Much has already been settled in the AFC playoff picture heading into Sunday’s slate of games that wrap up Week 18 and cement the playoff fields.
- The Kansas City Chiefs clinched the No. 1 seed yesterday
- The Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals will be Nos. 2 and 3, in some order
- The Jacksonville Jaguars won the AFC South and are the No. 4 seed
- The Los Angeles Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens have clinched playoff spots, and will be Nos. 5 and 6, in some order
- Three teams are still alive for the No. 7 seed: the New England Patriots, the Miami Dolphins, and the Pittsburgh Steelers
Four games on Sunday will decide the final playoff field (unless one specific game breaks a certain way, as detailed below), and all four of them take place in the early 1:00 p.m. EST time slot. Here’s who I’m rooting for; what would you like to see happen?
New England Patriots (8-8) at Buffalo Bills (12-3) — 1:00 p.m. EST, CBS
If you’re wondering whether the Bills might rest starters for this game now that they won’t be getting the first-round bye, don’t bet on it. There’s still too much to gain from winning and claiming the No. 2 seed. They’re already guaranteed a home game in the wild card round, but being second also guarantees being home in the divisional round — where they could very well see Cincinnati — and also ensures, should they play against Kansas City in the conference championship game, that the game would take place in a neutral venue. A “no true road games” playoff scenario is on the line here.
Root for a Bills win.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) — 1:00 p.m. EST, CBS
Even though a Bengals win could spell trouble for the Bills should they not be able to handle the Patriots, I’m still rooting for them to beat Baltimore. It has been a long, unique, challenging week, and the NFL’s decisions on how to handle the canceled Bills-Bengals game has rightfully pissed off the Bengals and their fans. After all of the class and dignity that organization showed last Monday night, they do not deserve to be in a situation where they are playing a road wild card game despite winning their division. They avoid that — and keep themselves alive for the second seed — with a win.
It should be noted that, should the Ravens win this game, the fifth and sixth seeds will still be up in the air heading into the afternoon time slot. The Chargers are currently ahead of the Ravens in the standings by way of a better conference record, and a Baltimore win would mean that they need to win to stay the fifth seed. With the difference between fifth and sixth being a trip to Cincinnati or Jacksonville, the Chargers may care where they end up quite a bit.
Root for a Bengals win.
New York Jets (7-9) at Miami Dolphins (8-8) — 1:00 p.m. EST, FOX
This is a battle of third-string quarterbacks, with Joe Flacco and the playoff-eliminated Jets looking to bring Skylar Thompson and the Dolphins with them into the offseason. Miami makes the playoffs with a win and a Patriots loss, and since we’re already rooting for the latter, we need to decide if we want to root for the former. I’ll reiterate what I said last week: I’m not keen on the Bills having to defend Tyreek Hill in the playoffs, given that the last two times that has happened, he’s combined for 20 receptions, 322 yards, and a touchdown.
Root for a Jets win.
Cleveland Browns (7-9) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) — 1:00 p.m. EST, CBS
... actually, you know what? I’m not particularly fond of the idea of the Bills needing to play against T.J. Watt, either. Watt missed the Bills’ 35-3 thrashing of the Steelers back in Week 5, but he was definitely on the field when the Steelers upset the Bills in Week 1 of the 2021 season at Highmark Stadium (two sacks and a forced fumble on Josh Allen), and Pittsburgh is 7-2 when he’s in the lineup this season. If all three of the Patriots, Dolphins, and Steelers lose, it’s the Pats that claim the No. 7 seed, and I think I like Buffalo’s chances best in that scenario.
Root for a Browns win.
Should these four outcomes come to pass, here’s what the AFC playoffs would look like. I’ll freely admit that the idea of pitting Justin Herbert and the Chargers against the Bengals for the upset potential, and then against the Chiefs for even more upset potential, is intriguing. But I truly cannot get to the point where I can actively root for that to happen, since it would involve rooting against Cincinnati this week.
- Bye: (1) Chiefs
- Wild Card: (7) Patriots at (2) Bills
- Wild Card: (6) Ravens at (3) Bengals
- Wild Card: (5) Chargers at (4) Jaguars
AFC playoff standings
|1||Kansas City Chiefs||14-3||6-0||9-3||+127||W5|
|5||Los Angeles Chargers||10-7||2-4||7-5||+7||L1|