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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Playoffs? PLAYOFFS? Are You Kidding Me? PLAYOFFS?!? - AFC Edition

Yesterday, we discussed the NFC playoff picture. Now, let’s look at the very different and less predictable AFC race.

1) New England Patriots – This team coasted to a 13-3 record on the strength of Tom Brady, the skill of Tom Brady, and the experience of Tom Brady. The offensive line, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski gave Brady the vast majority of the help he received this year.

That’s great for Brady. A healthy future Hall of Fame quarterback playing in a weak and dysfunctional AFC East division, facing the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins for a total of six games, can guide you to the top seed in the playoffs. However, regular season football and playoff football are two completely different breeds of play.

The Patriots have an aged Deion Branch and a woefully underachieving Chad Ochocinco as wide receiver options after Welker. The running game is unimpressive. The defense is absolutely abysmal, 31st in the league overall and 31st against the pass, surpassing a 16 year old record for incompetence in the defensive backfield set by the Atlanta Falcons.

These problems aren’t going away. When you cannot stop your opponent, a QB of Brady’s caliber can cover up the deficiencies against the Bills, as he did last Sunday. That won’t fly against the Steelers or even the Bengals, whom I think the Patriots are most likely to face in the second round. The Patriots have lost playoff games at home in back-to-back years after not dropping a post-season game at Foxboro since 1978. I think the Pats are ripe for the hat trick (no pun intended).

He's not that good. 1
2) Baltimore Ravens – I think, realistically, that there are two teams that could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. My money would be on the Ravens if I had to bet the farm. The defense is as great as it ever was. Ray Rice is as unstoppable as he ever was. Ricky Williams, averaging 4.1 yards per carry this season, at age 34, offers a fresh pair of legs for a 1-2 punch that gives defensive coordinators fits. Finally, quarterback Joe Flacco, who knows how to win games, seems to step his game up in the playoffs.

Sounds promising, right? It is, but the key will be Flacco. His efficiency rating is its lowest since his rookie year and his accuracy has declined. Still, his decline is more like a dip than a crash and the only statistic that really counts is the final score. He is also not turning the ball over any more than he has in the past. I think the amount of criticism heaped on Flacco by the press and opposing players, like Steelers players, is excessive and unwarranted. He will have a chance to prove that on the field and I think that opponent will likely be the archrival Steelers.

Dear Mr. Tebow: Ray Lewis prays, too. I like my chances with him a little better, sir. 2
3) Houston Texans – Great running game…great defense…great story. The Texans finally ended a nine year string of futility with their first division title and first playoff appearance, ever. The city of Houston will host its first NFL playoff game in 18 years.

Unfortunately, if this were a television or radio show, I would cue Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (Back to Reality)” for the Texans segment. Their playoff prospects went down in a ball of flames when starting quarterback Matt Schaub was lost for the season with an injury, then crashed to the ground when serviceable backup Matt Leinart was lost for the season with a shoulder injury the following week.

The “next man up” at quarterback is rookie T.J. Yates. He has shown that he may be a competent NFL quarterback, maybe even a starter one day. However, playoff football does not lend itself to on the job training. The Texans are the only NFL franchise to never win a playoff game. I expect the visiting Cincinnati Bengals to make that continue.

The Texans could try to win without these guys. You could try to drive a car with just your feet, too; that doesn't make it a good idea. 3
4) Denver Broncos – There are so many opportunities to crack on Tim Tebow with references to miracles that I won’t. I’ll leave the comedy to Saturday Night Live. The cold, hard facts are that Tebow is facing one of the best defenses of its time and the #1 defense in the NFL in the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. His accuracy is extremely inconsistent, unable to connect the dots against a solid Chiefs pass defense. The Steelers are better. The Broncos are done.

5) Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are the other team I think has a possibility to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The defending conference champions are a little banged up. Their star running back, Rashard Mendenhall, is lost for the season due to a knee injury. Star defensive back Ryan Clark will not play at Denver due to a chronic illness. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still nursing a high ankle sprain.

I do not expect those injuries to pose a hurdle against the 8-8 Broncos. Should the Steelers advance, as I expect, to the second round, the bumps and bruises in the offensive backfield could put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Steelers defense against the Patriots or Ravens, especially the Patriots.

This image offers little comfort to Broncos fans, as they know it is just a temporary setback for Big Ben. 5

6) Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are a case study of how the right quarterback can turn a team around by 180 degrees. Andy Dalton, in general, has been efficient, but not “great”. Considering that he was a rookie coming to a team that appeared dysfunctional at the end of last season, so dysfunctional that their former franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, chose to retire rather than return to the team, Dalton has been spectacular.

Dalton has had some help from fellow rookie prodigy, wide receiver A.J. Green. But the source of the Bengals strength is its defense, ranked #7 in the league. As long as the Bengals can contain the Texans running attack, I expect Dalton to have the opportunity to guide his team to a win in the first round, especially considering their opponent’s problem at quarterback. A first round playoff win would make this Bengals’ season a success by any measure.

Jerome Simpson (89) and the Bengals are flying high towards the playoffs. 6

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