1 major storyline for each AFC Super Wild Card Weekend game
The NFL playoffs kick off with this weekend's super wild-card round. Let's take a look at one big storyline for each of the three AFC games. The NFC storylines can be found here.
Raiders at Bengals
Las Vegas' pass rush vs. Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase
The Burrow-Chase connection has looked a lot like it did when they were LSU teammates in 2019, which is another way of saying it's been everything Cincinnati could have hoped for when it drafted Chase fifth overall last spring.
Chase is a big play waiting to happen. He piled up 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns, including a combined 18 catches (on 22 targets) for 391 yards and three TDs in a pair of late-season wins against the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs. He's as much of a downfield threat as he is underneath: Chase's average depth of target (13.6 yards) was sixth among qualified wideouts, per PFF, and he also ranked third in yards after the catch per reception (8.1).
But Cincinnati likes to run a lot of plays out of empty backfields, which can create a feast-or-famine dynamic because it leaves Burrow exposed to taking hits. All quarterbacks are worse under duress, but Burrow tossed six interceptions when pressured, per PFF, which tied for sixth-most in the league. He was also sacked 51 times, four more than any other QB.
As it happens, Vegas has as solid a pass-rushing duo as the playoff field can offer. Edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue both finished the season with 10 sacks. Crosby racked up more pressures (101) than anyone in the league, per PFF, while Ngakoue (62) ranked 15th.
In the teams' Week 11 meeting, the Raiders sacked Burrow three times, limited Chase to three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown, and forced four long field goals. But the Bengals rolled to a 32-13 win, pulling away with 16 unanswered points by handing the ball to running back Joe Mixon. Before Cincinnati started killing the clock, he had 10 carries for 52 yards in the fourth quarter, including a game-sealing 20-yard TD.
Patriots at Bills
Can Buffalo's defense make Mac Jones uncomfortable?
In Mac Jones' rookie season, the Patriots did all they could to guide the wheel and work the pedals for him. The result was a seven-game winning streak that culminated with a Week 13 victory at Buffalo when Jones attempted a mere three passes in snowy and windy conditions.
After that, New England lost three of its last four games - including a defeat in a rematch against the Bills at home - and things have been tougher for Jones, in large part because he still struggles when he needs to make a play.
During the Pats' seven-game win streak, Jones ranked fifth among QBs in expected points added per play on third downs in non-garbage-time situations (plus-0.353). But in those last four games, which included a blowout of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jones ranked 33rd in the same situations (minus-1.124).
New England was the league's second-most efficient team when throwing on first down, per Football Outsiders. The Patriots also finished the season ranked 10th in DVOA when running the ball on third and fourth down, but they were just 20th when they threw it.
Buffalo finished the season first in defensive DVOA against the pass. In their Week 16 win at Foxboro, the Bills intercepted Jones twice and limited him to a completion rate of 43.8% and a completion percentage above expected of minus-20.9%, according to Next Gen Stats. Safety Micah Hyde had both picks, and both came on throws over the middle.
Steelers at Chiefs
Can Pittsburgh make Kansas City play ugly?
Ben Roethlisberger joked this week that the Steelers have "no chance" in this game, and it's frankly kind of hard to argue with the sentiment. But there is a way for Pittsburgh to pull the upset.
It doesn't take much digging to conclude that the Steelers are the worst team in the playoff field. Pittsburgh's offense, which involves Roethlisberger mostly playing hot potato behind an inexperienced line, is an eyesore. The defense features three stars in edge rusher T.J. Watt, tackle Cameron Heyward, and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. But as a unit, it's pretty meh: The Steelers allowed four teams to rush for more than 200 yards this season.
The key for Pittsburgh is getting the Chiefs to turn the ball over: Pittsburgh is 4-1 when opponents have two or more giveaways, and Kansas City - for all its firepower - turned it over 25 times during the regular season. Many of those were weird bounces off the hands of receivers, too.
In all likelihood, of course, this game will closely resemble KC's 36-10 beatdown of the Steelers at Arrowhead three weeks ago. The Chiefs did not turn the ball over that day, and Patrick Mahomes completed passes to nine different receivers. Byron Pringle, of all people, led the way with six catches on seven targets for 75 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And Kansas City did that without tight end Travis Kelce, but he'll be in uniform for this one.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.