2023-24 NFL Playoffs: AFC Wild Card Preview

By Scott Kacsmar

The AFC wild-card round is loaded with storylines involving fired offensive coordinators, rematches, big injuries, regrettable trades, frigid temperatures, and a chance to already guarantee a new Super Bowl champion should the Kansas City Chiefs falter.

A year ago on wild card weekend, we were preparing for backup quarterbacks in this round with Tyler Huntley (Ravens) and Skylar Thompson (Dolphins) filling in as big road underdogs for their teams in games that went down to the wire in Cincinnati and Buffalo.

This year, we have a third-string quarterback for Pittsburgh and one of Cleveland’s five starting quarterbacks this season. Yet in a weird twist of fate, Mason Rudolph and Joe Flacco look like the best options for those teams to have under center this weekend.

We start on Saturday with a matchup involving favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year (C.J. Stroud), Coach of the Year (Kevin Stefanski and DeMeco Ryans), and Defensive Player of the Year (Myles Garrett).

The burning question is will Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes advance as home favorites to set up a juicy No. 3 at No. 2 divisional round matchup in Buffalo, the first true road playoff game for Mahomes and the Chiefs?

We have a jumbo-sized preview with all the stats, injury notes, matchups, betting advice, and predictions you need for each AFC wild-card game.

Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans (+2.5, O/U 44.5)

The No. 5 Cleveland Browns (11-6) will take on the No. 4 Houston Texans (10-7) this Saturday afternoon in Houston. It is Joe Flacco’s first playoff start since the 2014 AFC divisional round against the Patriots when he was with Baltimore. C.J. Stroud was 13 years old at the time.  

The Last Matchup

Week 16: Browns 36, Texans 22

We don’t have to go back far to find the last matchup, though it is unclear just how useful that tape will be since the Texans were without their stud rookies in quarterback C.J. Stroud and pass rusher Will Anderson.

But the story of the game was Flacco’s connection with Amari Cooper, who set a franchise record with 265 receiving yards. Cooper caught 11-of-15 targets and scored 2 touchdowns. A big day was imminent from the opening snap when Cooper was open for a 53-yard bomb from a quarterback who was letting it rip that day as Flacco’s average throw was 11.0 yards down the field.

The Browns needed that connection as the running game was completely shut down to the tune of 27 carries for 58 yards from the running backs. Flacco passed for 368 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The Browns had an injury to their kicker, so the Browns were 2-for-3 on 2-point conversion attempts and 4-for-6 on fourth downs.

Cleveland led 36-7 in the fourth quarter before backup Davis Mills replaced reserve starter Case Keenum and threw a pair of touchdowns to get it semi-close at 36-22.

Injury Watch

All eyes should be on Amari Cooper’s practice status this week. He suffered a heel injury during his record-setting game in Houston, then sat out the team’s Thursday night game against the Jets just four days later. Cooper and other key starters were given Week 18 off for rest, so hopefully, he is good to go. The Browns also lost wideout Elijah Moore to a concussion against the Jets, but he played 6 snaps in Week 18 and should be fine.

While the Texans are going to have Stroud and Anderson for this matchup after they missed Week 16’s meeting, they have question marks at wide receiver. Nico Collins is a little banged up with a calf but should be good to go again. Robert Woods missed Week 18 and his status is unknown. Noah Brown is a question mark after missing last week’s win over the Colts. The Texans have already lost impressive rookie receiver Tank Dell for the year.

Anderson was not the only pass rusher missing for the Texans against Cleveland in Week 16. Team sack leader Jonathan Greenard, who has 12.5 sacks in 15 games, left the Cleveland game after 3 snaps and has not played since with an ankle injury. Keep an eye on his status too, because it gives context without Anderson and Greenard for why Flacco did not face much of a pass rush in Week 16.

Stats to Know

Here are some relevant and informative statistics for these teams heading into this matchup:

  • Since 2002, road teams favored by 1-to-3 points in the playoffs are 11-7 SU and 8-9-1 ATS. In the wild-card round, they are 9-4 SU and 6-6-1 ATS.
  • This season, Cleveland is 10-6-1 ATS and Houston is 9-8 ATS.
  • Cleveland leads the NFL with 37 giveaways while the Texans had a league-low 14 giveaways on offense. The 23 extra turnovers from Cleveland are the most in any playoff matchup since at least 2002.
  • Cleveland’s defense is tied for No. 5 with 28 takeaways and Houston’s defense is tied for No. 16 with 24 takeaways.
  • Cleveland’s defense ranks No. 1 in yards allowed, yards per play, first downs, the lowest completion percentage against (57.4%), the lowest third down conversion rate allowed (29.1%), and has the lowest rate of drives allowing a score (24.8%).
  • The Texans have allowed a league-low 17 touchdown passes.
  • The Texans are 2-6 when allowing at least 21 points this season.
  • Cleveland is 8-0 when allowing fewer than 24 points this season.
  • The Texans are 8-1 when allowing fewer than 20 points this season, though they did lose 15-13 to the lowly Panthers in Carolina.
  • Surprisingly, Cleveland is 2-2 when allowing over 30 points this year.
  • The Texans rank No. 2 in rushing yards per carry allowed, and the Colts (twice) were the only offense to hit 125 rushing yards against them this season.
  • Cleveland is 4-0 when rushing for fewer than 85 yards this year, including a 3-0 record in games started by Flacco.
  • The Texans are 1-4 when Nico Collins is held under 50 yards, and the Browns held him to 18 yards and a touchdown in Week 16, his lowest receiving total in any game where he played more than 3 snaps this year.
  • Among this year’s playoff field, Houston has played the fewest games (4) against other playoff teams, posting a 2-2 record in such games.
  • The Browns are 4-3 against playoff teams, including a pair of wins against the top seeds (49ers and Ravens).
  • The Browns are the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs despite starting four quarterbacks in multiple games.
  • Stroud will attempt to become the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl.
  • Last year, Brock Purdy became the first rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win his first playoff game when his team allowed more than 17 points in the game. They usually cannot advance without the defense playing superbly.
  • Purdy was the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game period since Russell Wilson in 2012, and Wilson was playing fellow rookie Robert Griffin III, so someone had to win. The same thing happened in 2011 when Andy Dalton (Bengals) lost to T.J. Yates (Texans) in a wild-card game in Houston.

The Fatal Flaw

What is the factor most likely to lead to each team’s downfall this postseason and in this matchup in particular?

Browns – The Volatility of Joe Flacco

Joe Flacco is authoring one of the wildest comeback stories in NFL history. Unemployed for most of the season, he joined the Browns in late November and became the first player in NFL history to throw for 250 yards and 2 touchdowns in each of his first 5 games with a team. In fact, Flacco is the only quarterback in the NFL this season to have a 5-game streak like that.

Flacco is slinging it, but his style of play also leads to a lot of turnover opportunities. Flacco has also been intercepted in all five of his games with Cleveland, including a pair of picks thrown in Houston in Week 16. Flacco’s interception rate (3.9%) this season would be the worst among all quarterbacks if he had enough attempts to qualify.

As highlighted above, this is a matchup between the offense with the most turnovers and the one with the fewest, so that could come back to bite the Browns. But having 23 more turnovers than Houston is not a given death sentence for Cleveland’s season this weekend.

Since 2002, teams with at least 11 more giveaways than their opponent are 18-13 (.581) in playoff matchups. The two teams with the largest differentials won their games with the 2009 Cardinals (+20 in giveaways) beat the Packers 51-45 in overtime, and the 2011 Giants (+19 in giveaways) beat the Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl 46. There is also no correlation between a playoff game’s turnover margin and the difference in turnover margin between the teams in the regular season. Welcome to the high variance world of the NFL playoffs where one-and-done means anything can happen in one game.

Cleveland has managed to go 8-5 in games with multiple turnovers this year. The last team to win 8 games with multiple turnovers was the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost the Super Bowl to New England. The last team to have more such wins in a season was the 2001 St. Louis Rams (10 games), who also lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots.

It tends to catch up with you eventually, and Flacco’s career is proof of that. Even in his finest moment in the 2012 Super Bowl run with Baltimore, he was dangerously close to watching the season end in Denver in the divisional round when Rahim Moore misplayed the ball and Jacoby Jones took it for a long touchdown to force overtime where the Ravens won. Two years later in his last playoff game in New England, Flacco forced a deep ball at a time he really didn’t need to, and the Patriots intercepted it and won the game 35-31. Season over.

We’ll just have to see what Flacco can get away with this time. He does have a strong defense supporting him.

Texans – Tested Depth and Inexperience

With a rookie coach and quarterback, Houston’s Year 1 success with 10 wins and a division title has been fast and unexpected. But in a game like this, you have to worry about their lack of experience and the task of a rookie quarterback facing a stingy pass defense led by one of the best edges in the game in Myles Garrett.

Cleveland’s defense has had outstanding pass coverage this season. This is why the injuries to Dell, Brown, and Woods are so significant this week. The Browns are too good in the secondary to get roasted by Nico Collins the way the Colts did last week. Other players are going to have to step up for Stroud, and the running game cannot really be counted on either.

If it’s not Cleveland this week, then next week it could be another elite defense in Baltimore that this Houston offense will have to show it can beat without a full complement of receivers. That has to catch up with them eventually this postseason, but it has been an impressive run to get here so fast in the process for Stroud and Ryans.

Best Bets and Prediction

The elephant in the room for this matchup is the pointlessness of Cleveland’s trade with Houston for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Yet here we are with the Browns having a chance to advance with Joe Flacco a few days shy of his 39th birthday, and he has shown a better grasp of this offense than Watson ever has. The Texans are also moving on well with C.J. Stroud as their new franchise quarterback. Funny how things have worked out.

But this should be a good game. Don’t expect Cooper to dominate for over 200 yards again, but it’s not like the Browns need that. Tight end David Njoku has been playing fantastic with Flacco too, and the Texans are tied for the most catches allowed to tight ends (107) this year. Njoku’s prop picks are worth your attention this week. The Colts had the tight end open last week but he either couldn’t make the catch or Gardner Minshew couldn’t get him a good ball. Flacco and Njoku will not miss those opportunities.

Maybe Stroud is one of a kind and plays a fantastic game again, but the Browns have been impressive on defense. We’ve seen them frustrate Brock Purdy into the worst game of his career. We’ve seen them force a crucial pick-six from Lamar Jackson in Baltimore in a comeback win. They luck out on the injuries to Houston receivers, and like Cooper, do not expect Collins to have the huge numbers he had last week.

I trust Flacco, Stefanski, and Garrett enough in this one to get the road win, which would move Flacco into the record books with an 8th road playoff win, the most ever by a quarterback.

But the Browns do feel volatile enough that they can either lose this Saturday or go all the way to the Super Bowl. Nothing is out of reach for this team this year. It may only be fitting that the playoffs start with them in this game. This could be one hell of a story.

Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs (-4, O/U 44)

The No. 6 Miami Dolphins (11-6) will take on the No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs (11-6) this Saturday night in Kansas City where there could be an inch of snow. But the bigger issue is temperature, which is expected to dip below 0, making this one of the coldest games in NFL history.

Just what the team from Florida built on speed wants to hear. But imagine how much harder that ball will be to catch for those lousy Kansas City wide receivers, the main reason the Chiefs are the No. 3 seed for the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era.

The Last Matchup

Week 9: Chiefs 21, Dolphins 14

This was supposed to be the Game of the Year in the AFC, a reason to get up at 9:00 a.m. to watch these teams in Germany, and to see what Tyreek Hill had in store for his revenge game against the team that traded him.

What we got was a one-sided first half in what was ultimately one of the most disappointing big games you’ll ever see:

  • Neither quarterback passed for 200 yards.
  • The offenses combined to go 6-of-22 on third down.
  • Hill wanted to score so badly that he fumbled for a long touchdown return before halftime that put the Dolphins in a 21-0 hole.
  • Miami only got back into it after a Chris Jones penalty and a Mahomes strip-sack that led to a 27-yard touchdown drive.
  • Kansas City was held scoreless in the second half as Travis Kelce finished with 3 catches for 14 yards.
  • Down 21-14, Miami’s last chance on 4th-and-10 was ruined when a bad snap ended the game at midfield.

Just a real snoozer. But based on what we have seen out of these teams the rest of the year, it was not that big of an outlier in their season. The Dolphins struggle with contenders and the Chiefs simply struggle offensively.

Injury Watch

The Chiefs should be fairly healthy after using Week 18 to rest key starters such as Mahomes, Kelce, Isiah Pacheco, Rashee Rice, and L’Jarius Snead.

The Dolphins are a whole different story. Since Week 9, they have lost some of their best pass rushers for the season in Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb. Corner Xavien Howard has been knocked out. Multiple offensive line starters are out. Jaylen Waddle and Raheem Mostert didn’t play in Week 18 against Buffalo, and for an offense that basically runs through four players with that duo, Tyreek Hill, and De’Von Achane, missing half of them is a big deal. They may play this Saturday, but it is hard to expect them to be 100%. The extreme cold can’t be good for the ankle and knee injuries for Waddle and Mostert either.

Chiefs clearly have advantages with the health and home field in this one.

Stats to Know

Here are some useful and informative statistics for these teams heading into this matchup:

  • In the last five postseasons with Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have always hosted the AFC Championship Game (11-3 overall playoff record).
  • Mahomes is 6-0 with 16 touchdowns and 1 interception in wild card and divisional-round playoff games.
  • The Chiefs are 4-4 ATS as a home favorite this season.
  • Miami coach Mike McDaniel is 2-8 SU as a road underdog in his career.
  • Mahomes’ average time to throw vs. Miami in Week 9 was 2.55 seconds, the 8th-fastest release in a game in his career (source: Next Gen Stats).
  • Mahomes is 33-2 (.943) when his average time to throw is under 2.8 seconds in his career.
  • Mahomes is 17-14 (.548) when his average time to throw exceeds 3.0 seconds.
  • The Chiefs have trailed by double digits in 5 of their last 6 games with the starters playing (2-3 record).
  • Kansas City has not allowed more than 21 points in any home game this season.
  • The Chiefs had a season-low 267 yards against Miami in Germany.
  • The Chiefs are minus-11 in turnover differential, the worst mark for any playoff team this year. Miami is plus-2.
  • The Chiefs have not forced multiple takeaways since Week 7 against the Chargers.
  • Miami has been held to 14 points twice this year, the first time was in Germany against the Chiefs, and the other time was Week 18 at home against Buffalo with the AFC East on the line.
  • Tyreek Hill averaged 123.4 receiving yards per game through 12 games this season, but since the ankle injury against the Titans, he has averaged 79.5 yards per game (no 100-yard games) and 0.25 touchdowns per game.
  • This season, Miami is 9-0 when Hill has at least 99 receiving yards and 1-6 when he is under 90 yards.
  • The Chiefs forced Tua Tagovailoa into a bad throw on 29.4% of his passes in Week 9, and Miami is 1-6 this season when Tua has a bad throw rate of at least 14% (source: Pro Football Reference).
  • Tua had a 26.3% pressure rate against the Chiefs in Week 9, his 4th-highest game this year, and Miami is 0-4 when his pressure rate is above 20% this season.

The Fatal Flaw

What is the factor most likely to lead to each team’s downfall this postseason and in this matchup in particular?

Dolphins – Can’t Beat the Contenders

I know people like listening to Miami coach Mike McDaniel during his press conferences, and his speeches on Hard Knocks, and that he breaks the archetype of what an NFL coach is supposed to look like.

But at what point do we acknowledge his team doesn’t show up for big games, and his offense, the one that scored a record 10 offensive touchdowns against Denver this year, doesn’t work against top defenses?

The Dolphins scored 70 points against Denver in Week 3. The Dolphins scored 70 points total in losses to the Chiefs, Eagles, Ravens, and Bills. That’s even counting the best of their two games against Buffalo this year when they lost 48-20 in Week 4 and not the 21-14 disappointment from last week.

The 2023 Dolphins are 1-5 against winning teams, failing to score more than 20 points in any of those losses. Their only win was beating Dallas 22-20 on a last-second field goal. We also know the Cowboys to be very much the Dolphins of the NFC, a team that disappoints on the road in big games.

This might not be as concerning if we didn’t see it last year too. In 2022, Miami was 2-5 against playoff teams, including 5 straight losses to end the year. McDaniel’s only road win against a playoff team was in Week 2 of 2022, the second game of his career. It was a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter against Baltimore, a game that could have ended early if the Ravens didn’t drop an interception halfway through that quarter.

Add it all up and that means McDaniel is 1-8 in road games against playoff teams and riding an 8-game losing streak. A coach is usually only as good as his players, and that is not deflecting blame from Tua and the defense here. But at some point, the Dolphins are going to have to step up and show they can perform in a game like this.

Until then, to respectfully paraphrase McDaniel’s own words to the media, the Dolphins can screw off as legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl. 

Chiefs – The Offensive Miscues

For the first time since the Alex Smith era, we are questioning the Kansas City offense more than anything going into a playoff run. The defense has been rock solid since Week 1, but the offensive mistakes have sunk this team in several losses that could have easily been wins had they just employed receivers who could catch the ball (or line up properly).

There is no denying the Chiefs have fallen off from the No. 1 offense they had in 2022 when Mahomes won his second MVP and Travis Kelce still looked like the best tight end in the game.

A variety of factors have led to this. Kelce turned 34, was injured before Week 1, injured again in Minnesota, and he just doesn’t look as fast or dominant as we expect from him. He also has constant attention on him after starting a relationship with the most famous woman in the world right now. The Chiefs also downgraded at offensive coordinator going from Eric Bieniemy to Matt Nagy. The new offensive tackles, Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor, have not been terrible, but they commit a lot of penalties and the protection has faltered on some of the most important drives of the year.

But they could survive a Kelce decline if they didn’t lead the league in dropped passes. This team’s only quality wide receiver is Rashee Rice, a rookie. Skyy Moore has given them nothing in his second year. Kadarius Toney and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have become net negatives in their attempt to make up for the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster, a receiver who wasn’t great, but he at least filled the role of a No. 1 wideout and didn’t kill the team with mistakes as they won so many close games last year.

If the Chiefs dropped passes, lost fumbles, and had so many bad penalties in 2022 as they did in 2023, that team also would have been 11-6 at best. But this year’s team with the way the defense has played had another 14-3 record and possible No. 1 seed within their grasp. They just screwed it up:

In Week 1 against Detroit, Toney dropped an easy completion that bounced into a pick-six for the Lions. Down 21-20 late, Toney dropped a pass in his hands that would have set up a go-ahead field goal and likely win.

In Week 11 against Philadelphia, MVS dropped a 50-yard touchdown bomb late in the fourth quarter, and the Chiefs ended up turning it over on downs. Earlier in the quarter, Kelce lost a fumble in the red zone when the Chiefs could have added to their lead.

In Week 14 against Buffalo, Kelce made a play of the year candidate with a lateral to Toney for a late go-ahead touchdown, but Toney negated the entire play by lining up offsides, a penalty on the offense that sometimes has never been called in an entire NFL season. The call was legitimate, but it just speaks to the Chiefs and their mistakes.

There’s your 14-3 record, Kansas City. Largely dropped and fumbled away at the hands of your worst receivers (Toney and MVS). Expect a massive overhaul of that wide receiver room this offseason, but for now, they must make do with what they have. Hopefully that means more Rice and more running with Isiah Pacheco.

But the mistakes have had a cumulative effect on Mahomes, who has shown more visible frustration this year than the rest of his career combined. Incredibly, Mahomes has thrown 3 incompletions on 4th-and-25 or longer this season late in losses to the Lions, Broncos, and Eagles. Brett Favre is the only other quarterback since 1994 to attempt 3 such passes, and that was over his last 17 seasons. This was one season for Mahomes, who also threw incomplete on 4th-and-10 with 5 seconds left on a Hail Mary in Green Bay, and a 4th-and-15 fell incomplete with 1:01 left against Buffalo shortly after the offsides penalty on Toney.

Is that how this Kansas City repeat bid is destined to end in the playoffs? With Mahomes throwing incomplete on 4th-and-forver after the Chiefs blew another potential game-winning drive?

Best Bets and Prediction

When these teams are freezing their butts off Saturday night, Tyreek Hill may look across the field and wish he was on the other bench. Those Chiefs are also going to look at him and think maybe they shouldn’t have let him get away too, last year notwithstanding.

I think the best bet in this game is to take the Miami team under (20.5 points). The Dolphins just haven’t shown the ability to score against teams like this, the Chiefs are solid defensively, and the weather figures to be a factor if the forecast is even close to accurate.

According to Stathead, only 18 games since 1960 have had a temperature of 2 degrees or worse. The home team is 14-4 in those games, and only 4-of-18 road opponents were able to score 20 points. Throw in the struggles of the Kansas City offense and how this last matchup ended 21-14, and the under 44.5 also looks good here.

Josh Allen just showed last week that you can get away with 3 turnovers and still beat these Dolphins if your defense plays well (and if you get a 96-yard punt return touchdown). What you can’t do is turn the ball over twice for touchdowns in 7 seconds like Mahomes did against the Raiders on Christmas, the most embarrassing home loss of his career. But unless Toney and MVS want to battle to see who can commit the most blunders that become turnovers, the Chiefs should grind out the win in this one. If Taylor Swift sits through the extreme cold for this game, she must really love that man.

The Dolphins have not won a playoff game since the 2000 season. The Chiefs are going for their 12th playoff win in the Mahomes era. It may not lead to another Super Bowl appearance, but the Chiefs should survive this week.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills (-10, O/U 36.5)

The No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7) will take on the No. 2 Buffalo Bills (11-6) this Sunday afternoon in Buffalo. Both teams fired their offensive coordinators in the middle of November. Buffalo is on a 5-game winning streak and the Steelers are 3-0 since switching to third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph.

Recent Matchups

These teams have not yet met this season, but they will have played each other every year since 2019. Josh Allen is 3-1 against the Steelers, but the common link in these matchups has been a Pittsburgh offense that struggled with Sean McDermott’s defense.

Ben Roethlisberger threw a bad pick-six in the 2020 meeting in Buffalo, a 26-15 win by the Bills. To start the 2021 season, the Steelers did pull off a 23-16 upset win in Buffalo thanks to a blocked punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter. Allen had a rough game that day as T.J. Watt came up big with 2.0 sacks and a forced fumble.

But Watt is out this week, and that is why there is a huge concern for the defense. Watt missed last year’s game in Buffalo, and Allen had a career-high 424 passing yards in a 38-3 win. Gabe Davis had touchdown catches of 98 and 62 yards that day as Kenny Pickett struggled in his first NFL start.

While Mason Rudolph is going to be an improvement over a young Pickett, the loss of Watt is the story of the game.

Injury Watch

In the second half in Baltimore last week, T.J. Watt took some friendly fire on a hit that led to an MCL injury. He has been ruled out for this week and this is typically a 2-to-3 week injury.

This is a huge deal because since Watt was drafted in 2017, the Steelers are 2-12-1 in games where he did not play at least 50% of the snaps. He has been extremely valuable to the Steelers, and you could see it again this year as he led the NFL with 19.0 sacks.

The Steelers are hoping to get safety Minkah Fitzpatrick back, but there is no player they’d rather have more than Watt. As for the Bills, they have done a good job of overcoming their defensive injuries (Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano, and DaQuan Jones) and making Von Miller a healthy scratch as the future Hall of Famer has been a non-factor this year.

Stats to Know

Here are some useful and informative statistics for these teams heading into this matchup:

  • The Steelers have not won a playoff game since the 2016 season.
  • Pittsburgh has allowed at least 36 points in 4 straight playoff games – no other team has even allowed 29 points in 4 straight playoff games in NFL history.
  • The Steelers are tied for No. 3 in the NFL with a plus-11 turnover differential (Buffalo is plus-2).
  • Buffalo is plus-140 in scoring differential, the fourth-highest margin in 2023.
  • Pittsburgh is minus-20 in scoring differential, the only playoff team this year with a negative number.
  • Pittsburgh has been outgained by 643 yards, the worst among this year’s playoff field.
  • Since 1970, playoff teams outgained by at least 500 yards on the season are 1-5 in the playoffs, and that one win came in a game between two of those teams (1986 Jets vs. Chiefs), so someone had to win.
  • Mason Rudolph has led the Steelers to at least 16 points in 12-of-13 career starts.
  • In Rudolph’s 13 career starts, the Steelers have 8 wins, 1 tie, and 3 losses by 1-to-4 points. The only loss by more than 4 points was 21-7 in Cleveland in 2019, the night where Myles Garrett swung at Rudolph’s head with his own helmet.
  • Josh Allen is 4-1 in home playoff games, though the Bills lost at home last year to Cincinnati in a 27-10 final.
  • As a 10-point underdog, Mike Tomlin is 0-6 SU and 1-5 ATS. The only time he covered, Rudolph was his quarterback in a 24-22 loss to the Browns (-10.5) in 2020.
  • Since 2018, the Bills are 17-2 SU and 8-11 ATS as a 10-point favorite.
  • Since 2018, the Bills are 16-0 SU at home as a favorite of at least 8 points.
  • Buffalo’s offense has the highest conversion rate on third down this year (49.8%).

The Fatal Flaw

What is the factor most likely to lead to each team’s downfall this postseason and in this matchup in particular?

Steelers – Too Many Flaws

Pittsburgh’s fatal flaw is simply having too many flaws to choose from. We can talk about Rudolph being the least trustworthy quarterback in the AFC field, the difficulty of getting by without T.J. Watt, the injuries in the secondary, the lack of any playoff wins since 2016, the record 4-game streak of allowing 36 points in the postseason, or the fact that this team couldn’t beat Bailey Zappe (Patriots) or Dorian-Thompson Robinson (Browns) this season. How are they supposed to get by the likes of Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes as likely double-digit road underdogs every week?

Having said that, this is the AFC you would want to draw if you were going to attempt an all-time crazy run to the Super Bowl. The Bills love to beat themselves, the Ravens always seem to blow it this time of year, and this is the weakest Kansas City team in the Mahomes era. So, you never know.

It just gets too implausible when you take a game-changer like Watt out of the equation.

Bills – Beating Themselves

Whether it’s the reckless turnovers, the blown leads, or the silly stuff like 12 defenders on the field when Denver missed a game-winning field goal, the Bills have a bad habit of beating themselves.

Buffalo leads all teams with a plus-503 scoring differential since 2021, but we have yet to see this team push through for a Super Bowl appearance. They either were outclassed or outplayed by the Chiefs in the playoffs and last year they ran out of steam after an emotional year that included the Damar Hamlin incident.

But maybe this is the year Buffalo is peaking at the right time instead of in October. They have been in playoff mode for weeks. They have won the close games they usually lose down the stretch, including last week’s comeback in Miami to claim the AFC East for the fourth year in a row.

They have a defense capable of winning the Super Bowl. They have the quarterback who can put a team on his back and make the plays few can. They have what it takes to get this done, but they have to stop shooting themselves in the foot.

This matchup especially is one where the Bills can’t be so loose with the ball because the Steelers thrive on turnovers and have that really strong turnover differential that’s helped them win so many close games this year. The Steelers have not blown any leads in the fourth quarter this year while holding up 9 one-score leads late in the game, the best ratio by far in 2023.

Buffalo has already blown 4 leads in the final quarter. Only the Chargers (5) had more in 2023. The Bills even made Mac Jones look clutch for once in his career with a game-winning touchdown drive for the Patriots in Week 7.

The Bills are a dangerous team, but they also are arsonists who want to get credit for putting out fires they started.

Best Bets and Prediction

While both teams fired their offensive coordinators, it really felt like Ken Dorsey was a scapegoat for the turnovers his otherwise effective offense kept committing. That hasn’t entirely gone away as last week showed, and you could argue the usage of Stefon Diggs under new coordinator has not been as good as the way he started this season, and James Cook kind of had an anomaly of a game against Dallas when you look at the rest of his season.

But you still trust the Bills on offense more than you do Pittsburgh, which continued to struggle scoring after Matt Canada was fired. It was really a quarterback change to Rudolph that has helped the most in recent weeks. Rudolph is more aggressive than Kenny Pickett in giving his receivers chances to make big plays, and he’s not as poor with his throws as Mitch Trubisky, who turns it over too much. The Steelers may have found their happy medium at quarterback for right now.

This is an unusual betting line with a double-digit spread and a total of only 36 points. The weather sounds better in Buffalo than it does in Kansas City this weekend. It might be around 25 degrees with some gusty winds, but that’s probably better than the heavy rain Pittsburgh dealt with in Baltimore last week. These teams are used to the elements.

The over is my pick here as you have to consider Pittsburgh’s poor playoff history of getting shredded, and then their best defender is out. But the Steelers could also surprise on offense with Rudolph and chip in their own share of points. The under just feels like a trap.

Obviously, Buffalo should win the game, but crazier upsets have happened. But without Watt speeding up the process on Allen and maybe contributing to those crazy decisions that lead to turnovers, it should be Buffalo’s day.

Maybe Buffalo’s year if enough things go well this time. Remember, it’s not always your best team that wins the Super Bowl. It’s the one that takes advantage of the best circumstances.

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