The journey to the grand reveal of our final AFC playoff seeding contained many twists and turns. We didn't know the truth of who would represent the conference in the postseason until the literal final grains of sand fell from the 2017 regular season's hourglass. It was Andy Dalton's 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left on the clock that cemented the participants, sending the Ravens to the abyss and stamping a ticket for the long-absent Bills.
Even now that the six squads are set, popular opinion doesn't seem to have shifted from the assumption that we're on a predestined collision course for a Pittsburgh-New England rematch in the AFC Championship Game. If the other four teams are to derail either of the presumptive AFC favorites at some point, they'll need to receive season-best efforts from their strengths while working to minimize the effects of their own weaknesses.
Let's take a look at said strengths and weaknesses of the entire AFC field, with the teams below listed according to seeding.
1) New England Patriots (13-3)
Strength: When you trot out one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, you have an obvious strength every week. However, another key figure has emerged in the offense: running back Dion Lewis. The veteran was a difference-maker in the season's second act, ranking fifth (4.45) in Next Gen Stats' average yards gained after defenders close within 1 yard from Weeks 10 to 17. The Patriots seemed hesitant to overwork him early in the year, but doled out 29 and 32 touches to Lewis in the final two games of the regular season. New England enters the playoffs with a top-flight running game to complement Tom Brady's exploits in the aerial attack.
Weakness: Injuries have slowly siphoned ability away from a front seven that was already questionable for New England over the course of the year. There just isn't much talent left up front on the Patriots' defense. On the season, New England ranks 31st in Next Gen Stats' disruption rate, or the percentage of plays where a defender records a pressure or run stuff. It's simply a front seven bereft of difference-makers. However, it's worth noting that the always-crafty Patriots might have unearthed an X-factor in James Harrison, whose 41.7 percent pressure rate in Week 17 was the best of any New England defender all year.
2) Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Strength: We haven't seen Antonio Brown since early in the second quarter of Pittsburgh's Week 15 loss to New England. Luckily for the Steelers, they possess two top-of-their-position-level stars on offense. Le'Veon Bell was the only running back in the NFL to clear 300 carries this season, and he also led all running backs in routes run, per Pro Football Focus. Bell's workload was mammoth, but if anything, the Steelers know he's the type of player they can ride to success. In a season where Ben Roethlisberger struggled to get out of the blocks early and Brown was banged up at the end, Bell has been the constant force.
Weakness: In a season-defining moment, the Steelers lost Ryan Shazierin Week 13 to a frightening injury against the division-rival Bengals. Shazier would later go on injured reserve following spinal stabilization surgery. The Steelers' defense hasn't been the same since the star linebacker left the scene, especially in run defense. In Weeks 1-12, the Steelers allowed 96 rushing yards per game, but that figure ballooned to 133.8 in Weeks 13-16 without Shazier in the mix. Pittsburgh is a well-balanced squad with few glaring holes, but the absence of Shazier loomed large in the second act of the regular season.
3) Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Strength: Conglomerate-driven superhero films have long ago reached the point of oversaturation in today's culture, but the marriage of powers between Jacksonville's defensive line and backfield has formed to create the NFL's truest example of a supergroup. The Jaguars combine a pass rush led by double-digit sack artists Calais Campbell (14.5) and Yannick Ngakoue (12) with a clamping secondary stocked with a pair of shutdown cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. The Jags allow a miniscule passer rating of 47.5 when they get pressure while snaring eight picks, per Next Gen Stats. It's one of the most fearsome stop units assembled in the last decade, at least.
Weakness:Blake Bortles has undoubtedly had the most stable season of his career in 2017, but given his history and even some moments of self-sabotage this season, it's fair to point to him as this well-rounded team's weakness. Bortles particularly struggles when plays break down from the crafted structure Jacksonville wants to keep in place. In Weeks 16 and 17, Bortles completed just five of 18 pass attempts under pressure for 46 yards, per Next Gen Stats. If the Jaguars fall behind and defenses can pin their ears back, their quarterback doesn't inspire confidence.
4) Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Strength: In one of the more underrated twists of the NFL season, the once-listless Kansas City offense became a big-play machine in 2017. According to Pro Football Focus, Alex Smith leads all quarterbacks with a 131.4 passer rating on deep passes this year. Tyreek Hill owns five of the top 10 fastest speeds on touchdown receptions this year, per Next Gen Stats. Breakout rookie rusher Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing. We haven't even touched on Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce. The Chiefs have a truly explosive offense with multiple dimensions for the first time in the Andy Reid era.
Weakness: For as many highlights as their scoring unit offered this season, the Chiefs gave up just as many to opposing offenses. The secondary is a massive issue, hemorrhaging production in the pass game and proving an all-too-easy unit to attack. Marcus Peters is the only Kansas City corner who ranks outside the top 20 in most yards allowed per coverage snap, per Pro Football Focus. Since Peters rarely moves from his left corner position, opponents simply attack the Chiefs from the slot and defensive right side. This will be a serious liability should Kansas City advance to face New England or Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round.
5) Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Strength: The Titans aren't exactly a team flush with excitement or flair. The one strength of their team all year was the defensive front seven. Tennessee allowed a mere 3.6 yards per carry on the ground this season, the fourth-lowest figure in the NFL. The face of the unit is perennially underrated defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who leads all 3-4 defensive ends with a 12.4 percent run-stop rate, according to PFF. The Titans also field a solid pass-rushing unit, racking up the seventh-most pressures this season, per Next Gen Stats. They'll need every ounce of juice from this unit to pull off some postseason upsets.
Weakness: The Titans' offense hasn't cleared 24 points in any game since their Week 8 bye. A unit that was meant to take the next step with a third-year quarterback has regressed into a monotonous outfit often caught between two identities. Marcus Mariota underperformed, posting the worst passer rating (18.4) on tight-window throws among starting quarterbacks this year. Mike Mularkey handicapped the offense by keeping the pace slow and featuring a clearly declining DeMarco Murray all season. We have little evidence that the 2017 Titans are a scoring attack to fear in a playoff environment.
6) Buffalo Bills (9-7)
Strength: Sean McDermott regularly compiled ragtag groups of young players and castoff veterans to field surprisingly strong secondaries during his time as the Carolina Panthers' defensive coordinator. He's done it again as the head man in Buffalo. The Bills rank in the top six in interceptions and passer rating allowed despite registering just 27 sacks. It's been a mix of young and old once again for McDermott. First-round rookie Tre'Davious White was a home-run pick, as opposing quarterbacks have a 64.3 passer rating when targeting the LSU product, per Next Gen Stats. Unheralded free-agent additions Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer combined for 10 picks, with Hyde earning a Pro Bowl nod.
Weakness: Buffalo made a foolish decision to bench capable starter Tyrod Taylor in the middle of the regular season. Yet, even the most ardent Tyrod supporters must admit this offense lacks firepower. The Bills averaged 15.7 points per game in the final six weeks of the season. Taylor isn't the most aggressive passer, throwing just 14.6 percent of his passes into tight windows over the last two years, per Next Gen Stats. His top two receivers are a rookie who caught just 36.5 percent of his targets in Zay Jones and Kelvin Benjamin, who has been banged up for most of his games in Buffalo. Star dual-threat back LeSean McCoywas hurt in Week 17.