By Arnie Stapleton
The AFC playoff field features a mix of familiar faces and fresh blood at quarterback, and this time none of them will have to fret over seeing Von Miller ready to wreck game plans and Super Bowl dreams.
While the defending champion Denver Broncos sit this one out and search for a new coach, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith return to the playoffs this month.
The other half of the teams will turn to QBs who have never taken a single snap in the postseason: longtime backup Matt Moore in Miami, backup-to-the-backup Connor Cook in Oakland and Brock Osweiler , who was benched but is back up in Houston.
The AFC gets wild-card weekend started Saturday when the Raiders visit Houston. On Sunday, the Dolphins visit Pittsburgh. New England has its customary bye week — its sixth straight — and Kansas City earned its first bye since 2003.
Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each of the six AFC playoff teams:
1. NEW ENGLAND (14-2), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 49, 28-24 over Seattle on Feb. 1, 2015.
Hope: Tom Brady isn’t acting his age. At 39, when most QBs have either hit the wall or are hitting the links, Brady has shown the best command of his career. Since returning from his September suspension, Brady has been picked off just twice to go with 28 touchdown throws and 3,554 yards passing.
Nope: Brady lost his favorite target Rob Gronkowski to season-ending back surgery in December. Gronk’s only injury-free season in the last six years was 2014 — the only time the Patriots won the Super Bowl in his career. Brady still has Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but among newcomers Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, only Bennett has playoff chops (way back in ’09 with Dallas).
The Dope: “This team showed a lot of mental toughness that they can do it week in and week out at a consistent level. Any team can go 8-8. … But 14-2 is a tough thing to do. It’s very cool for this team to accomplish that.” — Brady.
2. KANSAS CITY (12-4), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.
Hope: Special teams. The Chiefs have one of the league’s best punters in Dustin Colquitt, one of the top kickers in Cairo Santos, one of the best coordinators in Dave Toub — who’s on the Broncos’ and Chargers’ head coaching radar — and then there’s rookie blur Tyreek Hill , who returned two punts and a kickoff for scores.
Nope: Too often, Kansas City has to rely on Eric Berry and an opportunistic defense or Hill and the spectacular special teams to do what the offense can’t: get into the end zone. Teams don’t generally win in the playoffs that way. The antidote could be Hill, who also has six TD receptions and three TD runs.
The Dope: “Right now it’s awesome that we won (the AFC West) … but everything is kind of moving forward and we’ve got our eyes set on the biggest prize yet, and that’s getting a Super Bowl win. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can go get that thing.” — tight end Travis Kelce.
3. PITTSBURGH (11-5), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 over Arizona on Feb. 1, 2009.
Hope: Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have never been on the field together during the playoffs like they will be this month. Throw in a healthy O-line and the likely return of tight end Ladarius Green and Pittsburgh should have the AFC’s most diverse and dynamic offense .
Nope: Unlike the adage that defense travels, all that offensive firepower doesn’t always translate on the road. The Steelers averaged 28.25 points at home and 21.6 points away from Heinz Field. Unlike the Ravens, their division rival, Pittsburgh has never beaten Brady in New England (0-4).
The Dope: “We have a great team. We have great players in our wide receivers’ room. That’s one thing I love about being here, we have playmakers everywhere.” — wide receiver Sammie Coates.
4. HOUSTON (9-7), no Super Bowl appearances.
Hope: Defense, despite losing J.J. Watt. The Texans allowed the fewest yards in the NFL. Houston’s success was driven by the emergence of 2014 top overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney , who shook off two injury-riddled seasons to pile up 16 tackles for loss, 17 QB hits and six sacks.
Nope: The Texans won’t go far if their QB play doesn’t improve dramatically. Osweiler returns after being benched two weeks ago for Tom Savage (concussion) and will try to jumpstart a putrid passing game. He threw more interceptions (16) than TDs (15) in his first season of a four-year, $72 million deal.
The Dope: “Obviously nobody wants to be benched, but I have experienced that before. I think I handled it much better this time than previously.” — Osweiler, who was benched for Peyton Manning last year in Denver.
5. OAKLAND (12-4), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 18, 38-9 over Washington on Jan. 22, 1984.
Hope: Beginner’s luck. Cook will be the first NFL QB to make his first career start in the playoffs. He replaced Matt McGloin (shoulder). Dallas targeted Cook in the draft only to watch Oakland grab him, then settled for Dak Prescott. If somehow Cook is as good as Prescott, maybe the Raiders can shock the field.
Nope: Realistically, the Raiders’ Super Bowl dreams shattered when Colts pass rusher Trent Cole twisted QB Derek Carr to the ground on Christmas Eve and Oakland’s star hollered, “It’s broke!” six times . Without Carr, it’s hard to see how Cook can lead a team with a deficient defense to four wins in the playoffs.
The Dope: “As long as we believe in each other and our fans believe in us, the sky is the limit. We can do anything we set our minds out to do.” — linebacker Bruce Irvin.
6. MIAMI (10-6), last Lombardi: Super Bowl 8, 24-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 13, 1974.
Hope: If Jay Ajayi can run wild again , the Dolphins have a chance. In one-score games, they’ve won eight straight. After a 1-4 stumble under first-year coach Adam Gase, the Dolphins won nine of 10 before losing their finale to New England.
Nope: QB Ryan Tannehill is out with a knee injury and although they turned their season around with a Week 6 win over Pittsburgh, the Dolphins’ injury-riddled defense is fading. They’ve allowed 436 yards on average over the last six weeks. They surrendered a franchise record 6,122 yards overall.
The Dope: “That is how we lived this whole season. Even the first time we played Pittsburgh, nobody gave us a chance. It’s not surprising to us we’re 10-point underdogs. It doesn’t faze us. We prefer it that way. We’re going to go out and do our thing.” — safety Michael Thomas.