AFC Playoffs Should Offer Some Great Match-ups
by Trevor Whenham - 11/29/2006
The NFC isn't setting any records for excitement or competitiveness this year, but the AFC playoff race is as tight and as tough as it could possibly be. Not only is the wild card fight going to go down to the last day of the season, but there are four teams at the top of the conference that would be rightful favorites in the Super Bowl if they continue to play like they are now. It's going to be quite a battle for playoff spots, and for home field advantage. Here's a look at how it shapes up:
Indianapolis - The Colts are 10-1 and are guaranteed their standard spot at the top of the AFC South unless they go 0-5 down the stretch. Not going to happen. Unfortunately for them, I don't see how a Super Bowl win is going to happen, either. If you saw the Dallas game then you know just how vulnerable this team can look. Peyton Manning showed yet again that he can't handle a 3-4 defense, and the team around him made a shocking number of mistakes. The Colts haven't performed well when they needed to in the playoffs, and they don't have the look of a clutch team to me yet again. Besides that loss in Dallas, the team has had near losses against the Jags, Jets, Bills and Titans - four teams they shouldn't be struggling against. Consecutive huge wins against Denver and New England showed that they won't just lie down and play dead, though. The Colts have one more win than any other team, and a relatively easy schedule, so they have the inside track for securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Baltimore - It may have only been against the Steelers, but the Ravens' performance last week was impressive as a game can be. The 9-2 Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger nine times and completely shut down the Pittsburgh offense. Steve McNair was never sacked and he had the time to make the plays he had to make. On both sides of the ball it was a tour de force. The Ravens have the defense we always expect them to have, but they have something we haven't seen from them for years - a quarterback who won't cost them games. McNair is not the MVP-caliber player he once was, but he is smart and reliable and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. His offense is playing with renewed vigor and effectiveness since Brian Billick began calling plays halfway through the season. The Ravens have won five in a row, and there may not be a team that other teams would less like to face in the playoffs right now.
San Diego - Thanks to the demise of the Broncos, and the struggles of the Chiefs at times, San Diego is in control of the AFC West. Only a monumental collapse would cost them the division. Unfortunately, San Diego proved last year that they are fully capable of monumental collapses. The offense is easily the best in the league right now. Philip Rivers was expected to be good, but it's surprising how good he has become so quickly. He's been effective and reliable and he has led two comebacks already that most quarterbacks will never have on their resume in a career. LaDainian Tomlinson scores so much that he seems to live in the end zone. The defense is solid, and will get better with the return of Shawne Merriman, but it falls behind the offense in quality. If an opponent can shutdown the offense in any way then the Chargers are vulnerable. The Chargers have a loss to the Ravens on the books, so they will need to do better than their 9-2 foe down the stretch to get the first round bye in the playoffs.
New England - The Patriots have the worst record of this group at 8-3, but they have two more wins than the overachieving Jets in their division and a schedule with few major bumps, so they should be able to hold on to the Division title and the first round home game. They will need a major rush between now and the end of the season to move up the ladder from their current fourth place spot. It will remain to be seen how much of a loss Junior Seau will be on defense. The team has looked as good as anyone, like when they shut out Green Bay two weeks ago. Other games, like when they lost to the Jets the week before, they are mystifyingly bad. The team will need to find some consistency if they want to do some playoff damage. Of course, they could end up playing the Colts in the second round. That's always been good for them in the past.
The Wild Cards
Denver (7-4) - The Broncos are in the wild card driver's seat now, but the road just got rough. Jay Cutler is taking over from Jake Plummer this week. He's unquestionably talented, but he's also a rookie, and both Matt Leinart and Vince Young have shown how hard it is to adjust to the NFL. Like those two, Cutler will play well, but it will take a while, and the playoff hopes could be in trouble before he gets it figured out. Of course, it's not like the Broncos were going to beat anyone in the playoffs with Plummer playing anyway, so they have nothing to lose.
Kansas City (7-4) - Can Larry Johnson stay healthy? If so then the Chiefs will get in. Since he is basically the entire Kansas City offense, though, an injury to the running back would doom the team. The home-field advantage the Chiefs have is as good as any in the league, but unfortunately they have almost no chance of playing at home. Still, they are a potentially pesky opponent.
Cincinnati and Jacksonville (6-5) - I lump these two teams together because they both have the same problem. When they are on their game they are incredible. Unfortunately, they have a bad habit of not showing up at all. Of the two the Bengals are the more dangerous. I'd like to think that they will make the playoffs, but I've guessed wrong about how they would play too many times already this year.
New York Jets (6-5) - The Jets have to be the longshot for a postseason berth. Of course, I have been writing this team off since the start of the season, so what do I know? At times they have been very good - beating the Patriots in Foxboro and almost beating Indianapolis. Other times, like their 41-0 loss to Jacksonville, they have been incredibly bad. They are overachieving, but this is the point in the season where overachievers can get really dangerous. All five of their remaining games are winnable, so the Jets could be someone's unexpected opponents in January.