhile, entered Sunday with a chance to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought—and they could do it against the Jets. Considering Cleveland’s recent form, that sounded like a cakewalk—until Saturday afternoon, when the Browns learned that four of their wide receivers and two linebackers would be out because of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols.
Cleveland’s rushing game has ranked among the best in the league; Football Outsiders had the Browns as no. 8 in rushing DVOA entering Sunday. But absent starting left tackle Jedrick Wills and right guard Wyatt Teller—who were out with an illness and ankle injury, respectively—the Browns struggled to move the ball against New York’s front seven (the Jets entered Sunday no. 8 in rush defense DVOA), and finished with 45 rushing yards on 18 carries (2.5 yards per carry). Baker Mayfield and the Browns’ passing game missed wideouts Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Rashard Higgins too. The Jets took an early lead and Mayfield failed to find much success through the air, finishing 28-for-53 with 285 yards and three fumbles (two lost).
Still, the Browns pulled within four points early in the fourth quarter and trailed 23-16 with just over a minute to go. They drove to the Jets’ 16-yard line, but facing fourth-and-1, Mayfield dove ahead on a QB sneak and the ball was popped loose. Kareem Hunt recovered it behind the line of scrimmage, but the drive ended, along with Cleveland’s chances at earning a postseason spot on Sunday.
While the Browns were faltering, the Ravens continued their run of impressive play in a 27-13 win against the Giants. Baltimore’s offense has used an easy stretch of games against the Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars, and Giants to channel the form that spurred the team’s dominant 2019 season. Running backs Gus Edwards (15 carries, 85 yards) and J.K. Dobbins (11 carries, 77 yards, one touchdown) combined with quarterback Lamar Jackson (13 carries, 80 yards) to help the Ravens notch their 10th win of the year. And with the Colts’ loss, Baltimore got back into the playoff picture just in time for the regular season’s final week.
The Ravens and Browns each control their fate entering Week 17. Baltimore must beat the Bengals to earn a wild-card berth; Cleveland must defeat the Steelers. Both teams could finish as high as the AFC’s no. 5 seed, depending on how the Dolphins perform next week against the Bills. Baltimore owns the tiebreaker with Cleveland based on head-to-head win percentage.
“This one’s on me,” Mayfield told reporters after the loss. “This one is going to sting for a day or two, but we’ve got the Steelers to win and get in. Yes, I’m aware of what could have happened if we won today. I’m well aware of that. But it is what it is.”
The Colts lose their grip on the AFC South and give the Titans a chance to secure their spot.
The Colts entered Week 16 knowing that if they won out, they’d be in. Things got off to the right start on Sunday against Pittsburgh, as Indianapolis took a 21-7 lead going into halftime; the Steelers’ lone scoring drive followed a Rivers fumble that set them up at Indy’s 3-yard line. Rookie tailback Jonathan Taylor had rushed for two scores and Rivers had fired a 42-yard touchdown pass to Zach Pascal to help the Colts surge comfortably into the lead.
But things fell apart in the second half. Indy opened the third quarter with a field goal, then went three-and-out on back-to-back drives. The Steelers scored touchdowns on each of the ensuing possessions, as Roethlisberger began picking the Colts’ secondary apart. And after Pittsburgh took a 28-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Rivers tossed a crucial pick, allowing the Steelers to chew nearly four more minutes off the clock before Indy regained possession. The Colts managed to get to Pittsburgh’s 33-yard line, but Rivers threw three straight incompletions to end the drive on downs, and following Sunday’s other results, the Colts are back on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
“I’m gonna believe that 11 [wins] is gonna be enough,” Rivers told reporters after the game. “I don’t deny that we need help, but…”
Next week, Indy will face the one-win Jaguars in a must-have contest. But even if the Colts win, there’s a chance they’ll miss the postseason, as the Ravens and Browns each hold head-to-head tiebreakers and the Dolphins have a greater conference win percentage. The Titans, who face the Packers on Sunday Night Football, can now clinch the AFC South title with a victory.
The AFC officially runs through Kansas City.
The Chiefs clinched the AFC’s no. 1 seed on Sunday following a dramatic 17-14 victory against the Falcons. For the seventh consecutive game, Kansas City played in a one-score contest, and for the seventh consecutive time, it won. At 4-10, perhaps the Falcons weren’t expected to put up much of a contest. But they got stops when they needed to and did a decent job of generating pressure on Patrick Mahomes, specifically from the interior—star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett recorded a pair of QB hits.
Mahomes wasn’t at his best Sunday. He completed 24 of 44 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns and threw an uncharacteristic red-zone interception early in the third quarter. The Chiefs—who’ve been the NFL’s highest-scoring third-quarter offense—didn’t get a point in the frame.
None of that mattered.
Matt Ryan’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Laquon Treadwell gave the Falcons a 14-10 lead with 4:33 left, but roughly two minutes later, Mahomes drove the Chiefs to Atlanta’s 25-yard line. Mahomes was nearly intercepted by rookie cornerback AJ Terrell in the end zone, but Terrell couldn’t maintain possession after hitting the ground. The very next play, Mahomes found Demarcus Robinson for the go-ahead score with 1:55 remaining.
The Falcons almost forced overtime, as Ryan led them down to Kansas City’s 21-yard line and set up kicker Younghoe Koo—who’d made 27 straight attempts—for a 39-yard field goal. But Koo’s drift sailed wide right, and the 14-1 Chiefs clinched the AFC’s top seed, home-field advantage, and the conference’s lone bye.
“Just a bad day for the offense,” Mahomes told reporters after the game, “starting with me.”
Perhaps it should be concerning that Kansas City keeps finding itself in close games, and that twice this month it’s had some of the lowest outputs ever with Mahomes behind center. But that hasn’t mattered yet. And considering the Chiefs boast a QB whose play while trailing is historically good; an All-Pro in Travis Kelce, who’s put together the greatest single statistical season by a tight end; and one of the NFL’s most explosive receiving corps, it’s hard to find a reason why Kansas City won’t find its way through the AFC and back to the Super Bowl.
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