Can any AFC team catch the Chiefs?

By Mike Tanier

The only real danger to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs will be the Chiefs themselves.

The defending NFL champions have grown bored of terrestrial football lately. The Chiefs (who have already clinched the AFC West) now strive to turn their games into inscrutable performance art installations, allowing inferior opponents to stay close while they execute play concepts that appear to have been found scribbled in the margins of Hunter S.

Thompson manuscripts.

Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill usually connect for a few 40-yard touchdowns to compensate for their penalties, turnovers and self-indulgent noodling, but the Chiefs’ weekly attempts to commune with the cosmos could eventually result in a playoff upset that allows one of the following pretty good — but far from flawless — challengers to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)

The Steelers rose to 11-0 by pummeling opponents’ backup quarterbacks while hoping that no one noticed that their offense is built entirely out of screen passes. The Washington Football Team and Buffalo Bills figured out in recent victories against the Steelers that Ben Roethlisberger now throws the football as if he’s trying to float a Ping-Pong ball into a red plastic cup. The Steelers’ defense remains dominant, when not dealing with health issues, and the team can find reassurance in the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers nearly beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl last season with a similar set of strengths and weaknesses.

Buffalo Bills (10-3)

Decades in the shadow of the New England Patriots left the Bills with a deep-seated inferiority complex, and they lost important midseason games to the Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans after a 4-0 start by playing as if they simply felt unworthy of being counted among the AFC front-runners.

The Bills appear to have outgrown their self-doubt in recent victories against the Seattle Seahawks and the Steelers, but behavioral conditioning can be hard to break. If quarterback Josh Allen transforms back into an interception-happy Winter Soldier when the Bills visit the Patriots in Week 16, it may mean that the Bills have been irrevocably compromised.

Tennessee Titans (9-4)

Running back Derrick Henry is an indomitable December force, like a nor’easter, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” or a holiday shopper stiff-arming store greeters and grandparents en route to an (empty) PlayStation 5 display. Henry rushed for 215 yards and two touchdowns in the Titans’ victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, and he appears determined to stuff the Titans’ traditional smash-mouth values down everyone’s throats for the holidays just as he did last year.

The Titans’ defense is not nearly as rugged and playoff-ready as their old-fashioned reputation might suggest, but bludgeoning skeptics into quiet acquiescence is also a December tradition, as is post-holiday disappointment.

Cleveland Browns (9-4)

With their balanced offense and dangerous pass rush, the Browns are almost ready to compete for the Super Bowl. But the universe itself is not quite ready for the Browns to compete for the Super Bowl; Lamar Jackson’s recovery from midgame cramps and fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the Browns in Monday night’s 47-42 thriller may have been reality’s way of repairing a dangerous rift in its own fabric.

The Browns are enjoying their first winning season since 2007. Allowing them to enjoy anything more would simply be too much pleasure for anyone to experience in 2020.

Indianapolis Colts (9-4)

The Colts are kit-bashed together from leftover pieces of the 2010s San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers (Philip Rivers), 2017 Minnesota Vikings (cornerback Xavier Rhodes) and last year’s 49ers (defensive tackle DeForest Buckner), all hot-glued onto the frame of the Andrew Luck-era team. As a result, they look pretty good until you examine closely and realize that they were cobbled together almost purposely so they could lose a playoff game.

Miami Dolphins (8-5)

The Dolphins are better at making opponents look foolish than at making themselves look like legitimate contenders. They combined takeaways (they’re tied with the Steelers for the NFL lead with 25) with excellent special teams and an ultraconservative offense to upset the Los Angeles Rams, throw a scare into the Chiefs last week and win lots of low-scoring games against the New York Jets and other bottom-feeders.

Like the Bills, the Dolphins may be programmed by decades of hopelessness to self-destruct if they come too close to success. Coach Brian Flores already benched the rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in one loss in what looked like a panicky move, and Flores might be tempted to turn again to Ryan Fitzpatrick when he needs a comeback, not realizing that the real “FitzMagic” is the outsize reputation the journeyman backup has nurtured by almost winning meaningful games.

Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

With their midseason swoon behind them but with obvious lingering shortcomings on both sides of the ball, the Ravens are barreling toward yet another offseason of “why can’t Lamar Jackson win playoff games?” conversations. Come late January, that may be the only thing fathers-in-law on Facebook have to talk about.

Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)

The Raiders remain mathematically alive but have lost three of their past four games, and they fired defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on Sunday after surrendering 44 points in a loss to the Colts and (more troublingly) 28 points in a near-loss to the Jets.

The Raiders upset the Chiefs in Week 5 and lost by just four points in the Week 11 rematch, so they cannot be discounted as a threat if they reach the playoffs. But again: The trick to winning the AFC is to be on the field when the Chiefs decide to beat themselves. The Raiders are the least likely of the AFC playoff hopefuls to position themselves to make that happen.

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