In the last version of this article, the Colts were 6-0, but would have been the second seed in the playoffs due to the fact that the Denver Broncos were also 6-0 and had more conference wins. Things have changed since then, with Denver losing four of their last six and currently trailing AFC West-leading San Diego at 8-4.
Indianapolis has already clinched their division and a playoff spot and they can wrap up the number one seed with a victory over the Broncos. How do the other matchups look and who stands in the way of Jim Caldwell's team as they seek a second championship in four seasons?
The good news is that the Chargers are currently the second seed, so the Colts have a zero percent chance of facing them in their first game as things stand right now. San Diego has been playoff kryptonite for Indianapolis the past two seasons and the greater the chances that someone else knocks off the Chargers, the better the chances of the Colts winning the AFC side of the bracket.
Denver is currently the fifth seed and would play the fourth-seeded Patriots in Foxborough. Historically, the Broncos have been a tough matchup for New England because of their physical style of play and talented cornerbacks. When you also consider the fact that Denver already beat the Patriots this season and Josh McDaniels is part of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, that looks like the most interesting game in the first round.
Sixth-seeded Jacksonville would play Cincinnati, the current third seed. If Jacksonville would win that game, they would travel to Indianapolis regardless of the outcome of the Patriots-Broncos game, by virtue of the fact that the Jaguars are the lowest-seeded team in the bracket and the Colts are the highest seeded team.
What's interesting about the differences between this bracket and the last bracket that was analyzed — most of the seedings are fundamentally unchanged and Indianapolis had a bye in the first round in both scenarios — is that the wildcard games have changed the dynamic of the bracket.
Previously, the Jets and Steelers were the two wildcard teams, which would mean a possible game against the defending champs or a possible game against rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and a Rex Ryan defense, which Peyton Manning has shredded over the years.
The fact that the Broncos have been bumped down to a wildcard and the Steelers and Jets have been replaced by Jacksonville means that the Colts would possibly need to play a division foe in the Divisional Round. It's tough to face a team three times in one season and beat them all three times (or even two out of three times) and Indianapolis, generally, has not had to play a team in their division in the playoffs throughout Manning's career.
We'll know a lot more about the Broncos after Sunday, but the fact that they will have seen Indianapolis in action gives them an advantage for a possible playoff matchup.
The Bengals are an interesting team in that they don't have a great deal of playoff experience, but they have the edge of having an "us against the world" mentality, since no one is picking them to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
New England has always been a tough nut to crack, especially in the postseason, but Manning won the last January matchup between the two teams and has won five of the last six against Belichick and Tom Brady.
While the ultimate goal of any team is to win the championship every season, expectations for the Colts have to be higher now than they were six weeks ago. They have broken out to a 12-0 start, with a real possibility of finishing the regular season undefeated provided they don't rest their starters after they clinch home-field advantage. Everyone from experts to casual fans are looking for another Lombardi trophy and a parade, so potential matchups beyond the Divisional Round come into play.
Assuming the higher-seeded teams win their games, that means the Patriots would travel to Indianapolis for a tough game that will garner considerable national attention. The Chargers would face off against the Bengals and, one would assume, their experience and offensive explosiveness would prevail. If Indianapolis beats New England, the AFC Championship game would be a Chargers-Colts tilt in Lucas Oil Stadium.
San Diego matches up against the Colts extremely well and the postseason history between the two teams is beginning to rival the history between Indianapolis and New England. There are always upsets and the bracket will most likely change between now and the end of the season, but that AFC Championship matchup will only gain momentum and fanfare as the season draws to a close.
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