When the NFL playoffs kick off on January 6th each team will battle to book a ticket to Super Bowl 52. Although everyone has the same goal in mind, not every team is created equally. Let’s take a look at the AFC playoff team’s keys to success and realistic expectations in this year’s playoffs.

New England Patriots (13-3)

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady once again sit atop the AFC ensuring all roads go through New England. Health has proved to be a big issue for the Patriots, especially in their linebacking core. New England has become prone to giving up big chunks of yards on outside runs going back to their bye week. Since the bye week, the Pats have only held one playoff team to under 100 yards rushing. That was in Week 16, a contest that saw LeSean McCoy leave with an injury. If the Patriots can limit the run and keep Brady and the offense on the field then they will continue their historic dominance. Brady must also limit interceptions. It’s fair to say Brady’s short-comings towards the end of the year were over stated, but he’ll need to make better decisions in the playoffs. If the Patriots play perfect football there isn’t a team in the league that can dethrone them. If New England can avoid beating themselves then they should find themselves in Minnesota come February.

New England should be considered the team to beat for this year’s Super Bowl. However, without a succession plan for Brady in place and his play diminishing over the last half of the season, the Patriots may soon be in limbo. Every Super Bowl may be Brady’s last at this point so they must take advantage of the lack of talent in the AFC now while they remain the top dog.

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

In Week 15, Pittsburgh showcased two realities. One in which they could temper the Patriots offense and cause issues with man coverage. The other is that even with their best effort they still find themselves playing little brother to Bill and Brady. Before they face off against New England again, barring a Patriots meltdown, Pittsburgh will need to be healthy.

With Antonio Brown injured, the Steelers’┬áreceiving core looks pretty pedestrian. If Brown is healthy then the Killer B’s have the capability of going to Big Ben’s third Super Bowl. If they find themselves there and get healthy, they have the offense to keep up with anyone in the NFL. Their biggest question will remain whether their defense can make a big stop.

With Ben Roethlisberger’s health deteriorating every year, it is unclear when he will call it quits. When the day comes, a new regime will take over in Pittsburgh and their may be tough times. Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin will surely look to get the monkey off their back that is the Patriots prior to their departure. This may be the best year to do so with an exposed New England defense and injuries on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh fans should accept nothing less than a conference championship game after this regular season.

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

If the Jaguars want to succeed this post-season they will need to do so behind their ferocious defensive front. The Jaguars house four pro-bowlers on their roster, all of which can be found on defense. If DE Calais Campbell and DT Malik Johnson can continue to terrorize opposing quarterbacks it’s possible the Jaguars can make some noise out of the three seed. Bortles will also need to limit mistakes in the opportunities his defense gives him. The fewer interceptions Bortles produces, the higher the likelihood Jaguars make it to the Super Bowl.

A team like Jacksonville carries a disappointing stigma for being a mediocre organization. Winning a playoff game or two would set a standard for the future of the Jaguars. With such a young roster, the Jags will gain experience regardless of their final outcome. In Jacksonville’s first playoff appearance in 10 years, expectations are low. But with their talent the team has a chance to make great strides going forward.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

Kansas City has all the talent necessary to reach the Super Bowl. It is a similar roster to the one that won their division last year. Similarly to last year, the Chief’s success will rely on a few individual performances. Alex Smith will need to be as efficient as he was when defeating New England all the way back in week one. Beyond that, Travis Kelce will need to be a force in the red zone and avoid personal fouls. And finally, Andy Reid must defeat that dreaded game clock that has bested him so often in the past.

This is an important off-season for the Chiefs. Andy Reid’s team has been inconsistent at best in recent years. He may soon find himself on the chopping block if the Chiefs once again go one-and-done these playoffs. Expect them to get to New England, but don’t expect them leave with a win.

Tennessee Titans (9-7)

Tennessee has been unable to score 25-plus points since the month of September. If that stat didn’t kill the Titan’s playoff hopes in the regular season, then recent news certainly has. DeMarco Murray will likely be inactive for their Wild Card game on Saturday. The saying ‘any given Sunday’ is not foreign to me. I know its unfair to rule out a team before they even play. Tennessee would need to play out of their mind to win. With an average defense and Marcus Mariota’s 13-15 TD-INT ratio, Derrick Henry will need to be uber-effective in Murray’s absence. Mariota will also have to be better than he has been all season if they want to win a game.

The big news circulating Tennessee is Mike Mularkey’s future with the team. Should they win Saturday, Mularkey will certainly return for another year. If they do fall to Kansas City, though, it is reported that Mularkey’s job will be in jeopardy. In the case of a loss, potential head coaching candidates will likely determine Mularkey’s future.

Buffalo Bills (9-7)

After 17 long, cold, unforgiving seasons Buffalo faithful finally returns to the postseason. If they want this magical season to continue they will need some help. Most importantly, RB LeSean McCoy will need to be healthy. Tyrod Taylor has proven to be a capable game manager, but his abilities lack those of a great quarterback. Buffalo’s defensive front will need to get to the quarterback and force Bortles to make mistakes if they want to make it out of wild card weekend. If the Bills can pressure quarterbacks during the playoffs they can succeed. Even if Taylor plays his best football, it all boils down to McCoy in the end. The only way Buffalo takes down he Jaguars will be if Shady is at his best.

By making the playoffs, Buffalo may already consider this season a success. This may have secured head coach Sean McDermott’s job for another year, but the Bills have a long way to go. The Bills will be able to use any experience and success they get from this unlikely playoff run in the future. For now Buffalo should just enjoy the moment and hope for miracles to happen.

Sources

Featured picture by Associated Press/Times Free Press
Statistics by pro-football-reference.com