In a year when two-thirds of the NFL playoff field is new Rashaan Gaulden Jersey , the AFC still features fixtures Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger , who have seven Super Bowl rings between them, and Alex Smith, who is coming off his best season of his 13-year career.
The trio of graybeard QBs led their teams to division titles again this year, and for the second straight season they won’t have to worry about Von Miller wrecking their Super Bowl hopes. The Broncos missed the playoff party again along with the Texans, Raiders and Dolphins, who were here last year.
The Bills are back for the first time in 17 seasons , the Jaguars for the first time in a decade and the Titans return for the first time since 2008.
The AFC gets wild-card weekend started Saturday with the Titans visiting the Chiefs, who haven’t won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in 14 years. On Sunday, the Bills visit the Jaguars.
New England has its customary bye week – its seventh straight – and Pittsburgh earned its first bye since 2010.
Strength and weakness of each of the six AFC playoff teams:
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 51, 34-28 OT over Atlanta on Feb. 5, 2017.
Hope: Tom Brady still plays like he’s 30, not 40. He’s a leading MVP candidate again with a league-leading 4 Zack Smith Jersey ,577 yards passing and 32 TDs. He got hit a lot more than he did last season (32 sacks in `17 after just 15 in `16). But it hasn’t stopped the Patriots from having the league’s second-ranked offense, averaging 28.6 points. A healthy TE Rob Gronkowski , who missed last year’s playoffs, has given the Patriots a huge lift with 69 catches for 1,084 yards. WR Brandin Cooks added 65 receptions for 1,082 yards.
Nope: Brady heads into the playoffs without his favorite target, WR Julian Edelman (knee), who got hurt in the preseason. Gronk, Cooks and RB Dion Lewis have picked up the slack. But there are still other injury concerns with WR Chris Hogan, RB James White and RB Mike Gillislee all ailing. The defense also is very banged up. LB Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) was lost for the season in October, and the list of nagging injuries has grown throughout the season. Using the bye week to heal up will be huge for New England’s prospects.
The Dope: ”I think we’ve got some work to do. We are not where we want to be and that’s what practice is for. The great thing about it is we’ve got one more chance to be able to go out there and play our best.” – Cooks.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 over Arizona on Feb. 1, 2009.
Hope: The “Killer Bs” are in full flight for the AFC North champions. Roethlisberger Adidas Justin Faulk Jersey , WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell and K Chris Boswell are all headed to the Pro Bowl – if the Steelers aren’t playing in the Super Bowl – and rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has given Pittsburgh a youthful jolt. The Steelers averaged 29.9 points a game during the second half of the season and appear plenty comfortable when things get tight. They went 9-2 in games decided by six points or less.
Nope: One of those losses was a 27-24 setback to New England on Dec. 17, a game the Steelers led at home throughout until Brady and Gronkowski got going in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone on a fake spike when kicking a field goal and going into overtime made plenty of sense. That means a rematch with New England, if it happens, would be in Foxborough. Pittsburgh has not proven it can cover Gronk effectively – he averages over 100 yards receiving against the Steelers in his career.
The Dope: ”It’s time to lock in and take this as serious as we can because we know how hard it is to get here and the opponents we have to play. We have a lot of belief in each other.” – LT Alejandro Villaneuva.
3. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6). No Super Bowl appearances.
Hope: Defense wins championships. The Jaguars have one of the best D’s in the league – they rank second in points allowed (16.8), interceptions (21), sacks (55) and yards (286) – and they gave up 10 or fewer points in half of their games. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and linebacker Telvin Smith are the cornerstones of a unit that gives Jacksonville a chance in every game.
Nope: QB Blake Bortles has five interceptions the last two weeks, raising concerns about his ability to carry the offense in the clutch. Bottom line is he needs more help around him. The NFL’s top rushing attack has stalled, slowed because of injuries to rookie Leonard Fournette and the offensive line, and Jacksonville’s young receivers have started dropping passes LeGarrette Blount Jersey , messing up routes and looking far from ready for the playoff stage. The Jaguars are coming off nine consecutive losing seasons, so this is new to them.
The Dope: ”I know he’s going to do everything he can to get back on that horse and lead us the right way and lead from the front. And everybody’s going to do their job around him and do a little bit more. It’s time to step it up, and that’s not just him, that’s everybody.” – TE Marcedes Lewis on Bortles.
4. KANSAS CITY (10-6). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.
Hope: Smith had the best season of his 13-year career , helped along by the best supporting cast he’s ever had. WR Tyreek Hill is a game-changer not only on offense but as a punt returner, RB Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, and TE Travis Kelce has arguably supplanted Gronkowski as the best in the game a LeBron James capped his 15th regular season with yet another record.
James played in his 82nd game on Wednesday night against the New York Knicks, completing an end to end run that underscores the 33-year-old’s remarkable consistency. The four-time MVP had never played every game in a regular season as he typically sits out games at the end of the year to rest for the playoffs.
Not this year.
James’ previous high was 81 games in 2008-09, when then-coach Mike Brown sat him for the Cavs‘ regular-season finale. James never made playing every game a goal, but he has said he wants to break the mold for players of his age.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he tried to talk James out of playing, but relented.
”He wants to play Bradley Chubb Color Rush Jersey ,” Lue said. ”I mean, it’s hard to play 82 games. I was in the league 11 years. Never had a chance to get to 82. Everything has to go absolutely right. He wants to play and I guess in his 15th year to get to 82, it really says a lot. It says a lot about him. But once he gets his 10 points, don’t be surprised if I yank him out. He might get mad, but I don’t care. I don’t care.”
And Lue kept his word.
After James scored 10 points, extending his NBA record for scoring in double digits to 873 games, Lue sent in Jordan Clarkson for the three-time champion.
James will finish the season leading the league in points and minutes played. He entered the finale averaging 27.7 points with career-highs in assists (9.2) assists and rebounds (8.7). He’s not expected to be named MVP as Houston’s James Harden remains the favorite, but James remains the game’s unquestioned best all-around player.
James will also lead the Cavs in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
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