AFC Playoff Preview

AFC Playoff Preview
January 3, 2014, 2:15 pm
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Earlier this season — in fact, less than a month ago — the eventual No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs beat the No. 1 seed on the No. 1 seed’s home field, and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this year’s AFC playoff picture.
 
But just for fun, let’s keep the preview rolling for another few thousand words. First, with more convoluted head-to-head chaos!
 
Over the past six months, the No. 1 seed in the AFC also lost to the No. 2 and No. 4 seed. The No. 2 and No. 4 seed both lost to the No. 3 seed. The No. 5 seed won 11 games, but went 0-5 against the rest of the AFC playoff field. The No. 6 seed needed a miracle just to make it this far. But now they’re here, and for the year, were a combined 4-2 against the other five teams still fighting for the crown.
 
What I’m saying is that the AFC is very much up for grabs. It always is. That’s just the nature of the NFL playoffs. There are no long, drawn out series to suck the life out of Cinderella. Higher seeds don’t have the luxury of a wake-up call. It’s one day. One game. Sometimes one little wrinkle within a wildly complex game plan can turn an entire match-up upside down. Sometimes weather, injuries and officials rear their ugly heads. Sometimes your starting safety is arrested for soliciting a prostitute the night before a big game. You never know. And don’t just take my word for it . . .
 
“I mean, nobody knows,” Bill Belichick said on Tuesday, when asked to make a prediction about this weekend’s Wild Card contests. “The league is so competitive that, look, it isn’t even who has the better team, it’s just who plays better on that day, how those two teams match up, and who plays better in that one competitive situation.
 
“It’s not four out of seven, or two out of three, or anything else. You get one opportunity to do it, and whatever team can perform better on that day moves on. Who knows who that’s going to be?”
 
Well, Bill. If you don’t, we don’t. Unless you really do, and this is all part of some grand Belichick wizardry. In that case, well played. But either way, here’s a flurry of six packs to help the world get properly ‘lubed up’ for the AFC playoffs.
 
Odds to win the AFC:
 
(1) Denver Broncos: 5/7 – The Broncos (13-3) are heavy favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, according to Bovada Sportsbook. Peyton Manning and Papa John are even money to star in the postseason’s most awkward commercial.
 
(2) New England Patriots: 7/2 – Another year, another first round bye, another home playoff game, another layer of fear and anxiety over the thought of Tom Brady walking away without kissing Lombardi one more time.
 
(3) Cincinnati Bengals: 7/1 – The Bengals (11-5) were 8-0 at home this year, and that included wins over the Packers, Patriots and Colts. On the other hand, they were 3-5 on the road, and all five losses came against teams that are already home for the offseason. On Sunday, they’ll face the Chargers, a team they beat in Week 12. If they win that, they’ll face the Patriots, a team they beat in Week 5. If they win that, well, I just don’t know. Is the world ready to see Marvin Lewis one win away from the Super Bowl?
 
(4) Indianapolis Colts: 14/1 – The biggest, most impactful win of the Colts (11-5) season came in Week 8 against the Broncos. They followed that with a bye week and then went 6-3 down the stretch. However, the three defeats were disastrous: A 30-point loss at home to the Rams. A 29-point loss in Arizona. A 42-28 drubbing at the hands of the Bengals. The six wins? Well, the biggie came two weeks ago in KC. That leaves the Colts feeling pretty good as the Chiefs come to town this weekend. But the other five wins came against the Texans and the Titans and the Titans and the Texans and the Jaguars. Not exactly murderer’s row.
 
(5) Kansas City Chiefs: 14/1 – That 9-0 start must feel like a lifetime ago. Two months ago, at the very least. But despite limping to the finish line, the Chiefs still finished in the top 10 in both points scored and points allowed. They led the AFC in takeaways. They have a quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes and the only game-changing running back in the entire AFC playoff field. Sure, they don't have home field advantage, but they were 6-2 on the road this year, and one of those two losses was last week in San Diego, when most of the starters sat and I believe Andy Reid saw some reps at tight end. I also believe that's the first time that “Andy Reid” and “tight end” have been used in the same breath.
 
(6) San Diego Chargers: 14/1 – Three 9-7 teams in NFL history have gone on to make the Super Bowl: The 1979 Rams, the 2008 Cardinals and the 2011 Giants. Common threads? Other than the fact that all three franchises have at some point employed Kurt Warner, there’s not much. Still, the Chargers are gelling at the right time. They’re healthier than they’ve been all season. Philip Rivers is coming off one of the best years of his career. He led the NFL in completion percentage; he was fifth in passing yards, fourth in touchdowns and QB rating. He’s 2-0 in the postseason against Peyton Manning and has played playoff games in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh in New England. Rivers has waited four years for another crack at the NFL’s second season, and he’ll be ready to roll on Sunday in Cincy. Not sure if we can say the same about Andy Dalton.
 
(Note: Vegas has also posted 14/1 odds that Norv Turner stays awake for the entire game while watching at home on his couch.)
 
Six streaks on the line:
 
23 years: The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. To add a little perspective to that drought, the last team Cincinnati beat in the postseason was the Houston Oilers! In the meantime, the Bengals have made the postseason four times. All four have come within the last nine years, and all under head coach Marvin Lewis.
 
20 years: The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1993. To add a little perspective to the drought — and no, this is not a recording — the last team Kansas City beat in the postseason was the Houston Oilers! In the meantime, KC has made the postseason five times, and under the leadership of four different coaches. Marty Schottenheimer was one and done in his last two attempts. Dick Vermeil, Herm Edwards and Todd Haley all suffered the earliest of exits. Andy Reid will try to change that on Saturday in Indianapolis.
 
Four years: The Chargers haven’t won a playoff game since 2008. To add a little perspective to the drought — and yes, this is a joke — the last team San Diego beat in the postseason was the Houston Oilers!
 
10 games: The Patriots have been favored in 10 straight playoff games. The last time they were underdogs was in January 2007, on the road in the AFC title game against Peyton Manning and the Colts. The next time they would be underdogs is in January 2014, on the road in the AFC title game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos
 
Three games: Peyton Manning has lost three straight playoff games. In all three, Manning’s team was favored. In the last two, they were favored and playing at home.
 
The national media ignores this year after year. Earlier this week, ESPN’s Ron Jaworski picked the Broncos to win the Super Bowl because “Peyton Manning is just on a mission. He's obsessed with winning.”
 
Oh OK. So that was the problem all this time? He wasn’t sufficiently obsessed with winning?
 
One game: Last year, Andrew Luck lost his first career playoff game, and that’s not a big deal. After all, it came on the road against the eventual Super Bowl champs. And he was a rookie! But the stakes are raised this season, with Luck at home and his Colts favored to beat a Chiefs team that they beat in Kansas City two weeks ago.
 
It might not be fair, but with a loss on Saturday, the Luck playoff narrative will be born, and the pressure will continue to mount until he gets off the snide.
 
Six records for the breaking:
 
Starts: As you read this, Tom Brady is tied with Brett Favre for most playoffs starts of any quarterback in NFL history (24). When Brady takes the field next Saturday, he’ll set a new record and it will be safe until at least next year, when Favre comes out of retirement.
 
Touchdown passes: Brady needs four touchdown passes to break Joe Montana’s NFL playoff record of 45. Peyton Manning has 32.
 
Passing yards: Brady already has the all-time record for passing yards in the playoffs with 5,949, but depending on how the next month plays out, that record could be in jeopardy. That’s because Manning is currently fourth, only 270 yards behind Brady.
 
Wins: It will take three wins for New England to win the Super Bowl, and if they do, Bill Belichick will add a few more notches to his Hall of Fame belt. First, the Super Bowl would be his fourth as a head coach, tying him with Chuck Noll for the most all time. On top of that, the three playoff wins will give Belichick 21 for his career — one more than Tom Landry, the current all-time leader.
 
Receptions: Wes Welker has 69 career playoff receptions, and with 17 more, he’ll move ahead of Andre Reed and into the Top 5 all time. With 20 catches, Welker will jump Michael Irvin and Hines Ward into the third place.
 
He only needs 83 more to eclipse Jerry Rice’s all-time mark.
 
PATs: Adam Vinatieri is already the all-time leader in career playoff field goals. He’s made 48, which is nine more than second-place David Akers. However, Akers is the only kicker with more playoff extra points than Vinatieri. The future Hall of Famer needs 10 more to claim the crown.
 
Six health concerns
 
Aqib Talib: He’s played seven straight games on that bum hip, and with a bye week on tap, there’s more optimism surrounding Talib’s health than most imagined there would be heading into the playoffs. It’s been said a million times, so what’s one more: The Pats can only succeed if Talib is at his best.
 
Wes Welker: It’s sad what’s happened to Welker, and scary to think what might happen if he takes one more hit along the lines of the hundreds of others he’s withstood over the last decade. The Broncos excelled over the final two weeks without Welker in the lineup. But they could have excelled with half their team against the Texans and Raiders.
 
Manning’s issues in Week 13 against the Chargers are more indicative of what lies ahead for Denver if Welker can’t stay on the field.
 
AJ Green: Green will play on Sunday against the Chargers, but it will be worth watching how he moves on the knee injured in the regular season finale against the Ravens. The same injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday.
 
It could be nothing, but a healthy Green is Cincinnati’s only chance.
 
Tamba Hali: The Chiefs defense began to disintegrate after injuries to linebackers Hali (knee) and Justin Houston (elbow). Houston will be back in the lineup on Saturday after missing six games, and the Chiefs will certainly benefit. But they need Hali, and swelling in that knee has forced him to miss practice this week and left his availability in question.
 
Ryan Matthews: The Chargers patiently waited for Matthews to make good on their 2010 first round selection. And this year, he finally did it. Matthews was fourth in the league in carries and seventh in the league in yards in 2013. The biggest difference? Aside from Norv Turner’s axing, he stayed healthy. He played in all 16 games. But right now, Matthews is struggling with an ankle sprain that’s kept him out of practice the last two weeks and stands to potentially threaten his production. No doubt he’s on the field against Cincy, but the freezing conditions won’t help him get loose.
 
The great unknown: These teams have survived this long, but they’re not in the clear. Every playoff snap open the door for another injury to a rise and completely change the face of any of the six remaining competitors.
 
Six Predictions:
 
1. Chargers beat the Bengals: They are the hottest team in the conference, and possess that same kind of rhythm that powered the Ravens last year, and the Giants in year’s past. It will be cold in Cincinnati and that probably favors the Bengals, but Andy Dalton makes too many bad decisions to prevail in the playoffs. I’ll take Philip Rivers and the Bolts. Final score: 24-21.
 
2. Chiefs beat the Colts: For some reason, the Chiefs went away from Jamaal Charles in the second half of their Week 15 loss to Indy, but that won’t happen again. It can’t. The Colts ranked 26th against the run this season; it’s the best way to beat them. Meanwhile, as I wrote earlier, other than the win against the Chiefs, the Colts haven’t been tested down the stretch. They’re powered by false optimism. Charles dominance, Alex Smith’s poise and the healthier KC defense is going to spoil it. Final score: 31-27.
 
3. Patriots beat the Chiefs: Scary match-up for the Pats. Probably the worst of the three they could potentially face. In the end, could see this coming down to the wire, with one freak/fluke turnover deciding the outcome. But if forced to choose, I’ll take Belichick over Andy Reid.  Final score: 21-19
 
4. Broncos beat the Chargers: Very tempted to roll with San Diego. Head coach Mike McCoy spent last season as the Broncos offensive coordinator and probably knows Peyton’s attack better than any coach in the league. It wasn’t a fluke that they beat them a few weeks ago. I just don’t think they can do it again. At some point, talent wins out. Final score: 31-21.
 
5. Patriots beat the Broncos: The Pats have the advantage on defense, which tells you a lot about where the Broncos are on that side of the ball. The Broncos have the advantage on offense, although the playoffs are a different beast. In the end, it’s Brady vs. Manning and there’s only one right answer. Pats win. Final score: 34-31
 
6. I sneak back online and edit all these predictions if they’re wrong.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine