It seems no team ever needed a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs more than the Tennessee Titans, who have used 91 players during their current campaign, the most in any nonstrike season in league history.
The Titans edged the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC's two-time reigning champion, for the conference's top seed and lone bye in the postseason.
The time off also gives running back Derrick Henry — who was the NFL's offensive player of the year in the 2020 season, when he led the league in rushing for the second straight year and topped 2,000 yards — more time to practice for an expected return for the divisional round. He broke his right foot and underwent surgery more than two months ago but started practicing with the Titans last week.
Despite playing in just eight games, Henry still finished the season ninth in the NFL in rushing with 937 yards.
The Chiefs are seeded second, followed by the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, who also won their divisions. The wild cards are the Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The wild-card round has Las Vegas at Cincinnati and New England at Buffalo on Saturday, then Pittsburgh at Kansas City on Sunday.
Here's a look at the AFC playoff picture as the chase for the Super Bowl title and the Lombardi Trophy begins.
1. TENNESSEE TITANS (12-5)
Last Lombardi: None. The franchise's lone Super Bowl appearance was two decades ago, with the Titans losing 23-16 to the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 30, 2000, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where it came down to the final play.
Last season: No. 4 seed, lost to the Baltimore Ravens 20-13 in wild-card round.
This season: Third consecutive trip to the playoffs, second straight AFC South Division title.
Why they'll prevail: The Titans are healthier than they've been all season. Although they didn't capitalize on their previous No. 1 seeds in the 2000 and 2o08 seasons, when they lost to the Ravens in the divisional round both years, they are 8-0 over the past four seasons under coach Mike Vrabel when having at least nine days to prepare for an opponent. Veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill is coming off his best game of the season, matching his career high with four touchdown passes. Not only is Henry preparing to return, but wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are hitting their strides after battling through injuries. Only four NFL teams allowed fewer points than the Titans' revamped defense, and their 43 sacks more than doubled their total from 2020.
Why they'll derail: The Titans can be their own worst enemy. The offense starts too slowly, and they too often have to settle for three points instead of six. Tennessee kicker Randy Bullock has missed six field-goal attempts from 40 to 49 yards this season. They also have three more turnovers than takeaways this season; among playoff qualifiers, the only teams with worse turnover margins are the Raiders (minus-9) and the NFC's San Francisco 49ers (minus-4).
What they're saying: "Most players are defined by what they do in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, I think having regular-season success is really good, but I think when you have a culture that we have here and the type of program that we have, we're more defined on what we do in the playoffs." — safety Kevin Byard
2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (12-5)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl LIV, 31-20 over the 49ers on Feb. 2, 2020, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Last season: No. 1 seed, beat the Cleveland Browns 22-17 in divisional round, beat Buffalo 38-24 in AFC championship game, lost to Bucs 31-9 in Super Bowl.
This season: Seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs, sixth consecutive AFC West title.
Why they'll prevail: Patrick Mahomes. Do you need another reason? His prolific passing ability fundamentally changed the way defenses play the Chiefs, forcing them to use two-deep shell coverages on just about every snap. Mahomes still threw for nearly 5,000 yards with 37 touchdowns passes. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill took advantage of all those throws under the coverage to set a franchise record with 111 receptions, and tight end Travis Kelce had his fourth straight 1,000-yard season.
Why they'll derail: The defense, which has held five consecutive opponents to fewer than 10 points at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, was an abject failure through the first six weeks of the season. The Chiefs ranked near the bottom of the league in just about every defensive statistical category. And while they have played like an entirely different team the past three months, there were signs of cracks in a late-season loss to Cincinnati that cost them a first-round bye and a nip-and-tuck road win against the Denver Broncos to end the regular season.
What they're saying: "There's a lot of teams that won't be out there this week. It's a blessing, a blessing to be here in Kansas City and have the success we've had over my nine years in the league, and we just try to take advantage of those opportunities, because not everybody gets them." — Kelce
3. BUFFALO BILLS (13-3)
Last Lombardi: None in four Super Bowl appearances, all reached in a four-season span (1990-93).
Last season: No. 2 seed, beat the Indianapolis Colts 27-24 in wild-card round, beat the Ravens 17-3 in divisional round, lost to the Chiefs 38-24 in AFC championship game.
This season: Fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons, second straight AFC East title.
Why they'll prevail: It's not just the Josh Allen Aerial Show anymore. While Allen became Buffalo's first player to top 4,000 yards passing and throw at least 30 touchdowns twice in his career, the Bills' late-season run to clinch the division crown was partially fueled by a renewed emphasis on running the ball. After managing 495 yards and two scores on the ground in Buffalo's first 12 games, Devin Singletary rushed for 375 yards and scored five touchdowns (one receiving) over the past five. The Bills are 10-1 when running for a touchdown and 11-2 when topping 100 yards on the ground. Add to that a Buffalo defense that allowed the fewest total yards, fewest passing yards and fewest points in the NFL and combined for 19 sacks over a season-ending four-game winning streak.
Why they'll derail: The Bills padded their wins total against nonplayoff opponents and either rookie or journeymen quarterbacks. Buffalo finished 7-2 against quarterbacks with 16 or fewer career starts, including splitting two games against New England rookie Mac Jones. Buffalo went 4-4 against more experienced starters, with losses against Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tannehill of the Titans and Carson Wentz of the Colts. On offense, slow starts have been the recipe for failure. Buffalo has overcome a second-half deficit just once this season, in a 29-15 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 2.
What they're saying: "My playoff message is we're going to do what we always do. We're coming out here, we're playing fast and playing physical, especially up front. We hear all the chirping. We hear guys talking about us and all that. It ain't nothing. We're going to strap it up and let the pads talk come Saturday." — defensive end Jerry Hughes
4. CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-7)
Last Lombardi: None in two Super Bowl appearances, both losses to the San Francisco 49ers — 26-21 at the Pontiac (Michigan) Silverdome on Jan. 24, 1982, and 20-16 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami on Jan. 22, 1989.
Last season: 4-11-1, missed playoffs.
This season: First playoff appearance and first AFC North title since 2015 season.
Why they'll prevail: Dynamic young stars aren't aware and don't care about the team's playoff futility in the past three decades (zero wins in the past seven postseason appearances). Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow is unflappable and does whatever it takes to move the chains, even if it means taking big hits. He and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, his national championship teammate at LSU, shattered a host of franchise records. Chase and second-year wide receiver Tee Higgins are masterful at 50-50 balls. Fifth-year back Joe Mixon is a powerful, relentless runner.
Why they'll derail: Protecting Burrow has been a challenge all season. Injuries have bitten into the offensive line depth, and the loss of veteran tackle Riley Reiff to an ankle injury last month was a big hit. Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times, and chances are he'll be on the run again in the playoffs, which could force him into critical mistakes. The defense was 26th in the league against the pass.
What they're saying: "The amount of time, the amount of hours spent away from your family and then finally to have some success, to have something to show for it, it's really cool," — safety Jessie Bates III on the Bengals' division title after finishing in the AFC North basement each of his first three seasons
5. LAS VEGAS RAIDERS (10-7)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl XVIII, beat the Washington Redskins 38-9 at Tampa (Florida) Stadium on Jan. 22, 1984, while based in Los Angeles.
Last season: 8-8, missed playoffs.
This season: First playoff appearance since 2016.
Why they'll prevail: The strength of the Raiders all season has been a defensive line that has put relentless pressure on quarterbacks while led by edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. Crosby led the NFL in pressures with 101, according to Pro Football Focus, and Ngakoue had a team-high 10 sacks. If they can maintain that level of play, it should take pressure off the secondary and keep the game close enough for quarterback Derek Carr and the offense, as well as clutch kicker Daniel Carlson, to pull games out at the end.
Why they'll derail: The Raiders rebuilt their O-line during the offseason, but it hasn't paid off. Left tackle Kolton Miller has been a rock all season and center Andre James has improved, but rookie right guard Alex Leatherwood, right tackle Brandon Parker and left guard John Simpson have struggled both in run and pass blocking for most of the season. If that doesn't improve, the Raiders will have a tough time putting up enough points to compete with some of the high-powered offenses in the postseason.
What they're saying: "Obviously, it's something I've dreamed of since I was drafted. That's all I want to do is get to the playoffs and try and win a championship." — Carr on his first playoff appearance in his eight-year career
6. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-7)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl LIII, beat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 for the franchise's sixth title on Feb. 3, 2019.
Last season: 7-9, missed playoffs for first time since 2008.
This season: Avoided what would have been consecutive seasons without a playoff berth for the first time since 1999-2000.
Why they'll prevail: The Patriots spent exactly one season out of the playoffs after Brady's departure to Tampa Bay. Coach Bill Belichick made the bold move to name first-round pick Jones the starter after he beat out 2020 starter Cam Newton, who once led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl, in training camp. Jones took his lumps with the Patriots starting 2-4, but he grew up a lot during a subsequent seven-game winning streak. He also is playing with the benefit of a defense that allowed just 17.8 points per game, ranking second in the NFL. The Patriots are tied for third in the NFL with 30 takeaways and have one the league's top ballhawks in cornerback J.C. Jackson, who has an AFC-best eight interceptions. Linebacker Matt Judon has also been a stellar addition in his first season in New England, leading the team with 12.5 sacks.
Why they'll derail: As strong as the defense has played, the Patriots also have had a propensity to fall behind early in games. They are 8-1 this season when scoring points in the first quarter, but just 2-6 when they fail to do so. It will be a lot to ask a rookie quarterback in his first trip to the postseason to lead the team back if they fall behind.
What they're saying: "All we wanted was a ticket to the dance. We got that. We're in the playoffs. And now we've got go make it happen." — Judon
7. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-7-1)
Last Lombardi: Super Bowl XLIII, beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 on Feb. 1, 2009, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, for their sixth Super Bowl title (tied with New England for most in history).
Last season: 12-4, No. 3 seed, lost to Browns 48-37 in wild-card game.
This season: Earned 10th playoff appearance in Mike Tomlin's 15 years as head coach.
Why they'll prevail: The Steelers may be the longest shot in the playoff field, but in Roethlisberger they have a veteran leader who — while hardly in his prime at 39 and in his 18th and likely final season — has two Super Bowl rings. The Steelers also have perhaps the most disruptive defensive player in the league in outside linebacker T.J. Watt, whose 22.5 sacks tied Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan's single-season record. If Roethlisberger can summon one last bit of magic and Watt's play can cover up some serious warts on a defense that ranks last against the run, maybe the Steelers can carve out a path to the Super Bowl much as they did 16 years ago, when they won the franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy as a No. 6 seed.
Why they'll derail: That aforementioned group from the 2005 season happened to have the NFL's third-ranked defense to turn to when things got tight. Not so much this time around. Only eight teams gave up more yards than the Steelers during the just completed regular season, the franchise's worst performance in more than 30 years. Combine that with an offense that can be painful to watch at times as it tries to dink and dunk opponents to death, and there's a reason Pittsburgh is the longest shot in the 14-team playoff field.
What they're saying: "I've been in a lot of these games where the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win. I just try and tell those guys that listen, we've got to go out there and you've got to play free and have fun, play football, but understand that it does even get a little bit faster and the intensity does pick up," Roethlisberger, who's making his 12th trip to the playoffs
All Times Eastern
Saturday, Jan. 15
AFC: No. 5 Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals (10-7), 4:35 p.m. (NBC)
AFC: No. 6 New England Patriots (10-7) at No. 3 Buffalo Bills (11-6), 8:15 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 16
NFC: No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) at No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4), 1 p.m. (Fox)
NFC: No. 6 San Francisco 49ers (10-7) at No. 3 Dallas Cowboys (12-5), 4:30 p.m. (CBS)
AFC: No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (12-5), 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Monday, Jan. 17
NFC: No. 5 Arizona Cardinals (11-6) at No. 4 Los Angeles Rams (12-5), 8:15 p.m. (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2)
Saturday, Jan. 22-Sunday, Jan. 23
Lowest remaining NFC seed at No. 1 Green Bay Packers (13-4), TBD
Lowest remaining AFC seed at No. 1 Tennessee Titans (12-5), TBD
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND
Sunday, Jan. 30
AFC, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)
NFC, 6:40 p.m. (Fox)
SUPER BOWL LVI
Sunday, Feb. 13
At SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California
AFC champion vs. NFC champion, 6:30 p.m. (NBC)