Patrick Mahomes faces the Buffalo Bills

Creating an AFC Playoff Race Super Team to Beat the Chiefs

  • baltimore ravens
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Cleveland Browns
  • Indianapolis Colts
  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Miami Dolphins
  • NFL
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Tennessee Titans
By Mitchell Wolfe December 23, 2020 0 Comment
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What if the teams in the AFC playoff race combined their best positional units to form a super team to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs?

Currently, the Kansas City Chiefs lead the AFC playoff race with a 12-1 record. They are in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The defending Super Bowl champions look primed to repeat this postseason, as their AFC competitors all have seemingly fatal flaws.

The previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers dropped their last three games behind a sputtering offense, including a disastrous defeat on Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. While the Buffalo Bills are hot right now, their pass rush seems suspect. The Tennessee Titans are also rounding into form behind Derrick Henry, but their defense regressed from last season.

Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens struggle to perform against good teams this season. The Cleveland Browns’ secondary is very questionable, and they have a legacy of futility to overcome. Philip Rivers, now with the Indianapolis Colts, generally struggles in the playoffs, and the Miami Dolphins are most likely a few years away from competing with the Chiefs.

A Special Christmas Gift for the AFC

Therefore, as we are in the holiday season, and the thick of the NFL playoff race, I would present this gift to NFL fans. What if the other teams in the AFC playoff race could combine their best units to create one super team to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs? In this exercise, I will select positional units from the remaining teams left in the AFC playoff face. Every team will get at least one unit, and no team will get more than two.

One note: sorry, Las Vegas Raiders fans, I know you’re technically still “in the hunt.” But, according to FiveThirtyEight, the Raiders have less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs, less than the 6-8 Minnesota Vikings (2%), and even the 5-9 Dallas Cowboys (5%). I apologize specifically to Darren Waller, who would surely be on this team if the Raiders were legitimately still in the hunt.

Offense

Put simply, this team’s offense will need to put up points to keep pace with the Chiefs. There are many teams with great offenses in the AFC playoff race. Therefore, there will be many solid options to choose from.

Quarterbacks: Buffalo Bills, Josh Allen, Matt Barkley

Right now, there are few quarterbacks in the NFL playing better than Josh Allen. If this exercise allowed me to pick from the entire AFC, I might pick DeShaun Watson, who is lighting it up on a bad Houston Texans team. Ryan Tannehill and Baker Mayfield are playing very well, and Lamar Jackson is obviously the reigning NFL MVP. Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers obviously have lots of experience in the AFC playoff race. But Rivers does not have much success there, and Roethlisberger’s play is in a precipitous decline.

But Allen has elevated his game to another level this season. He is hitting his stride at the perfect time of the year and assuaged many of the concerns about his accuracy. Allen also has experience playing in the cold and unfavorable weather. If nothing else, I just want to see who can throw the ball farther, between him and Mahomes.

Running Backs: Cleveland Browns, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Andy Janovich

The Cleveland Browns have the deadliest backfield duo in the NFL. If I were selecting one running back, I’d probably pick Derrick Henry. Additionally, the Colts’ backfield is pretty darn good with Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. However, Nick Chubb is a top-5 running back in the NFL right now, and Kareem Hunt might be a top-20 running back as well. Both are big backs who can pound the rock between the tackles. But they can also break long runs and catch the ball out of the backfield. Additionally, you get one of the league’s best blocking fullbacks, Andy Janovich.

Wide Receivers: Tennessee Titans, AJ Brown, Corey Davis, Adam Humphries

This was one of the tougher position groups to pick from. A few weeks ago, this would’ve been the Steelers by a mile, who may still have the deepest group of receivers in the NFL. If every team was perfectly healthy, the Browns and the Dolphins could be in contention for this as well. While Stefon Diggs is currently one of the hottest receivers in the league, the Titans’ triumvirate is ultimately my pick. AJ Brown is one of the most dangerous YAC receivers in the NFL, Corey Davis has come alive in a contract year, and Adam Humphries gives you a dangerous underneath threat (insert snickering about short white slot receivers).

Tight Ends: Cleveland Browns, Austin Hooper, David Njoku, Harrison Bryant

I originally had the Dolphins here, but with Mike Gesicki’s dislocated shoulder, they get dropped. The Browns seem like an obvious choice, but I had to choose between this position and edge rushers, which I will get into later. The Browns legitimately have three players that could start at tight end for any team. Additionally, the Browns use them more frequently than almost any other team. According to Sharp Football Stats, they are ninth in their usage of 12 personnel (24%) and first in 13 personnel (14%); furthermore, 26% of the Browns’ targets go to their tight ends, good for eighth in the NFL.

Offensive Lines: Indianapolis Colts, Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, Braden Smith

Again, the Browns were heavily considered for this position group as well. The Bills also very quietly have on the league’s best units in the trenches. But the Colts get the honor here, as Quenton Nelson is not only one of the league’s best guards, but overall players as well. Anthony Castonzo is nearing the end of his career but is still quite good, and Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith are ascending players at their respective positions.

Defense

In order to succeed in the AFC playoff race, and dethrone the Chiefs, the defense needs to do two things. One, they need to get pressure on Mahomes via exotic blitzes. Two, they need to limit explosive plays on the back end. Schematically, the defense will be a base 3-4 but will play Nickel or Dime on most downs. Furthermore, they will line up in unique fronts to disguise pressure and confuse the Chiefs’ offense.

Interior Defensive Line: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu. Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs

This one was pretty easy (even as I checked my Steelers’ fandom at the door). The Browns and the Ravens both have great talent and depth on the defensive line. But Cameron Heyward is second only to Aaron Donald among interior defensive lineman. Stephon Tuitt picked up right where he left off before his injury in 2019. Finally, somehow the Steelers completely revived the career of former first-round pick Tyson Alualu, who is among the best nose tackles in the NFL. Chris Wormley and Isaiah Buggs do not see the field very much but are solid rotational players. In our hypothetical 3-4 defense here, the Steelers’ interior defenders will be able to help collapse the pocket versus Mahomes.

Edge Rushers: Miami Dolphins, Emmanuel Ogbah, Shaq Lawson, Kyle Van Noy, Andrew Van Ginkel

As previously mentioned, the Browns were my first pick for this group. Myles Garrett is in the running for DPOY, and Adrian Clayborn and Oliver Vernon are solid veterans across from him. If Bud Dupree was healthy, the Steelers would be the obvious selection. With all that being said, the Dolphins may still be somewhat surprising.

Emmanuel Ogbah is finally having a breakout season (9 sacks, 6 TFLs, 21 QB hits). Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson are second and third on the team in sacks (6.0, 4.0) and QB hits (10, 19), and tied for third (10) and first (6) in TFLs. As a rotational backup, Andrew Van Ginkel has made splash plays in multiple games. Additionally, the positional versatility of the Dolphins’ defense informs the next position group selection.

Linebackers: Miami Dolphins, Jerome Baker, Elandon Roberts, Kamu Grugier-Hill

Part of the reason why I doubled up on the Dolphins here was the way they use their LBs. According to Pro Football Reference, the Dolphins have the third-highest blitz rate in the NFL (37.8%). While they only have the 9th-highest pressure rate (23.3%) and t-6th most sacks (37), their blitz rate indicates their willingness and ability to bring exotic blitzes. In our hypothetical 3-4 defense, our defensive coordinator could come up with some very complex pressure packages to confuse and harass Mahomes.

Cornerbacks: Baltimore Ravens, Marlon Humphery, Marcus Peters, and Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton

I’m going to cheat a bit but hear me out. Firstly, I apologize to Dolphins fans because I know Xavien Howard is having a DPOY-worthy year and Byron Jones is excellent. But the other AFC teams were deeper here than at Edge and Linebacker. Therefore, I went with the Ravens’ outside corners and the Steelers’ slot corners. Marlon Humphery is one of the most underrated CBs in the NFL and currently leads the league in forced fumbles (8). Marcus Peters can be too aggressive sometimes but combined these two are a turnover machine.

While I think Jimmy Smith is a very interesting and underutilized piece, we need to talk about the Steelers’ slot corners. Mike Hilton, despite his diminutive stature, might be the greatest blitzing cornerback ever. He’s also very solid in short zones and tough as nails versus the run. Meanwhile, Cameron Sutton is having an incredible contract year. He is not his best facing #1 receivers on the outside but has been a turnover machine recently. Like Hilton, he’s very solid in run support but is even better in coverage from the slot. This group of corners could actually have some success limiting Mahomes.

Safeties: Buffalo Bills, Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde

Tennessee and Pittsburgh also got some consideration here, but there might not be a better or more consistent pair of safeties in the league. Poyer and Hyde are both equally comfortable in deep zones (from one or two high looks), covering receivers and tight ends in man coverage, and playing in the box to stop the run. With our blitz-heavy front seven, the defense requires smart safeties to cover the back end and help keep a lid on Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. They will also need to be able to cover the Chiefs’ running backs and Travis Kelce in man to man. Poyer and Hyde are both veteran players that can do everything.

Special Teams: Baltimore Ravens, Justin Tucker, Sam Koch

Justin. Tucker. That’s it; that’s the tweet. Tucker is the greatest kicker in the history of the NFL. Period. Koch is a bit past his prime but still averages just under 45 yards per punt. Furthermore, of these teams, Koch leads their punters in net punt yardage (42.9). He only has one touchback and 21 of his 49 punts ended inside the 20-yard line.

Coaching

With these selections made, we only have three coaching staff remaining. In order to take down the Chiefs, therefore, I will take a head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator from each.

Defensive Coordinator: The Titans do not have a defensive coordinator, as Mike Vrabel took on that role this year. Furthermore, the Titans’ defense has struggled greatly this year. While Matt Eberflus, the defensive coordinator for the Colts, would be excellent, he runs a Cover 2 scheme that rarely blitzes (16%, last in the NFL). This leaves Don “Wink” Martindale, the veteran defensive coordinator for the Ravens. Martindale has been with the Ravens since 2012 and was promoted to coordinator in 2018. While the Ravens’ defense has been somewhat inconsistent this year, Martindale’s blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme (39.9%, 2nd in the NFL) meshes very well with the chosen personnel.

Offensive Coordinator: This leaves Nick Sirianni of the Colts and Arthur Smith of the Titans. Sirianni is in his third season as the Colts’ OC and has designed solid offenses for three different QBs in his three years in Indianapolis. However, with no slight towards Sirianni, I am going with Smith. He has played a major role in the resurrection of Ryan Tannehill and the Titans offense is humming along once again going into the playoffs. Smith should mesh very well with the offense constructed for him. Josh Allen bears many similarities to Ryan Tannehill, the wide receivers are already his, and the run game should be dominant with the Browns’ two-headed monster and the Colts’ stellar offensive line.

Head Coach: Any of these head coaches would be great, but the previous selections leave Frank Reich as the victor. Previously known as a QB guru, Reich has clearly grown into the role of head coach for the Indianapolis Colts. He is set to make the playoffs for the second time in three years with the Colts. He managed the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck very well, along with the Wentz-Foles transition in Philadelphia as offensive coordinator.

Conclusion

In a fantasy football-esque framework, here is what our team looks like:

Offense

QB: Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

RB: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

WR: AJ Brown, Tennessee Titans

WR: Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans

TE: Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns

Flex: David Njoku (TE) / Kareem Hunt (RB) / Andy Janovich (FB), Cleveland Browns; Adam Humphries (WR), Tennessee Titans

LT: Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis Colts

LG: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts

C: Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts

RG: Mark Glowinski, Indianapolis Colts

RT: Braden Smith, Indianapolis Colts

Defense

LE: Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers

NT: Tyson Alualu, Pittsburgh Steelers

RE: Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

LOLB: Emmanuel Ogbah / Shaq Lawson, Miami Dolphins

LILB: Elandon Roberts, Miami Dolphins

RILB: Jerome Baker / Kamu Grugier-Hill, Miami Dolphins

ROLB: Kyle Van Noy / Andrew Van Ginkel, Miami Dolphins

LCB: Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens

RCB: Marlon Humphery, Baltimore Ravens

NCB: Mike Hilton / Cameron Sutton, Pittsburgh Steelers

FS: Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills

SS: Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

Special Teams and Coaching

K: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens

P: Sam Koch, Baltimore Ravens

Head Coach: Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts

Offensive Coordinator: Arthur Smith, Tennessee Titans

Defensive Coordinator: Don “Wink” Martindale, Baltimore Ravens

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I cover and write about the NFL, the NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Brawl Network. I am originally from Hershey, PA and was raised a Pittsburgh sports fan. I went to Boston College for undergrad and am currently finishing a Master's degree in Sports Business at Temple University, concentrating in Sport Analytics.

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