NFL playoffs start with Texans-Chiefs, Bengals-Steelers


NEW YORK — The Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL’s version of a family car. Practical. Efficient. Responsible. Occasionally boring.

Still, they get the wild-card playoffs started this weekend as the NFL’s hottest team, ripping off 10 straight wins following a 1-5 start.

The one early win was a season-opening 27-20 victory at Houston, where the Chiefs go on Saturday to face J.J. Watt and the Texans.

Following them, the Cincinnati Bengals have a shot at postseason payback a decade later against visiting Pittsburgh. The resilient Steelers, meanwhile, are eyeing a familiar path to a frequent destination.

The Chiefs take care of the ball (they are plus-16 in turnover margin during their current run), and keep opponents out of the end zone. It’s a formula as basic as coach Andy Reid’s game-day demeanor, yet a style that has arguably made Kansas City the least-flawed team in an AFC where weaknesses abound.

The Texans have plenty of them. They captured the AFC South division crown by being the best of a mediocre bunch.

Watt did Watt things, finishing with a league-high 17 1/2 sacks while turning each celebration into a dance-off. Whitney Mercilus had a career-high 12 sacks, and Jadeveon Clowney became healthy and disruptive again. The defense allowed just 12.7 points over the final nine games.

Meanwhile, coach Bill O’Brien made an offense that couldn’t seem to keep a quarterback healthy work anyway. The merry-go-round has come full circle, with Brian Hoyer back in control of the huddle, as Houston seeks to improve to 3-0 in the wild-card round.

Still, they haven’t really replaced running back Arian Foster since he got hurt, and they lost left tackle Duane Brown to a season-ending thigh injury last Sunday. They face a ferocious Chiefs pass rush.

How long will the Chiefs’ luck hold? They won close games during their remarkable franchise-best winning streak, taking advantage of a soft late schedule. But there are no soft opponents in the playoffs.

“I couldn’t honestly care less about what anybody says outside of this locker room,” tight end Travis Kelce says. “We know that when we line up against anybody, we’re confident that we’re going to get the job done.”

The Bengals were on the rise in 2005 when they hosted the Steelers in the wild-card round. Then Pittsburgh defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into quarterback Carson Palmer’s left leg in the first quarter, shredding Palmer’s knee. Cincinnati struggled behind backup Jon Kitna, and the Steelers rolled to a 31-17 victory on their way to a fifth Super Bowl title.

Cincinnati won the division with backup A.J. McCarron after Andy Dalton broke his right thumb in a home loss to Pittsburgh last month.

McCarron is a respectable 2-1 in Dalton’s absence, but he was three months old the last time the Bengals won a playoff game, a drought that turns 25 this month and includes six straight postseason losses. The Steelers haven’t gone more than five years between playoff wins since Richard Nixon was the U.S. president.

Pittsburgh has injury problems of its own with running back DeAngelo Williams nursing a sprained right ankle. The Steelers are already without star Le’Veon Bell, lost for the year after injuring his knee against Cincinnati in November. The injury stemmed from a hit by linebacker Vontaze Burfict that spurred a war of words with Steelers linebacker Vince Williams that spilled over into social media and pregame warmups last month.

The teams split their matchups in the regular season, with each winning on the road.