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Over the last two years, the AFC has seen their Wild Card representatives fail to make it to the next round, going one-and-done. The last time a wild card weekend went wild, was in 2020 when we saw the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns overtake the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively. Since then, it’s been an all-division winner playoffs.
This year may see that trend bucked, whether it’s the rejuvenated Browns lead by Joe Flacco or the high-powered Miami Dolphins. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers show some kind of threat to the AFC after a recent hot streak. So who has the best shot to take down the division winners and move on? Let’s take a look:
#5. Cleveland Browns (11-6) vs. #4. Houston Texans (10-7) – Saturday, 4:30 P.M.
The Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans will meet for the third time since the Deshaun Watson trade. Coincidentally, all three games were at NRG Stadium and the first two resulted in victories for Cleveland. However, this game could be different as Houston will have offensive rookie of the year candidate C.J. Stroud, as well as defensive rookie of the year candidate Will Anderson Jr.. Both will find ways to add a little spice to this game and make it even more interesting.
Cleveland Browns: Jim Schwartz – Defensive Coordinator
One of the biggest successes for the Cleveland Browns this season has been the defense. They’ve given up the least amount of total yards and passing yards, and are a top ten team in terms of takeaways. The only downside is their defense has struggled on the road. If defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can clean up the defense and get them to a home-game standard, Cleveland may be even more dangerous going forward.
Houston Texans: Nico Collins – Wide Receiver
Rookie sensation Tank Dell is out for the year, Noah Brown was dealing with a back injury last week, missing all of practice and last week’s game, and Robert Woods has had a limited role in this offense. The one consistent threat in the air has been Nice Collins, but he’s been a lightning rod for this team. If Stroud can get things going with Collins, it could be a long day for Cleveland.
Prediction: Browns win, 30-24. Houston is going to be a problem in the near future, that’s for certain. This time though, watch for what some people are calling “The Team Of Destiny” to take that next step.
#6. Miami Dolphins (11-6) vs. #3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6) – Saturday, 8:15 P.M.
This is the game that people have wanted to see since wide receiver Tyreek Hill was traded by Kansas City to Miami last year. While they have met once in the regular season (Kansas City won 21-14), there’s a difference between the regular season Chiefs and the postseason Chiefs. That said, Kansas City hasn’t looked like it’s normal self and has seen some uncharacteristic losses this season. Maybe it was just a phase but if not, the defending champions need to snap out of it or they’ll be heading home.
Miami Dolphins: Eli Apple – Cornerback
This Miami defense is really beaten up: linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel and Jerome Baker were recently ruled out, joining linebackers Bradley Chubb and Jaelen Phillips, as well as cornerback Xavien Howard. This is often where teams look to their veteran leaders for guidance. While Jalen Ramsey is someone to ask, Apple has been in this situation more recently and frequently as of late. Apple is not only going to need to provide a voice on that side of the ball, but step up as well, given his reputation of getting burnt in big games.
Kansas City Chiefs: Rashee Rice – Wide Receiver
Other than tight end Travis Kelce, rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice has perhaps been one of the only players that quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been able to trust. Wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney, Justin Watson and even Mecole Hardman have dropped the ball both figuratively and literally. Though we like to think Kelce can do it on his own, the reality is that Rice is going to need to have a big game.
Prediction: Chiefs win, 24-17. Yes football fans, you’ll have to endure another week of Taylor Swift and “the Swifties” taking over Arrowhead stadium. As much as we would love to pick against Kansas City, we’ll have to “Shake It Off” due to the “Blank Space” left on the Miami depth chart due to injury. Ugh, “Look What You Made Me Do.”
#7. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7) vs. #2. Buffalo Bills (11-6) – Sunday, 1;05 P.M.
The road to the postseason was not pretty for both of these teams. Filled with injuries, changes to coaching staffs and in one case, a carousel of quarterbacks. Thanks to a Tennessee Titans win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, both teams limped in. Now comes the challenge of trying to eliminate each other to move on.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mason Rudolph – Quarterback
Prior to this season, Mason Rudolph has been kind of a meme due to the fight between him and Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. With the success he’s lead Pittsburgh to down the stretch, he has a chance to rewrite that narrative. That chance can easily disappear though with a loss in the Wild Card round.
Buffalo Bills: Terrel Bernard – Linebacker
How do you beat the Pittsburgh Steelers? By stopping their run game. Buffalo has been a middle of the pack team when it comes to stopping the run. If they hold steady and force Rudolph to beat them through the air, they’ll have a much better chance of beating Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Bills Win, 34-31. As crazy as this season has been for Pittsburgh, there’s a difference between having someone like Joe Flacco leading you in the playoffs and having Mason Rudolph do it. Rudolph’s has been a good story, but Josh Allen needs this win more than anything after back-to-back divisional round losses.