5 AFC playoff questions — the biggest storylines heading into wild-card weekend

Can Chiefs end long playoff home skid? Who are the healthiest teams? Can a young QB surprise?

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1. How much will QB experience matter?

It’s the old dogs vs. the new pups. Tom Brady has 37 playoff starts, and he’s been on the winning side in 27 of them. Philip Rivers has nine postseason starts, and Andrew Luck has six. The other three AFC quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson — are all making their playoff debuts.

If there’s ever a year to challenge the notion that postseason experience (especially at quarterback) is crucial, it could be this one.

Mahomes has been the league’s most prolific QB this season and will be playing at home. Watson has been brilliant after a slow start, with a 16-2 TD-INT ratio the past nine games. Jackson is the most dangerous runner of the bunch, and he’s playing fearlessly.

That’s not to suggest that Brady can’t dig deep for his playoff magic or that Rivers or Luck can’t exorcise their postseason demons this year. But it does feel like the door is open for a next-generation quarterback to really make some noise over the next few weeks.

The longest shot would be the 21-year-old Jackson, who will be the youngest starting QB in playoff history. He has seven NFL starts to date and would need three more victories (perhaps two coming on the road) to reach the Super Bowl and bring his start total to 10. That would put him just behind Colin Kaepernick (nine starts), Vince Ferragamo (seven) and Jeff Hostetler (six) for fewest combined NFL starts prior to starting a Super Bowl

Want one more bar-trivia question with which to stump your friends? The highest passing total for a quarterback making his first start: Kelly Holcomb for the Cleveland Browns, in 2002, with 429. Mahomes might have a shot at topping that, but he also could run into one of three hot defenses (Chargers, Colts, Ravens) in that first game.

2. Which teams are healthiest? Who is hurting the most with injuries?

The Chiefs will have the extra week to evaluate where they are with some talented players who might be able to contribute in the playoffs. WR Sammy Watkins (foot) has been out five weeks and counting. S Eric Berry (heel) was held out in Week 17 after being worked back into the lineup, as was RB Spencer Ware (hamstring). RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (shin) could be activated off the IR for part of the playoffs.

The Patriots appear to be in relatively good shape, especially with the extra time. Many have speculated Brady is dealing with a knee injury, possibly an MCL, but he’s not been on the injury report. S Devin McCourty (head) and WR-RB-KR Cordarrelle Patterson (knee) are the only other major contributors who are in play, and there’s strong optimism both could return for the divisional round.

The Texans have a few concerning injuries, including the loss of WR Demaryius Thomas (Achilles) for the season. RB Lamar Miller (ankle) is expected to be ready for the Colts game, but CB Johnathan Joseph (neck), DT Brandon Dunn (ankle) and WR Keke Coutee (hamstring) are still up in the air. WR DeAndre Hopkins (ankle) and LB Bernardrick McKinney (heel) also are banged up but expected to be ready.

Are the Ravens the healthiest AFC team heading into the postseason? Maybe, and that’s quite a change from an injury-ravaged 2017 season. LG Alex Lewis (shoulder) could return to the lineup after missing four games, and WR John Brown (hamstring) appears fine.

The Chargers could receive some very good news with RB Melvin Gordon (ankle) expected to go, and what a fascinating addition TE Hunter Henry (torn ACL) could be if he’s cleared and activated off IR. If Henry can play at a high level, they’d be adding another weapon just after the offense had leveled off a bit.

The Colts would love to get C Ryan Kelly (neck) back in the lineup after he missed Week 17 and a handful of other games this season, as the offense just wasn’t quite the same without him. WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) also has been battling for the past month or so to stay healthy, but he’s expected to play against the Texans — a team he routinely has destroyed in his career. Another possible boost could come from the return of S Clayton Geathers (knee) to help bolster the secondary vs. Watson.

3. Does momentum matter heading into the playoffs?

This is such an open-ended question, and it can be as focused or protracted as we want, so let’s first set some parameters for the question. The longest current win streak by any NFL team heading into the postseason is — you might be surprised — four games.

One is the Chicago Bears. The other is an AFC team. Can you guess?

Yes, that would be the Colts, who beat the Titans (then winners of four straight) last week to get into the playoffs. Can we say they’re the hottest team in the conference field right now? There’s certainly a argument to be made, especially as they had won five straight prior to their 6-0 clunker of a loss to the Jaguars. That’s been Indy’s only setback since Week 6.

But what about the team they face? The Texans started 0-3 and ripped off 11 wins in their next 13 tries. That might be defined as hot. Of course, one of those losses came to the Colts at home in Week 14, and Houston missed a golden chance to lock up a bye by losing at Philly. So that’s only a 2-2 finish after a scorching middle portion of the season.

The Ravens are winners of six of seven since the bye when Jackson took over at QB. They’re playing some of their best ball of the season now, even in the 27-24 loss at Kansas City that came down to a few wild conversions late by Mahomes and Co.

Like the Texans, the Chargers overcame a poor start to enter the dance. They’re on an 11-2 run as well, but just like Houston, they also lost just to a team (Baltimore) they recently faced — and this rematch is on the road.

The funny part about this is that of the top two seeds, the Chiefs and Patriots, neither can really be called hot. The Chiefs are 3-3 down the stretch, which was preceded by an unimpressive win over the three-win Cardinals, and they blew three separate 14-point leads in their only home loss of the season to the Chargers.

New England won eight of nine games and was on the verge of making it nine of 10 prior to the “Miami Miracle” loss to the Dolphins. That was followed by a bad loss to the Steelers. Two losses in December for a Bill Belichick-coached team? The last time that happened, in 2012, the Patriots were the two seed and were beat up in the AFC title game to the top-seeded Broncos.

Of course, both the Chiefs and Patriots blew out their lesser Week 17 opponents.

It begs the question: Does any of this even matter?

Recent history suggests maybe not. The Eagles lost two December games last year sandwiched around three narrow victories. The team they beat in Super Bowl LII, the Patriots, went 11-1 to finish the 2017 regular season. The Patriots and Falcons both steamrolled into the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl with strong finishes down the stretch in 2016, but the Broncos — shaky late amid a QB change — beat the 15-1 Panthers the year before that.

It’s hard to discount what the Texans and Colts have done during their magical runs, nor can we ignore how transformative the past two months have been for a team such as the Ravens. But those elements also do not portend Super Bowl destinies, of course.

Momentum feels like a faulty measurement heading into the postseason. Some teams are able to elevate their play once the stakes have been raised, and others clearly cannot. Consider this a new season starting Saturday.

4. How much does defense matter?

Clearly, the Ravens have a formula that works — and a defense that’s peaking at the right time. After seven combined forced fumbles and INTs in the first 10 games, they have a total of 10 of those in the past six. The Ravens turned in banner performances against three high-flying passing games against the Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers — all of those on the road, too. Defense travels, as the old adage goes.

We lean on Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings quite a bit; it measures just how relatively good teams were, not just in terms of rankings in each categories, but it’s weighted toward more important stats and trends.

But they also take it a step further with their Weighted DVOA, which puts a greater emphasis on more recent performances. For their defensive rankings, the highest AFC team is Baltimore at No. 4 (minus-14.1 percent — the lower the number, the better). The next-best defensive team in the AFC playoff field is the Chargers at No. 7 (minus-5.9 percent), followed closely behind by Indianapolis at No. 8 (minus-5.8 percent).

The remaining AFC playoff teams are as follows: Houston at No. 10 (minus-5.2 percent), New England at No. 13 (0.0 percent), and Kansas City No. 17 (2.5 percent). The Chiefs’ full-season number was 6.8 percent, which was ranked 26th in the NFL, so this suggests that this unit is trending in the right direction at the very least. In fact, the majority of the AFC playoff teams are improved down the stretch, with the Texans the only team of the six taking a small step back.

5. Can a wildcard-weekend team make it to Atlanta?

From the 2005 to 2012 seasons, there were six wildcard-round participants in Super Bowls, making a fairly common phenomenon. Since then, however? Zero. It appears that home field has been a huge edge in recent seasons, as each of the past 10 Super Bowl teams have been one- or two-seeds.

The Chiefs are 7-1 at Arrowhead, with the aforementioned one-point loss to what would become a 12-win Chargers team. So clearly Kansas City is going to be tough to beat at home by that factor alone.

The only two AFC teams in the field with winning road records this season are as follows: the Chargers at 7-1 (plus-63 point differential) and the Texans at 5-3 (plus-15). The Colts and Ravens both were 4-4, but Baltimore outscored its opponents in those games by 45 points and the Colts by a net plus-13.

Those are all pretty respectable marks. Would you believe the worst road record by an AFC playoff team belongs to … New England? The Patriots are 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, having been outscored by a combined 19 points in those games. Road blowouts to the Jaguars and Lions early were one thing, but getting canned by the Titans and dropping back-to-back road games at Miami and Pittsburgh shows the Patriots can be vulnerable. They scored 10 points each in two of those losses.

You might assume that the Chargers and Ravens — both of which played tight, tense games at Arrowhead this season — are best prepared to go in there and beat the Chiefs. Then again, the Patriots already beat the Chiefs (with Kareem Hunt) once before and in theory are a better defensive team now than they were back in Week 6.

There’s also this unsettling fact: As raucous as it can get in the playoffs in Kansas City, the Chiefs have lost a shocking six straight postseason games there, including one in each of the past two seasons. Those teams were different than this year’s banner unit, but it doesn’t discount the fact that home field didn’t appear to provide much of an edge for them.

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