Buffalo at Jacksonville.
It reads more like the 9 a.m. London start you’re liable to sleep through on any given week during the regular season, one of the annual handful of contests that sometimes makes the most powerful sports entity seem more suited to be an early-season minor league hockey showdown.
Yet, it is indeed one of the four playoff matchups scheduled for the NFL’s upcoming Wild Card Weekend, one of the best sporting weekends of the year reduced to what amounts to a wintertime exhibition season in the AFC.
In the NFC, we’ve got Atlanta-Los Angeles and Panthers-Saints to fill our intrigue at least. All four are legitimate contenders to make it to next month’s Super Bowl in Minnesota.
On Saturday afternoon, we’ve got Tennessee at Kansas City. Yawn.
On Sunday, the Bills visit the Jaguars. Vegas currently has Buffalo facing 100 to one odds to win the Lombardi Trophy, same as the Tennessee Titans.
One of them may also be headed to Foxborough.
I know, I know, Patriot fans have tired of the “tomato can” mentality that comes with watching their team whip through the competition as if it were Bobby Fischer playing Candy Land, but how else can one classify this? It’s impossible to remember the New England Patriots having an easier run to the Super Bowl than the one laid out in front of them right now. After all, there is a good chance the Buffalo Bills, your AFC East punching bag Buffalo Bills, might be here for the divisional round of the playoffs next weekend.
The bigger fear next Saturday night will be finding out whether or not you parked in a section of the parking lot occupied by members of the visiting Bills Mafia.
Unlike in the NFC, none of the AFC teams playing this weekend are headed to the Super Bowl. None of them is going to beat New England. Only the Chiefs might beat Pittsburgh. If they can get there.
In all likelihood, it will be Andy Reid’s Chiefs that invade Gillette Stadium for the Patriots’ first playoff game of the 2017 season. That is, presuming we see more of the team that routed New England in the season-opener last September, and less of the team that spiraled into a sub-.500 team (5-6) after starting the season 5-0, as well as assuming that Jacksonville’s defense is, indeed, good enough to halt a Buffalo offensive attack that might be short the injured LeSean McCoy.
But much like every week leading up to last month’s game against the Steelers, there is only so much time you can spend on a doormat.
If you feel the need to channel your inner Belichick and list the reasons why the Titans or Bills, are so “explosive” or why special teams might thwart the Chiefs into a bigger concern, go for it. If you’re not the coach, it’s a little like telling yourself you should have made reservations for Burger King, only to realize the inevitable.
“It’s hard to get ready for one team in this league in a week, let alone get ready for three,” Belichick said during a conference call on Tuesday, presumably while making sure there were enough rooms at some off-the-beaten path resort in the tundra of the Upper Midwest at the end of the month. “I think this week’s a little bit more about us, about doing the things that we can do better, about each individual player and coach trying to look for areas of improvement for himself or his group or what he does. Hopefully, be able to apply that in some way to whoever our next opponent is. There are a lot of things that if we do better it doesn’t really matter who the opponent is.”
It doesn’t matter. Like, at all.
Only the Steelers stand in the way of the Patriots heading to the Super Bowl for the third time over the last four seasons, an opponent that still can’t seem to figure Tom Brady and company out no matter how many times things appear to be landing in their direction, even if the rulebook (read it, as Tom Brady has boisterously told opposing playoff coaches) doesn’t. Frankly, it’s the AFC title game we all want, with the inarguable top two teams in the conference meeting once again in a hopeful sequel of the drama we saw in Pittsburgh last month.
There’s New England. Then, there’s Pittsburgh.
Then, there’s an enormous cavern of darkness from which only Mary Poppins and Princess Leia could easily rescue themselves..
Then, there’s everybody else.
Welcome to the NFL Playoffs, where four also-rans get the call over a weekend that is normally, generally compelling.
Buffalo. Tennessee. Jacksonville. Kansas City. It’s OK to admit that the AFC is awful. It doesn’t diminish the Patriots from accomplishing anything.
But, God is it awful.
Any one of the NFC teams playing this weekend might meet the Patriots or Steelers in Minnesota. In the AFC, we’re in a strange place where Bills-Jaguars is a nationally-televised playoff game.
Buffalo at Jacksonville.
Steelers-Patriots is fewer than three weeks away.