Chiefs top seed in AFC, but title game could be in Atlanta

Patrick Mahomes is the graybeard of the quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs even though he’s only 27 and wasn’t even born yet when Tom Brady was a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1995.

With Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) out and Teddy Bridgewater, 30, also hurt, the Miami Dolphins are preparing rookie Skylar Thompson, 25, to start at Buffalo this weekend.

That would make Mahomes the oldest starting quarterback in the AFC field.

Mahomes said he certainly feels as if he’s entered a new phase in which he’s no longer the puerile passer who took the league by storm in 2018 when he threw for 50 touchdowns and was the league MVP in his first season as the Kansas City Chiefs’ starter.

“Yeah, I feel like it’s changed. I have two kids now, I’m married. I’m kind of an old soul, so I am kind of the oldest — I am literally the oldest — quarterback in the AFC,” Mahomes said.

“It speaks to the talent that we have in the AFC and the guys that I’m looking around at are going to be there for the long time. So, I’ll be the old head in the AFC for a while now and I’ll try to use that experience to my advantage.”

Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow are both 26. Chargers QB Justin Herbert and Ravens QB Tyler Huntley, who’s filling in for Lamar Jackson (knee), are both 24, and Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence is 23.

Not that he’ll be reclining in a rocking chair, but Mahomes gets to sit out wild-card weekend after the Chiefs earned the top seed in the AFC for the third time in his five seasons as the starter.

If they win in the divisional round, the Chiefs would host the conference championship game for a record-extending fifth consecutive year so long as the opponent isn’t the Bills (13-3), whose game at Cincinnati was canceled after safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on Jan 2.

If the Bills and Chiefs reach the AFC title game, it will be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The league brokered the neutral site deal because Buffalo could have been the top seed with a victory over the Bengals.

It all starts Saturday when the Chargers (10-7) visit the Jaguars (9-8) for the playoff debuts of Herbert and Lawrence. On Sunday, the Dolphins (9-8) visit the Bills (13-3) and the Ravens (10-7) visit the Bengals (12-4).

1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (14-3). Two Lombardi trophies in four Super Bowl appearances: lost to Packers 35-10 in Super Bowl 1, beat Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl 4, beat 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl 54, lost to Buccaneers 31-9 in Super Bowl 55. Last year: No. 2 seed, beat Steelers 42-21 in wild-card round, beat Bills 42-36 (OT) in divisional round, lost to Bengals 27-24 (OT) in AFC championship game. Eighth consecutive trip to the playoffs. Seventh consecutive AFC West title.

Plan the parade: Because of Patrick Mahomes. It’s the same reason as last year and the three years before, all of which ended in the AFC title game or beyond. He has never failed to advance past the divisional round as the full-time starter in Kansas City. Mahomes was better than ever this season despite losing Tyreek Hill in a trade with Miami. He threw for 5,250 yards to break his own franchise record along with a league-best 41 TD throws.

Hold the confetti: Turnovers, penalties and special teams. The Chiefs were minus-3 in turnover differential this season, putting them squarely in the bottom half of the league. They also were in the bottom half in penalty yards. And long a strong suit for Kansas City, special teams have been a headache. Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney have had trouble with fumbles on punt returns and Harrison Butker is a career-worst 18 of 24 on field-goal attempts with three missed PATs.

“We had a lot of close games this year where we had to step up, and guys had to step up, in big moments, and even though it doesn’t make it easy as a fan watching it, I think it shows that we have guys that will compete at the end of the games and make these plays to win football games.” — Mahomes.

2. BUFFALO BILLS (13-3). No Lombardi trophies in four Super Bowl appearances: lost to Giants 20-19 in Super Bowl 25, lost to Washington 37-24 in Super Bowl 26, lost to Cowboys 52-17 in Super Bowl 27, lost to Cowboys 30-13 in Super Bowl 28. Last year: 11-6, No. 3 seed, beat Patriots 47-17 in wild-card round, lost to Chiefs 42-36 (OT) in divisional round. Third straight AFC East title.

Plan the parade: With Josh Allen at quarterback, any objective is achievable. Though he’s thrown 14 interceptions, he’s also shown an ability to carry the Bills on his back. Buffalo is 8-3 when trailing at any juncture of a game this season after going 2-6 last year. The Bills’ three losses have been decided by three points or fewer. The team is also battle-tested in having overcome much adversity in closing out the season winning seven straight and matching a single-season record for victories. The Bills have won despite having their schedule disrupted by two major winter storms, and they rallied to close the season by beating New England following an emotionally draining week following Hamlin’s collapse at Cincinnati.

Cancel the confetti: Injuries are becoming an issue with the most notable to Von Miller, who significantly muscled up Buffalo’s middling pass rush before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in November. Miller was the missing piece on a defense that had trouble generating pressure at Kansas City in the playoffs last year. Buffalo’s secondary is also thin. Hamlin was starting in place of Micah Hyde, who has been sidelined by a neck injury since September. CB Tre’Davious White is gradually returning to form since being activated in November after missing a calendar year with a knee injury.

“I’m so proud of our organization, our team, just so many people, the way we’ve dealt with so much this year.” — GM Brandon Beane.

3. CINCINNATI BENGALS (12-4). No Lombardi trophies in three Super Bowl appearances: lost to 49ers 26-21 in Super Bowl 16, lost to 49ers 20-16 in Super Bowl 23, lost to Rams 23-20 in Super Bowl 56. Last year: 10-7, No. 4 seed, beat Raiders 26-19 in wild-card round, beat Titans 19-16 in divisional round, beat Chiefs 27-24 (OT) in AFC championship, lost to Rams 23-20 in Super Bowl 56. Second straight AFC North title.

Plan the parade: Third-year QB Joe Burrow has a knack for finding creative ways to win. He passed for 4,475 yards in 16 games and his 35 TDs tied him with Allen for second most in the league behind Mahomes’ 41. He has two 1,000-yard receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins along with veteran Tyler Boyd and others who have stepped up big. The defense has outstanding edge rushers in Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson along with run-stopping DT DJ Reader and a pair of versatile linebackers in Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt. The Bengals haven’t lost since Oct. 31.

Cancel the confetti: RB Joe Mixon is tough in fighting for extra yards, but the Bengals running game hasn’t been a huge factor. He topped 100 yards just once this season. The Bengals will have to start backups in both offensive line positions on the right side after injuries to La’el Collins and Alex Cappa. The offense has shown a tendency to be flat for parts of some games. Depth in the secondary also has been an issue.

“We’ve adjusted to what teams are doing to us throughout the year. The beginning of the year was a lot of ups and downs. Then, as the season went on, we made some tweaks and adjustments that have been really good for us both in the run game and pass game, understanding how to win games.” — Burrow.

4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (9-8). One of four teams with no Super Bowl appearances. Last year: 3-14, missed the playoffs. First playoff appearance since 2017, when they lost to the Patriots 24-20 in AFC championship game. Won AFC South in Doug Pederson’s first season as head coach in Jacksonville.

Plan the parade: Trevor Lawrence is a rising star in a conference stacked with young, stellar quarterbacks. At 23, Lawrence is the youngest QB in the playoffs. He completed 66.3% of his passes for 4,113 yards, 25 TDs and eight INTs, in his second season. He also has five rushing scores. Fumbles have been his biggest issue — he has lost nine — but he’s clearly figuring out what it takes to get it done at the most important position in professional sports.

Cancel the confetti: Although Jacksonville’s defense has played well down the stretch, allowing a combined 22 points in victories over the Jets, Texans and Titans, that success came against a slew of bottom-tier QBs: Zach Wilson and Chris Streveler for the Jets; Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel for the Texans; and Joshua Dobbs for the Titans. The Jaguars’ pass rush has been mostly suspect against top-flight passers, although takeaways keep coming and LB Josh Allen is showing signs of becoming the dominant force the team expected when it drafted him seventh overall in 2019.

“We’re ready to take over. We’re not in this for no reason. We worked our butts off to get to this point.” — Allen.

5. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (10-7). No Lombardi trophies in one Super Bowl appearance: lost to 49ers 49-26 in Super Bowl 29. Last year: 9-8, missed the playoffs. First playoff appearance since 2018 when they beat Ravens 23-17 in wild-card round and lost to Patriots 41-28 in divisional round.

Plan the parade: After dealing with injuries for most of the season, the Chargers are finally healthy and playing their best football. Los Angeles has won four of its past five, the offense is showing a semblance of balance with more consistency in the run game and the defense has done a good job of generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Justin Herbert threw for at least 300 yards in every game this season.

Hold the confetti: Brandon Staley is going into his first playoffs as a head coach. He is one of the most aggressive coaches in the league, but this is the time of year when the wrong decision could have huge ramifications. The Chargers also have one of the worst run defenses in the league. They allowed 5.42 yards per carry, the worst average by any team since the 1970 merger, while 10 running backs had 100-yard games against the Chargers.

“I think that we have a team that is full of quality experiences, and it has been fun to watch this group take shape together to carve its own path here with the Chargers. We get a big opportunity on Saturday to really make our mark.” — Staley on not having a lot of playoff experience on his roster.

6. BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7). Two Lombardi trophies in two appearances: beat Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl 35 and beat 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl 47. Last year: 8-9, missed the playoffs. Fourth playoff appearance in five years.

Plan the parade: Since acquiring LB Roquan Smith in a trade, the Ravens are allowing just 14.7 points per game. If they can do that in the playoffs, they can hang with anyone, even if QB Lamar Jackson remains out because of his knee injury he sustained last month. RB J.K. Dobbins has looked refreshed and healthy since returning from injured reserve, averaging nearly 100 yards rushing in four outings. The Ravens also have one of the league’s great clutch performers in a close game in K Justin Tucker. And if Jackson can actually return at some point …

Cancel the confetti: Jackson hasn’t even practiced since his injury in early December when he was tackled by Broncos OLB Jonathan Cooper, so expecting him to provide a major lift is fanciful at this point. Furthermore, QB2 Tyler Huntley hasn’t been totally healthy, either. The Ravens benefitted from a favorable schedule down the stretch and grinded out enough wins to make the playoffs, but asking their defense to dominate against a team such as the Bengals — and the perhaps the Chiefs or Bills later in the postseason — is a different thing entirely.

“This team has been through a lot. There’s been a lot of ups, there’s been a lot of downs, and one thing that we keep on doing is fighting.”—TE Mark Andrews.

7. MIAMI DOLPHINS (9-8). Two Lombardi trophies in five appearances: lost to Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl 6, beat Washington 14-7 in Super Bowl 7, beat Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl 8, lost to Washington 27-17 in Super Bowl 17, lost to 49ers 38-16 in Super Bowl 19.

Plan the parade: The speed of WRs Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle has given defenses fits all season, and Miami’s timing-based offense is at its best when those two find openings over the middle of the field. Hill was second in yards (1,710) and receptions (119) during the regular season and has the playoff experience to help carry Miami’s passing game. Waddle was seventh with 1,356 yards.

Hold the confetti: Injuries. The O-line is banged up, and the QB situation seems ever-changing. Tagovailoa was among the NFL’s highest-rated passers all season, but he hasn’t been cleared to return to football activities yet after being diagnosed with a concussion and it’s unclear when the Dolphins will see him back on the field. While Thompson did just enough to lead the Dolphins to a playoff-clinching win over the Jets, Miami’s offense, which was waning even with Tagovailoa toward the end of the season, is severely limited without him.

“There’s still confidence in this team, confidence in this whole building. I feel like you never lose that as a competitor.” — Hill.

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AP Pro Football Writer Mark Long and AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta, John Wawrow, Mitch Stacy, Joe Reedy, Noah Trister and Alanis Thames contributed to this report.

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