Wild card weekend has come and gone for the the 2018 NFL Season. In the AFC, both the Bills (sorry, Bills Mafia) and the Chiefs were sent packing. The Tennessee Titans will head to New England for their matchup with the Patriots Saturday night while the Jaguars will travel up to Pittsburgh for theirs.
The Patriots are still the presumed favorites to come out of the AFC now just as they were back in August when teams were going through training camp.
They had their usual first round bye, they still hold home field advantage throughout the postseason, Rob Gronkowski is healthy, and they have more playoff experience and pedigree than any other team.
Despite all that, it is still the NFL. Any team can defeat another on any given day, all it takes is a few good breaks for an upset to happen. New England is not perfect, they have a defense that can be exposed and applying pressure to Tom Brady can kill rhythm for the offense.
Each of the remaining teams in the AFC want their shot at the defending champs, the question is does New England need to worry about any of them?
The Titans finished the year with a record of 9-7 and they are lead by third year quarterback Marcus Mariota. Tennessee finished the year 23rd in total offense and 13th in total defense.
The Titans are best known for being stingy against the run, they gave up only 88.8 rushing yards per game this season, good for fourth best in the NFL. Their secondary is where things become more complicated.
Tennesse was 25th in the NFL this season giving up nearly 240 passing yards per game. They do have a playmaker at safety in second year man Kevin Byard who led the NFL with 8 interceptions, but beyond him they are a weak unit.
On offense, Tennessee was 23rd in passing yards per game and 15th in rushing. Mariota had a decent year, but again dealt with some injuries and inconsistent play as he has done to this point in his career.
For most of the season the Titans deployed a two headed attack in the backfield of Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry, but now Murray is nursing a torn MCL and his status going forward is unclear.
Henry was very solid in the Wild Card game for the Titans. He is a big back who combines power with speed and could potentially give New England trouble if he gets his rhythm early.
Receiving the Titans had Rashard Matthews and Delaine Walker combine for nearly 1,600 receiving yards, but only 7 touchdowns between them. They do not have a true threat through the air.
It is hard to envision this Titans team coming into Foxborough and taking down the Patriots. A weak pass defense is not amongst the ways to slow down Tom Brady, and a mediocre offense plays into the hands of the Patriots “bend, but don’t break” defense.
Watching this past Sunday it was clear that Mariota is the leader of this team and they respond to him. He has a reputation for being a winner, but Foxborough is arguably the most difficult place to go into and win in January.
Tennessee is not stoping anyone, let alone the Patriots, through the air. Between that and their inexperience the Patriots should take this matchup without any problems on Saturday night.
The Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville is a really interesting matchup for New England if they can get past Pittsburg in the Divisional Round.
On paper, this team is everything that should give the Patriots trouble. They have stingy, playmaking cornerbacks who rack up interceptions. More concerning is that they apply pressure as well as any team in the league, something that has routinely disturbed the Patriots offense in the past.
This season the Jags were second in total defense, they led the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed per game, and they were second in the league in total sacks and interceptions.
Their defensive line features Calais Campbell who was second in the NFL in sacks this season, Marcel Dareus who has been a thorn in Brady’s side before, and Yannick Ngakoue, a pro bowl snub.
Their secondary has A.J.Bouye who tied for second in the NFL in interceptions this year at 6, Jalen Ramsey an all pro corner (and the guy who sealed the Bills playoff exit), and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, both capable of making plays.
This is exactly the type of defensive unit to pressure Brady, force some bad throws, and intercept those passes. The line has penchant for strip sacks too that was displayed all season long.
The interesting part is all of that production above is undone by Jacksonville’s offense. You are a dedicated NFL fan if you were able to watch all 60 minutes of Blake Bortles versus the Bills on Sunday.
Bortles ran for more yards than he passed, sailed several throws high, threw several others too low, and generally looked totally incompetent. The Jags do not pass the eye test of a 10-6 team who had home field for a wild card game.
In theory, this should be the team to strike some fear into the Patriots. Just watching them play ends any chance of that happening. Maybe if it was not Bortles under center that wouldn’t be the case, but that’s the man they are rolling with now.
Jacksonville is young and growing, unless their defense makes some major key plays (which they surely are capable of), they are not going to come into New England and win a playoff game with that offense.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
This would appear to be the team to cause some panic if they are on the schedule. Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown (if healthy), Mike Tomlin, the James Harrison drama, and so many other players and storylines factor into the Pittsburg, New England rivalry.
For all of the talk the Steelers will put into the media and for all of the discussion of the capabilities of Big Ben, Bell, and Brown the fact is the Steelers have not beaten the Patriots since 2011.
They suffered an embarrassing 36-17 loss in last years postseason, and often times Belichick has coached circles around Mike Tomlin.
This Steelers team is certainly talented. Roethlisberger was fifth in passing yards this season, Bell was third in rushing yards, and Brown was first in receiving yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the most electric rookies in the league and the Steelers nearly beat New England just a few weeks ago.
The defense is also Top 10 in both passing and rushing yards allowed per game. This team is good, that is undeniable.
Still, it feels like destiny that the AFC Title game is being played in January in Foxborough between these two teams and it ends with Brady and Roethlisberger embracing with Brady having come out on top once again.
The world knows how badly the Steelers want to beat the Patriots. Their best chance is exposing New England’s porous defense with the numerous offensive weapons they have and getting enough stops to win the game.
Pittsburgh can do it, but the metal advantage the Patriots hold is going to play a role. Also, don’t forget the Steelers had absolutely no answer for Rob Gronkowski during the regular season.
What Gronkowski did to Pittsburgh on that final New England drive is one of the best individual performances by a tight end the NFL has ever seen.
Trying to potentially stop playoff Gronk in the AFC Title game would be tall order for Pittsburg.
This is the matchup most are anticipating and hoping to see. The game should live up to the hype but it also feels as though the Patriots will be the one’s to come out on top.
For all the drama that has been put out about the Patriots in the last week they are still the reigning champs and will be rested and prepared going into Saturday. Their title defense formally starts this weekend and it is their opponents in the AFC who should be fearing them, not the other way around.