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AFC Playoff Picture

By Gerry Schmidt
There may be some confusion regarding the contenders and pretenders in this years NFL playoff tournament. Let me help you make sense of the AFC Playoff scenarios complete with predictions going into the penultimate week of the regular season. Three teams have clinched playoff spots already in the American Football Conference. The Indianapolis Colts have won the AFC South in a landslide and have claimed a spot in the tournament. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs have both secured playoff spots and are currently battling for the AFC West crown. The winner of the division likely gets home field throughout the AFC playoffs while the loser becomes a wild-card playoff entry and has to play all its games on the road. A reeling New England team will drop to 10-5 this weekend after the red hot Ravens beat them in Baltimore where the birds own a 6-1 mark this year. The Ravens have won four consecutive games and face another must win game against the Patriots on Sunday. The Patriots defense ranks 24th in the league, largely due to their inability to stop the run. This would be a great week for the Ravens to unleash running back Ray Rice who is likely to gash the Pats for some big yardage on the ground. However, the Ravens appear to have problems of their own, failing to score a touchdown against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. All of the Ravens points came off the foot of kicker Justin Tucker who converted all of his six field goal tries. The last field goal was a monstrous kick from 61 yards that just snuck over the crossbar and inside the upright in the final minute to win the game. It wasnt pretty, but then again the Ravens are notorious for winning ugly this time of year. Baltimore has won its share of gritty football games in the trenches with a strong offensive line and a hard-hitting defense which forces opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. The defending champion Ravens are also a smart, disciplined team under the leadership of coach John Harbaugh. Baltimores path to the playoffs proves a little more difficult the last week of the season when they face the Bengals on the road in Cincinnati for the AFC North title. As good as Baltimore is at home, they are equally as bad on the road, posting a 2-5 record this year at opposing stadiums. However, anything goes this time of year as witnessed on Monday night when the Ravens won in front of the Ford Field crowd in Detroit. The Pats are in jeopardy of losing back-to-back games for the first time since week two and three of the season last year. This is clearly not the same New England team of old. Injuries have decimated the team leaving quarterback Tom Brady with few options to throw to deep and on the sidelines. Pats receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola make their living catching passes over the middle. The absence of gigantic tight end Rob Gronkowski due to season ending ACL and MCL tears to his knee greatly cripples Bradys end zone options when the team is in the red zone. There is just nobody with size and strength in the receiving corps to battle defenders for the ball. New England should win their final game against Buffalo to finish 11-5 on the year. However, the Patriots will lose their grasp on the

number two seed in the AFC when they finish tied with Cincinnati in the playoff standings. The Bengals own the tiebreaker with the Patriots due to their head-tohead 13-6 victory against New England in week five. Instead of having a bye-week and hosting a home playoff game in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Patriots will likely play Wild Card weekend against their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins just knocked off the Patriots last week by a score of 24-20. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill came of age as he led the Dolphins on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Like the Ravens, the Dolphins are peaking at the right time and have won three in a row. Miami has the easiest path to the remaining AFC Wild Card when they face Buffalo this weekend and the New York Jets in the finale. These should be two teams that the charging Dolphins should handle easily. However, Miami has not made it look easy this year and has ridden a rollercoaster of highs and lows. The team started the season with three wins, followed by three losses, and then alternated wins and losses before their current three game winning streak. The Dolphins also appeared unable to recover from the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying incident in the middle of the season. Both offensive linemen were both dismissed from the team. However, the Dolphins have managed to keep it together with a patchwork offensive line and the NFLs ninth best scoring defense. Coach Joe Philbin will garner strong consideration for the NFL Coach of the Year award for his ability to keep the Dolphins together through the adversity. Miami should finish with a record of 10-6 and will enter the playoffs as one of the NFLs hottest teams. The Cincinnati Bengals are currently 9-5 and in charge of the AFC North. However, they are another Jekyll and Hyde team. Just when this talented squad looks poised to gain a firm stranglehold on the division with a strong win, they follow it up with a puzzling loss the following week. The Bengals are 6-0 at home while posting a 3-5 record on the road this year. Luckily for them, they will get to play their remaining two games in Cincinnati against a Minnesota team that has shown occasional flashes, but is still mired in the bottom of the NFL standings. The Bengals then draw their hated division rival Ravens in the season finale that should prove to be an all-or-nothing battle for the AFC North crown. The winner is guaranteed a home playoff game while the loser likely goes home for the New Year. The home field should hold serve with Cincy pulling out a close one in a slugfest. The Colts have easily laid claim to a weak AFC South. However, playing in the NFLs worst division has seemingly hurt the competitiveness of the Colts, especially when they play more difficult teams as of late. Indianapolis was plastered by St. Louis 38-8 in week 10, hammered by Arizona 40-11 in week 12, and outgunned by Cincinnati 42-28 in week 14. The pundits keep saying the Colts havent been the same since the loss of wide receiver Reggie Wayne due to injury. However, Reggie Wayne didnt play defense and the Colts are clearly allowing way too many points. The Colts will likely lock up the fourth seed in the AFC and open up the playoffs in the comfort of the domed Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Wild Card weekend. However, as the number four seed, the Colts will be facing a very good Chiefs team that has suddenly been scoring a slew of points, hanging 45 points on the Redskins in week 14 and 56 points on the Raiders in week 15. Though the Redskins and Raiders are a couple of NFL doormats, the Chiefs offensive explosion is somewhat of

an anomaly for a team that was winning close, low scoring games fueled by the strength of their defense. Kansas City also boasts an NFL high +21 turnover ratio. Ironically, we will get a sneak peek of the potential Wild Card matchup this weekend between the Colts and Chiefs when Indy travels to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. The Chiefs may finish tied with the Broncos for the best record in the AFC, but be demoted to the Wild Card because of two head-to-head losses to the Broncos this year. Denver finishes with two cupcakes to end the season in Houston and Oakland. They should handle both teams easily to hold on to the AFC West lead. Kansas Citys path is a little more difficult closing with playoff bound Indy and going to San Diego to play the Chargers who are still alive for a playoff spot. The Chiefs appear to be destined for the number five seed in the AFC. Kansas City will be a dangerous team in the playoffs under the leadership of coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith. Reid took his former Philly team to five NFC Championships and one Super Bowl. Smith led his former 49ers team to the NFC Championship game two years ago. The Chiefs could possibly face off against the Broncos for a third time this year in the AFC Championship game. Hopefully, by then coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs will have made adjustments to their pass defense and not try to play the Broncos receivers with man-to-man pass coverage. That experiment failed miserably as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning scorched the Chiefs secondary for 726 passing yards and six touchdown passes in the two games this year. Denver has been the best and most consistent team in the AFC this year and surely will claim the top seed in the conference. However, like every team in the AFC, the Broncos have flaws. In particular, Denvers defense has been porous this year and has allowed an average of 26.6 points per game, which ranks 24th in the NFL. A team ranked 24th in scoring defense is rarely a playoff contender. However, the Broncos have MVP quarterback Peyton Manning to thank for their success as he has been able to largely exploit opposing defenses to the tune of an average of 38.2 points per game. It remains to be seen how long the weak Broncos D can hold off formidable opponents in the playoffs. The defense, or lack thereof, contributed to the Broncos playoff demise to the Ravens in the Divisional Round last year. Manning is having a spectacular season, maybe the best for a quarterback in NFL history. He will no doubt eclipse the record for touchdown passes thrown in a season (50) set by Tom Brady in 2007. Manning should also easily shatter the record for most passing yards in a season (5,476) set by Drew Brees in 2011. As great as Manning has been in the regular season, he has always been plagued by his inability to win the big one. Yes, he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy once after a 29-17 victory against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. However, doesnt it feel like Manning should have three, four, or five of these trophies on his mantle at home? Football is a team sport and Manning cant be solely blamed for the playoff success or failures of his teams. However, last year, he singlehandedly committed all three turnovers by the Broncos in the loss to the Ravens in the Divisional Round. Peyton Mannings struggles in cold weather against tough defenses are legendary, even though he downplayed that fact to the media after beating up the Tennessee Titans 51-28 in cold weather in week 14. Manning and the Broncos may make it to the Super Bowl this year through a host of flawed AFC contenders.

However, dont be surprised if a streaking team with an above average defense from a cold weather city goes into Denver on a winter day and knocks off the number one seed in the AFC.

Seeding and Projected Record of AFC Playoff Teams 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Denver Cincinnati New England Indianapolis Kansas City Miami 13-3 11-5 11-5 10-6 12-4 10-6