Full disclosure: I don't hate the Bills or Titans.
I don't hate the Patriots, either — in fact, further disclosure, I have a serious soft spot for New England running back James White.
But as the hip crowd would say, if we're keepin' it 100, let's just admit what a shame it was last season when the AFC's tiebreakers fell in a way that gave Tennessee and Buffalo entry into the playoffs — as cute as Andy Dalton's love affair with Bills Mafia was — while leaving the far more imposing Chargers and Ravens out in the cold after those four teams all finished 9-7. The Patriots barely broke a sweat against the Titans in the divisional round before overcoming the plucky, but inevitably doomed, Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
But it doesn't have to be that way this time.
After what the Texans showed us in Thursday night's 42-23 dismantling of Miami, this season's AFC playoff field could have five truly legit challengers to New England's near-perennial throne. If the Patriots reach the Super Bowl for the ninth time in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, that's fine … we just want to see them really earn it this go-round by navigating this lineup:
You're thinking it's too early to gas up this bandwagon, right, despite the fact this first-place team is now riding a five-game roll? But think about it …
► After a five-TD night, when he struck all levels of the field against the Dolphins, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson appears close to the form that had him in the thick of the MVP race as a rookie in 2017 before he tore up his knee in a midseason practice.
►J.J. Watt has an uphill battle if he wants to capture a fourth defensive MVP trophy given the way Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack are playing. But simply having Watt, tied for the league lead with eight sacks, back in the mix is a great sign after two injury-marred seasons. The Texans defense is turning the corner, and Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Tyrann Mathieu probably aren't the first quartet Brady would choose to face in January.
►No mincing words, Houston's O-line isn't very good. Watson doesn't help it at times when he refuses to cut his losses on a dead-end play and winds up taking an unnecessary whack. However, the front five looked better Thursday, the first time Watson wasn't sacked all season after going down an NFL-high 26 times entering Week 8. Just as important, better blocking means bigger holes for Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue (175 combined rushing yards against Miami) and more quality time for Watson to find Mr. Mismatch, DeAndre Hopkins, downfield. Unfortunately, it appears Will Fuller suffered a serious knee injury Thursday, but Keke Coutee has shown he can pick up the slack if his hamstring heals.
“I think we’ve got the best offense in the NFL,” Hopkins said, after serving a fresh reminder of what a transcendent talent he is.
“What we put up tonight against a pretty good defense, what we’ve shown in these past five games that we’ve won, we’re up there with the best of the best.”
Skeptics might not want to see a Playoff Part 3 between Houston and New England after witnessing two Patriots walkovers in past matchups. But Watson is the wild card here. He's not Matt Schaub, and he's certainly not Brock Osweiler. Watson is a fearless competitor who valiantly traded blows with Alabama while splitting two college national championship games.
Given the headaches he gave Nick Saban, who doesn't want to see him test Bill Belichick — Watson's already been a handful in two regular-season losses at New England — when the stakes are highest?
Kansas City Chiefs
They came up short in a 43-40 shootout at Gillette Stadium in Week 6, the first time gunslinger Patrick Mahomes was too slow on the draw in his young career. But good luck finding anyone who wouldn't want to see a K.C.-N.E. rematch in the AFC title round. Old school vs. new school … young bucks vs. dynastic royalty … fun and gun vs. buttoned up — however we'd frame it, this would be fantastic. And given neither team plays great defense, the Chiefs' fleet of fresh-legged stars might just have the edge in a late-season track meet.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Lightning Bolts seem to be under the Doppler radar despite a four-game winning streak of their own. Now 5-2, their only losses have come to the Rams and Chiefs, so no shame there.
More importantly, has Philip Rivers ever played better? The (sometimes) fine whiner —we kid because we care, Phil — has a pristine 117.8 passer rating and should be on the MVP short list. Of course, it sure helps when you're surrounded by a top-notch tandem of backs (Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler) and deep corps of receivers led by Keenan Allen but getting plenty of big plays from Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams.
But the Chargers could really turn up the juice on the other side of their bye, when defensive end Joey Bosa is expected to make his 2018 debut after coping with a foot injury. This defense has talent at every level, but the pass-rushing combo of Bosa and Melvin Ingram has the ingredients to be a Brady antidote in January.
They're tough. They're nasty. They pack the NFL's top-ranked defense. Joe Flacco appears on the brink of a career year, armed with a suite of weapons he's rarely enjoyed in his career.
Most of all, John Harbaugh's team has no fear of the Patriots. Baltimore and New England have split four postseason meetings even though they've all occurred in Foxborough. When these teams collide, you're probably going to see some unforgettably fierce football.
They merit inclusion on this list because they're talented. Big Ben. AB. JuJu. Le'Veon Bell — presumably — though this offense has been just fine with second-year back James Conner carrying the mail with no problem in Bell's absence. Despite defensive deficiencies, Pittsburgh is capable of beating anyone.
But, honestly, of these five would-be contenders to what's become New England's AFC birthright, we're least excited about the Steelers. They tend to undermine themselves at the worst times — remember when Bell had already discounted Jacksonville in last season's divisional round? Oops. Also, Pittsburgh is 0-for-3 against Brady and Belichick in the postseason and too often looks lost trying to defend New England's offense. So we're saying there's a chance, but …
… we'd probably like to see the Patriots go through (at least) two of the other spoilers instead.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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