The AFC Road to Jacksonville

<p> The NFL playoffs are here, and there are some interesting competitors who made it to the dance this year. While the New England Patriots have a #2 seed and a bye in the first round, there are 4 teams ready to fight for a chance to play them, or the Pittsburgh Steelers in round two.</p> <p>Darren Kelly puts the AFC contenders into four neat categories; Favorites, Contenders, Wild Cards and The teams with no chance. Get inside to see which is which.</p>

PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers' Kimo von Oelhoffen hits New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) as he releases a second quarter pass that was intercepted. The Steelers ended up defeating the Patriots 34-20 and breaking their record 21 game winning streak.

The AFC Road to Jacksonville
By Darren Kelly, Site Contributor

Now that the playoff scenarios have finally been solved, it’s time to assess everyone’s chances of making it to the AFC Championship Game. With the Bills, the team no one wanted to face, out of the playoffs, teams fit nicely into 4 categories: the Favorites, the Contenders, the Wild Card, and the Team with No Chance.

No Chance

Broncos need Champ

Denver Broncos

It’s the worst case scenario for the Broncos. They played the Colts this week needing a win to make the playoffs, while the Colts rested their starters after the first series. This means the Colts didn’t need to waste any time sending scouts to other games, since their opponent was playing to win right before their eyes. This was the third time the Broncos have played the Colts since Week 16 of last season. The prior two games (both in Indianapolis) were losses to the Colts by the scores of 31-17 and 41-10 (in last year’s playoffs). The Colts never punted in the playoff match-up. No team has a tougher task in the first round of the playoffs than the Broncos. And even if they somehow win this game, their reward is a road game against the 15-1 Steelers.

The Wild Card

New York Jets

These Jets are not exactly in the Bills’ category in terms of teams not wanting to face them, but this team could cause problems in the postseason. They have the league’s top rusher in Curtis Martin, a defense that allowed more than 30 points just once all season (and 10 times held the opposition to 17 or less), and the knowledge that they’ve already beaten their first round opponent, the San Diego Chargers. Granted that game was all the way back in Week 2, when most experts (include Eli Manning’s dad) had the Chargers pegged for another bad year. Not even the Chargers knew how good they’d be back then. But the Jets did win that game, in San Diego. It was the Chargers’ sole home loss of the season.

Can Curtis carry the load?

No other team had a more difficult final four games of the season than the Jets. They finished at Pittsburgh (17-6 loss), home vs. the Seahawks (a 37-14 win), home vs. the Patriots (a 23-7 loss) and at St. Louis (losing in overtime 32-29). The Jets are now battle-tested following these games and will be a formidable opponent for the Chargers this Saturday. They would still need to go on the road and beat either the Steelers or the Patriots (most likely the Steelers) to advance to the AFC title game. It’s been eight years since a team won back-to-back road games to reach a Championship Game (the ’96 Jaguars), and although it would be an uphill climb for the Jets, they are in a far better position to pull off the double road win than the Broncos.

The Contenders

San Diego Chargers

Just how good are the Chargers? It’s been a quite a year, going from 4-12 a year ago to 12-4 this season. But the Chargers have fewer wins against playoff teams than any other team in the AFC (San Diego went 1-4 against playoff teams). Add in teams that almost made the playoffs (any team that was still alive going into Week 17), and the record improves to 4-4, thanks to wins over Jacksonville, Carolina, and New Orleans.

They seem to have all of the pieces needed for a deep playoff run: a solid running game with LaDainian Tomlinson leading the way (1,335 rushing for the season), a quarterback who had a career year in Drew Brees (3,159 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions), and a solid defense (80 yards rushing allowed per game along with 23 interceptions). But until the Chargers show that they can win a “big game” there will be doubts about this team. If they can beat the Jets, it’s off to either Pittsburgh or New England, and the chances for a win drop dramatically.

Indianapolis Colts

Peyton's Place

There’s only one problem for the Colts and their playoff chances: their road goes through New England. A win against the Broncos this Sunday guarantees a trip to Foxborough, where they lost last year’s AFC Championship to the Patriots, and where they lost their first game this season. The Colts have now lost 5 straight to the Patriots, and 8 in a row in Foxborough. That’s not likely to change in this game, even with the Patriots’ banged-up patchwork secondary. As impressive as the Colts can be on offense, they’ve yet to completely solve Belichick and Crennel’s defense, especially in New England. The detractors will point to the goal line stand the Pats needed last year in the RCA Dome, or Edgerrin James’ fumble on the goal line in this season’s game to say that the Colts“should have won” several of the recent games with the Patriots. But until the gun sounds and the Colts have more points than New England, more of the same is expected.

The Favorites

New England Patriots

The Patriots went 5-1 against playoff teams this season, and if you throw in the “almost playoff teams” the record balloons to 8-1. They may do just enough to win in some games, but win they do. The stats are gaudy and reaching the absurd at this point. They won 21 straight between last season and this. They went undefeated at home for the second straight year. Brady and company are 6-0 in the playoffs heading into their first game. And since losing to the Rams during the 2001 season, including playoffs, the Patriots are 49-11. Thanks to the bye, the Pats need just one win to reach their third AFC Championship Game in four years. With their first opponent likely to be the Colts, the Pats will not have an easy road, but they remain one of the best teams in the league, and co-favorites to reach the AFC title game.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Can Ben be the one?

Just the fourth team in NFL history to finish 15-1, the Steelers have looked down every opponent in their way since their lone loss to the Ravens way back in Week 2. They’ve won 14 straight since that game, including knocking off back-to-back unbeatens in the Patriots and Eagles in Weeks 8 and 9. With the two-headed running back monster of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, the Steelers grind out wins by averaging over 150 yards per game on the ground. Their defense finished number one in the NFL in yards allowed. And after dismantling the hottest team in football (the Buffalo Bills), with Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger, and Plaxico Burress in street clothes, the Steelers appear to be the most complete team in the NFL. Of their potential playoff opponents, the Steelers have beaten the Jets (17-6 in Week 14) and have not faced either the Chargers or Broncos. Only the Chargers seem poised to give the Steelers a real challenge, so the road to their second AFC Championship Game in four years appears to be freshly paved. Add in the fact that teams with a first round bye over the last five years are 15-5, and a Steelers-Patriots match-up with a trip to Jacksonville on the line seems to be the best bet going.

Darren, an avid sports fan from the Boston area, is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"

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