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In a year when two-thirds of the NFL playoff field is new Youth Minkah Fitzpatrick Jersey , the AFC still features fixtures Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger , who have seven Super Bowl rings between them, and Alex Smith, who is coming off his best season of his 13-year career.
The trio of graybeard QBs led their teams to division titles again this year, and for the second straight season they won’t have to worry about Von Miller wrecking their Super Bowl hopes. The Broncos missed the playoff party again along with the Texans, Raiders and Dolphins, who were here last year.
The Bills are back for the first time in 17 seasons , the Jaguars for the first time in a decade and the Titans return for the first time since 2008.
The AFC gets wild-card weekend started Saturday with the Titans visiting the Chiefs, who haven’t won a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium in 14 years. On Sunday, the Bills visit the Jaguars.
New England has its customary bye week – its seventh straight – and Pittsburgh earned its first bye since 2010.
Strength and weakness of each of the six AFC playoff teams:
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 51, 34-28 OT over Atlanta on Feb. 5, 2017.
Hope: Tom Brady still plays like he’s 30, not 40. He’s a leading MVP candidate again with a league-leading 4,577 yards passing and 32 TDs. He got hit a lot more than he did last season (32 sacks in `17 after just 15 in `16). But it hasn’t stopped the Patriots from having the league’s second-ranked offense, averaging 28.6 points. A healthy TE Rob Gronkowski , who missed last year’s playoffs, has given the Patriots a huge lift with 69 catches for 1,084 yards. WR Brandin Cooks added 65 receptions for 1 Youth Leighton Vander Esch Jersey ,082 yards.
Nope: Brady heads into the playoffs without his favorite target, WR Julian Edelman (knee), who got hurt in the preseason. Gronk, Cooks and RB Dion Lewis have picked up the slack. But there are still other injury concerns with WR Chris Hogan, RB James White and RB Mike Gillislee all ailing. The defense also is very banged up. LB Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) was lost for the season in October, and the list of nagging injuries has grown throughout the season. Using the bye week to heal up will be huge for New England’s prospects.
The Dope: ”I think we’ve got some work to do. We are not where we want to be and that’s what practice is for. The great thing about it is we’ve got one more chance to be able to go out there and play our best.” – Cooks.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 over Arizona on Feb. 1, 2009.
Hope: The “Killer Bs” are in full flight for the AFC North champions. Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell and K Chris Boswell are all headed to the Pro Bowl – if the Steelers aren’t playing in the Super Bowl – and rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has given Pittsburgh a youthful jolt. The Steelers averaged 29.9 points a game during the second half of the season and appear plenty comfortable when things get tight. They went 9-2 in games decided by six points or less.
Nope: One of those losses was a 27-24 setback to New England on Dec. 17, a game the Steelers led at home throughout until Brady and Gronkowski got going in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone on a fake spike when kicking a field goal and going into overtime made plenty of sense. That means a rematch with New England, if it happens, would be in Foxborough. Pittsburgh has not proven it can cover Gronk effectively – he averages over 100 yards receiving against the Steelers in his career.
The Dope: ”It’s time to lock in and take this as serious as we can because we know how hard it is to get here and the opponents we have to play. We have a lot of belief in each other.” – LT Alejandro Villaneuva.
3. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6). No Super Bowl appearances.
Hope: Defense wins championships. The Jaguars have one of the best D’s in the league – they rank second in points allowed (16., interceptions (21), sacks (55) and yards (286) – and they gave up 10 or fewer points in half of their games. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and linebacker Telvin Smith are the cornerstones of a unit that gives Jacksonville a chance in every game.
Nope: QB Blake Bortles has five interceptions the last two weeks Youth Preston Brown Jersey , raising concerns about his ability to carry the offense in the clutch. Bottom line is he needs more help around him. The NFL’s top rushing attack has stalled, slowed because of injuries to rookie Leonard Fournette and the offensive line, and Jacksonville’s young receivers have started dropping passes, messing up routes and looking far from ready for the playoff stage. The Jaguars are coming off nine consecutive losing seasons, so this is new to them.
The Dope: ”I know he’s going to do everything he can to get back on that horse and lead us the right way and lead from the front. And everybody’s going to do their job around him and do a little bit more. It’s time to step it up, and that’s not just him, that’s everybody.” – TE Marcedes Lewis on Bortles.
4. KANSAS CITY (10-6). Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970.
Hope: Smith had the best season of his 13-year career , helped along by the best supporting cast he’s ever had. WR Tyreek Hill is a game-changer not only on offense but as a punt returner, RB Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, and TE Travis Kelce has arguably supplanted Gronkowski as the best in the game a Andrew Knapp had too much fun to be tired after playing in what matched the longest nine-inning game in NL history.
Knapp and Odubel Herrera hit three-run homers, rookie Scott Kingery had a career-high four hits, and the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 17-5 on Friday night for their fifth straight victory.
Herrera’s shot into the right-field stands in the third inning off Trevor Williams (6-7) pushed the Phillies’ lead to 5-1. Knapp’s blast to left capped a seven-run seventh, making it 14-4 and helping Philadelphia improve to 5-0 against the Pirates this season.
The game lasted 4 hours, 30 minutes, tying the NL record for a nine-inning game set on June 24, 2016 Youth Antonio Callaway Jersey , by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.
”Was it that long?” Knapp said. ”It didn’t seem like it.”
It felt like an eternity for Pittsburgh, which has given up 48 runs, 59 hits and 12 home runs during its four-game losing streak.
”It’s peaks and valleys. Right now, collectively, we’re in a valley,” Williams said.
Herrera finished with four RBIs and Carlos Santana drove in three runs. Cesar Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins had three of the Phillies’ 18 hits and Maikel Franco hit a two-run double in the second.
Kingery reached base five times.
Philadelphia (48-37) moved into a first-place tie with Atlanta in the NL East and is 11 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2011 season. The Phillies lost 96 games last year.
”We played Phillies-type of offense,” first-year manager Gabe Kapler said. ”We continue to see a lot of pitches, work a lot of counts, grind down the opposing pitchers. I really believe it’s a great way to win baseball games and our guys are starting to understand it and going along with it more and more.”
Edubray Ramos (3-0) retired both batters he faced in the fifth inning after being activated from the disabled list before the game.
Both starting pitchers were chased in the third inning. Nick Pivetta was charged with three runs – one earned – and Williams was tagged for five runs.
”I kind of set the tone for the record,” Pivetta said with a smile, ”but our guys did a good job of battling and overcoming it.”
Pivetta has made eight starts in a row without a victory, though he got the win in relief Sunday against Washington. Williams has lost his last three starts, allowing 12 runs in 13 innings.
”I’m tired of getting my (behind) kicked,” Williams said.
The Phillies sent 11 batters to the plate in the seventh to take a 10-run lead. Hoskins and Herrera hit consecutive RBI singles and Santana doubled home two runs before Knapp connected against Josh Smoker.
Jesmuel Valentin belted a two-run double and scored on a double by Hoskins in the ninth.
Pittsburgh’s Colin Moran opened the scoring with an RBI single in the first.
Phillies: Ramos had been out since June 25 with a right shoulder impingement. Fellow RHP Jake Thompson was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Pirates: OF Jordan Luplow was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and RHP Clay Holmes was optioned to Class A Bradenton. Holmes was sent to the Florida State League to stay on a normal schedule because the Triple-A All-Star break is next week.
Marte stole his 200th career base in the fourth inning and added two more steals in the sixth. He is the eighth Pirates player since 1900 to reach that milestone.
Phillies: RHP Vince Velasquez (bruised right forearm) will throw a bullpen Saturday and likely start Wednesday night against the Mets at New York. . RHP Jerad Eichkoff (right lat strain) felt tingling in his fingers during a live batting practice session Friday at the spring training complex in Clearwater, Florida. … INFs J.P. Crawford (broken left hand) and Pedro Florimon (broken right foot) will be examined by specialists next week.
Pirates: RHP Joe Musgrove (infected right index finger) is scheduled to throw a bullpen Saturday. . C Francisco Cervelli (concussion) is 1 for 5 with three walks through the first two games of his rehab assignment at Double-A Altoona. … INF/OF Sean Rodriguez (strained right quadriceps) is 5 for 20 with a double in five games with Indianapolis.
Phillies: RHP Jake Arrieta (5-6, 3.54 ERA) is 0-4 with a 6.16 ERA in his last six starts.
Pirates: RHP Jameson Taillon (5-6, 4.05) is 3-6 with a 4.93 ERA in his last 14 starts after going 3-0 with a 0.89 ERA in his first three.
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