Today we’ve got two AFC matchups ahead. For the first time in what feels like years, there’s a crew of teams that seem capable of beating the Patriots, potentially giving the conference a different Super Bowl representative.
That’s no small thing, given that the Patriots have been involved in the last three Super Bowls and four of the last five in total. You have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a team that wasn’t the Patriots or Broncos taking up space in the big game, a measure of just how unbalanced the AFC has been for many years now. In contrast, the NFC has sent six different squads in seven years since 2013, and it remains the more competitive conference overall.
Let’s talk about the games. This will be your open thread.
Buffalo Bills @ Houston Texans, 4:35 p.m.
This feels a little bit like a mismatch, honestly.
The Texans are obviously the superior team on offense, ranking 14th in points scored against 23rd for Buffalo, but the Bills are extremely scary defensively, ranking 2nd in points against compared to 19th for the Texans. Houston has a decent but not great ground game and is heavily reliant on Deshaun Watson to win games. Buffalo needs Josh Allen to be good to make a deep run in the postseason, but they can beat you even if he’s not at his best.
Houston’s dismantling of the Falcons and fine 10-6 record belie how shaky they’ve been in 2019. The team has allowed 7 more points than it has scored en route to that 10-6 record, and for perspective, Atlanta went 7-9 allowing 18 more points than they scored. The roster is studded with talent but there are massive, massive holes and I’m not sold on Bill O’Brien as anything more than a Marvin Lewis Memorial coach who can get his team to the playoffs half the time and immediately bow out.
The Bills, on the other hand, outscored their opponents by nearly 60 points and are an absolutely brutal matchup due to their secondary and overall defensive acumen. Allen is a pain to contain given his ability to scramble, they have a deep stable of backs, and guys like John Brown are underrated. Buffalo looks like the better team on paper, even if they have to play this one on the road, and nothing short of a (admittedly plausible) wizardly performance from Watson is probably going to be enough to push Houston by them.
Prediction: Bills win
Tennesse Titans @ New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m.
This one should be a laugher. As good as Ryan Tannehill and company have been as they pushed their way into the playoffs at 9-7, the Patriots still have an air of inevitability about them. They outscored opponents by nearly 200 points (the Titans did so by 70ish) and are the Bill Belichick Patriots, for god’s sake.
Yet this feels like the year that some shakiness has finally pervaded the operation, and for the most mundane reasons: Tom Brady is getting old and the team’s lackluster history of adding weapons to the offense has come home to roost.
Brady has defied the odds long enough that he’ll retire as the greatest quarterback of all-time with very few people piping up to dispute that—and all of those going for Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, probably—but this year has been his worst in a long, long time. His completion percentage dropped to its lowest point since 2013, his touchdown passes and air yards per attempt to a low not equaled since 2006, and his yards per attempt to their lowest point since 2002. The signs of aging and decline were so subtle as to be virtually unnoticeable the last couple of years, but they’ve arrived in such spectacular fashion that it’s worth asking if he’ll even be back with the Patriots next year.
The lack of weapons has compounded this. Rob Gronkowski is gone, Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown didn’t last long, and Mohamed Sanu has been mysteriously useless given that he was a very competent player for the Falcons. Sony Michel has come alive a little bit but has not been the stellar back the Patriots thought they were investing in, and the offensive line is dinged up. This team has perhaps the most uninspiring offense in the postseason, and the postseason features the Packers and Bills.
The defense is still borderline phenomenal, of course, and they’re still the most well-coached team in the NFL. The Titans come in extremely hot, however, with Tannehill enjoying a career revival, Derrick Henry killing defenders in cold blood, and Jonnu Smith quietly dominating. They also have a very good defense, as the Falcons can attest, and will at least provide a solid challenge for the Patriots.
I don’t think this is where New England stops, ultimately, but given how good the Ravens, Chiefs, and Bills are this year, this might be the postseason where they fail to make it all the way. Famous last words, right?
Prediction: Patriots win