THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Friday, January 5, 2018
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 51, 34-28 OT over Atlanta on Feb. 5, 2017.
Hope: Tom Brady is a leading MVP candidate again with a league-leading 4,577 yards passing and 32 TDs.
He got hit a lot more than he did last season (32 sacks in '17 after just 15 in '16). But it hasn't stopped the Patriots from having the league's secondranked offence, averaging 28.6 points.
A healthy TE Rob Gronkowski, who missed last year's playoffs, has given the Patriots a huge lift with 69 catches for 1,084 yards. WR Brandin Cooks added 65 receptions for 1,082 yards.
Nope: Brady heads into the playoffs without his favourite target, WR Julian Edelman (knee). Gronk, Cooks and RB Dion Lewis have picked up the slack, but there are still other injury concerns with WR Chris Hogan, RB James White and RB Mike Gillislee all ailing. The defence also is very banged up. Using the bye week to heal up will be huge for New England's prospects.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 over Arizona on Feb. 1, 2009.
Hope: The "Killer Bs" are in full flight for the AFC North champions. Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, RB Le'Veon Bell and K Chris Boswell are all headed to the Pro Bowl - if the Steelers aren't playing in the Super Bowl - and rookie WR JuJu SmithSchuster has given Pittsburgh a youthful jolt. The Steelers averaged 29.9 points a game during the second half of the season and appear plenty comfortable when things get tight.
They went 9-2 in games decided by six points or fewer.
Nope: One of those losses was a 27-24 setback to New England on Dec. 17.
That means a rematch with New England, if it happens, would be in Foxborough.
3. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6)
No Super Bowl appearances Hope: Defence wins championships.
The Jaguars have one of the best Ds in the league - they rank second in points allowed (16.8), interceptions (21), sacks (55) and yards (286) - and they gave up 10 or fewer points in half of their games. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and linebacker Telvin Smith are the cornerstones of a unit that gives Jacksonville a chance in every game.
Nope: QB Blake Bortles has thrown five interceptions the past two weeks, raising concerns about his ability to carry the offence in the clutch. The NFL's top rushing attack has stalled, slowed because of injuries to rookie Leonard Fournette and the offensive line, and Jacksonville's young receivers have started dropping passes, messing up routes and looking far from ready for the playoff stage.
4. KANSAS CITY (10-6)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.
Hope: Alex Smith had the best season of his 13-year career, helped along by the best supporting cast he's ever had. WR Tyreek Hill is a gamechanger not only on offence, but as a punt returner, RB Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, and TE Travis Kelce has arguably supplanted Gronkowski as the best in the game at his position. And should anything happen to Smith, rookie Patrick Mahomes II proved a capable starter and reliever in K.C.'s 27-24 win at Denver last week.
Nope: The Chiefs haven't won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium since January, 1994, a year before Hunt was born. They have lost games in every manner, too - shut out by Baltimore in 2010, beaten by Pittsburgh despite holding the Steelers without a touchdown last year, even losing to the Colts in a game in which nobody punted. Perhaps they're just cursed.
5. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7)
No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 34 to St. Louis Rams in 2000.
Hope: QB Marcus Mariota has found his running mojo again. Mariota ran a career-best 10 times for a seasonhigh 60 yards last week against Jacksonville in helping the Titans clinch their first playoff berth since the 2008 season, his best performance running the ball since breaking his right leg on Christmas Eve 2016.
Nope: Mariota has been intercepted more this season (15) than in either of his previous two years. He also hasn't gotten much help with opponents double- and triple-teaming TE Delanie Walker and with his receivers dropping too many passes or running the wrong routes too often. An inability to stretch the field through the air makes it too easy for defences to load the box and stop the run.
6. BUFFALO BILLS (9-7)
No Lombardis: Lost Super Bowl 25 to New York Giants in 1991, Super Bowl 26 to Washington in 1992, Super Bowl 27 to Dallas in 1993 and Super Bowl 28 to Dallas in 1994.
Hope: It took 18 years for the Bills to get back to the playoffs after losing to the Titans on the "Music City Miracle" on Jan. 8, 2000. The Bills have exceeded expectations during a season in which they overhauled their roster under the first-year tandem of HC Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane. They're a resilient bunch.
Nope: Muting their excitement over ending their playoff drought is the uncertain status of RB LeSean McCoy (ankle), who leads the team in yards rushing, receptions and TDs. The Bills are seeking to end another embarrassing drought: they haven't won a playoff game since 1995.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a leading MVP candidate with a league-leading 4,577 yards passing and 32 TDs.
WINSLOW TOWNSON/USA TODAY SPORTS