NFL Playoffs 2016: Injuries Shift Balance of Power in AFC
Everything was clear until multiple star players got injured in the AFC. Now the balance of power has shifted leaving the conference for the NFL Playoffs.
A pair of 5-0 division records highlight the NFL Week 16 outcomes as all playoff spots were clinched in the AFC, and two big-name quarterbacks went down for the count. As the dust settles on the AFC injuries, which teams can truly reach the Super Bowl?
The balance of power has shifted in the AFC, and several teams can still stop New England from claiming the crown. The NFL Playoffs 2016 are wide open, despite the loss of several great players.
The Houston Texans—the horrible, ugly, disconcerting, disastrous Houston Texans—clinched the AFC South title despite a -42 point differential and the benching of their new, expensive starting quarterback. According to that differential, Houston is the fourth-worst team in the conference. According to its record, it is one of the six best. That’s what going 5-0 within its division can do. The injury to Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota helped matters as well.
In the AFC West, a similar story unfolded. The Kansas City Chiefs clinched a playoff spot and moved to 5-0 in their division. Unlike Houston, the Chiefs are legitimately great, with an 11-4 record and a +68 point differential. Each marks them as the third-best in the AFC.
Like the Texans, Kansas City may also have found a fortunate event in the form of a major injury to a competitor. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr is out indefinitely after breaking his leg. This surely dooms the Raiders, opening the door for KC to move from the fifth seed in the conference all the way up to the second seed.
It is terrible to see such drastic injuries curtail fun and successful seasons, but injuries seem to make the difference every year between teams winning and losing. Oakland is still in the postseason, but I can’t see it winning any playoff games with Matt McGloin at quarterback. The Raiders were already playing with fire all season, and that was with the MVP-candidate Carr behind center. Oakland is 12-3, but 8-1 in one-score games. Moreover, the Raiders are 6-0 in games decided by six points or fewer. These are normally unsustainable peaks for even elite players, let alone McGloin.
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Kansas City is likely to beat San Diego next week while watching to see if Denver can topple the McGloin-led Raiders to give the Chiefs the division crown. Either way, control in the AFC seems to have shifted. Maybe the Patriots still have to be the favorites, but it also feels like Carr’s injury made Kansas City a favorite.
Injuries have permanently reshaped the balance of power in the AFC Playoffs and its not even close. Perhaps the best dynamic duo in all of football was broken up by injury a few weeks ago. Rob Gronkowski went out and Tom Brady must fill in the pieces of his passing attack. Without Gronk the Patriots are vulnerable to being beaten by another prolific AFC offense. They are still the favorites, don’t get me wrong, but vulnerable none the less.
I loved Oakland’s chances of overtaking New England until Carr got hurt. Now the Raiders’ offense feels like a shell of itself. Sure the team still has Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree to catch the football, but I have little confidence in their unproven backup quarterback. I believe the Raiders win a playoff game, either in the wildcard round or in round two, but they are now a long shot in the AFC.
The injury to Tennessee’s quarterback was equally as devastating. I loved the Titans as they made their playoff run. The team was on track to overtake Houston for the division, or win a Wild Card berth. Now they have neither one. If Tennessee had reached the postseason, I’d have considered them one of the most dangerous teams to face. That honor now falls to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Only one things scares me about Kansas City. They seem to allow teams to hang around for far too long. But the Chiefs have an incredible running game and the best tight end in football with Travis Kelce. Because Alex Smith is under center, they are not the AFC favorites over Brady and New England. Yet I’d pick them head to head right now, and I do not care for any other AFC team. Miami and Houston are too inconsistent. The Steelers are amazing when they catch fire, but I simply do not trust them to keep the flame burning long enough.
Its the Patriots, Chiefs, and then Pittsburgh by default. But really its a two team race in the AFC right now. Home field advantage will be the difference. If Kansas City secures the second seed, then watch out because Arrowhead Stadium is an unfair advantage like Foxboro.