The AFC Road to Super Bowl XL

The NFL playoffs are upon us with teams ready to show what they're made of. Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Denver and New England are the participants. Any one of the six has a legitimate shot at going to the Super Bowl, but only one will get the invitation. Darren Kelly examines each playoff participant in the AFC tournament and shares his insights on which ones have the best chance to advance.

In the last 9 years, teams with a first round bye are 29-7 in their first playoff game. And in the 15 years of the current playoff format, only 5 of the 30 Super Bowl entrants played a game on Wild Card weekend. These are the cold, hard facts facing teams playing games the first week of the playoffs.

But after an NFL season that week after week had fans asking, "How did they lose to them?" -- could this be a year to throw these stats out the window?

The AFC playoffs look like the most wide-open field we've seen in a long time, perhaps ever. Would anyone be truly shocked if the Pittsburgh Steelers -- the number 6 seed -- advanced to the Super Bowl?

There are 3 sets of teams in the AFC entering this year's playoffs: the underappreciated teams, the teams no one wants to face, and the favorites.

The Underappreciated Teams

Jacksonville Jaguars

It's fitting to start our AFC playoff preview with a team that pulled off a rare feat this season: winning three road games in three straight weeks. Since 2001, only the Jaguars have won three road games in consecutive weeks. They did it four years ago, and again this season, knocking off Tennessee, Arizona, and Cleveland. And they'll need to do it again to get to the Super Bowl.

Not many experts are giving Jacksonville a chance, which just might work to their benefit. As their first round opponent -- the New England Patriots -- has proven over the years, the "us against the world" mentality can be quite a motivating factor. The Jaguars come in with the 6th-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing just 184 passing yards per game (7th-best in the NFL). Considering their playoff road features the AFC's top three passing offenses (New England, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati), Jacksonville might be the perfect team to do something that only one other team -- the '85 Patriots -- has done: win three straight road playoff games.

But their offense might not be enough to carry them deep into the playoffs. They are ranked 16th in yards per game, and prior to Week 16 they scored more than 28 points only twice all season (and their final two games were against Houston and Tennessee). Neither of their top two running backs cracked 800 yards this season (Fred Taylor, 787 and Greg Jones, 575). Jimmy Smith (70 catches, 1,023 yards, 6 touchdowns) is their only legitimate wide receiving threat. And they might even have a quarterback controversy brewing between Byron Leftwich and David Garrard, neither of whom truly puts the fear of God into anyone.

Cincinnati Bengals

The AFC North champion Bengals seem to have all of the ingredients necessary for playoff success. They have the 4th-best scoring offense in the league and the 2nd-highest rated quarterback (Carson Palmer, 3,836 yards passing, 30 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions). Their running back, Rudi Johnson, rushed for 1,458 yards. They have two of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL in Chad Johnson (97 catches, 1,432 yards, and 9 touchdowns) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (956 yards and 7 touchdowns). Their +25 turnover ratio is by far the best in the league, and their 31 interceptions are the most by a team since the 2002 Buccaneers rode their defense to the Super Bowl title.

But the defensive comparisons to Tampa Bay end right there. The Bengals had a hard time stopping anyone this year. They ranked 28th in total defense and allowed more points than any other playoff team. All of this, along with their inexplicable loss to Buffalo two weeks ago, has everyone questioning whether or not Marvin Lewis' charges can handle the playoff pressure. Facing Pittsburgh in their opening game doesn't help, either, considering the Steelers won in Cincinnati in Week 7.

The Teams No One Wants to Face

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are peaking at the right time. Four straight wins, a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, a power running game, and smashmouth defense have given Steeler fans new hope in their team.

After going 15-1 last season but losing the AFC Championship Game -- at home -- to the New England Patriots, great expectations were put on Pittsburgh for the 2005 campaign. But after three straight losses to Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati dropped their record to 7-5, it appeared that the curtain might fall early on the Steelers' season. Four wins later -- including an impressive 21-9 demolition of the Chicago Bears -- have turned Pittsburgh into a team no one wants to face.

The Steelers finished 3rd in rushing yards allowed, tied for 3rd in points allowed, and 4th in total defense. On offense, they have a new rushing sensation in Willie Parker (1,202 yards and a 4.7 yards-per-carry average that is 8th best in the NFL). Jerome Bettis (368 yards 9 touchdowns) is used in short yardage situations but also rushed for 101 yards against the Bears. And although Roethlisberger doesn't put up gaudy stats, he is the 3rd-highest rated quarterback in the league and has a deep threat in Hines Ward (975 yards, 11 touchdowns).

The Steelers went 6-2 on the road this year, with wins at San Diego, Cincinnati, and (at the time) red-hot Minnesota. If they can win in Cincinnati again, they would still need to win at Indianapolis to get to the AFC Championship Game, but the Steelers just might have what it takes to do something no #6 seed has ever done: knock off the #1 seed.

New England Patriots

After losing to the Colts 40-21 at home on Monday Night Football, all but the most diehard Patriot fans decided that the two-time defending Super Bowl champions would not make history by winning three in a row. Just one meaningful loss later and Super Bowl dreams have returned to Patriot Nation.

With Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and Corey Dillon (733 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns) all returning to the field after various injuries, New England was able to win six of seven games before resting most of their regulars last week. Their front seven comprise one of the most dominating units in the league. In Weeks 12-16, they limited their opponents (Jets twice, Bills, and Buccaneers) to just 31 yards rushing per game. Even with their early season defensive problems, the Patriots still finished the season with the 8th-best rushing defense.

The passing defense has been the major problem for New England. They rank 31st against the pass, and have used a revolving door in the secondary, with 13 different starters over the course of the season. But when the linebackers get pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has been able to hold its own. And rookie Ellis Hobbs (3 interceptions) has been impressive over the second half of the season.

And don't forget that two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady (career high 4,110 yards passing) is still the quarterback and Bill Belichick is still the coach. The two are 9-0 in the playoffs together with three Super Bowl rings to show for their efforts. With fellow three-timers Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, and Mike Vrabel anchoring the defense, Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch (998 yards receiving) as Brady's #1 target, and Adam Vinatieri -- the most clutch kicker in NFL history -- is it any wonder the Patriots are one of the most feared teams in the AFC?

The Favorites

Denver Broncos

The Broncos went 8-0 at home, won eight of their final nine games, and went 3-1 against playoff teams. Add in their games against San Diego, Kansas City, and Dallas (all potential playoff teams heading into Week 16) and the Broncos went 7-2 against some of the cream of the NFL crop.

Quarterback Jake Plummer had one of his best statistical seasons, finishing with 3,366 yards passing, and career marks (for a full season) in interceptions (7), completion percentage (60.7%), and passer rating (90.2, 7th best in the league). They got almost 2,000 yards rushing from their top two backs (Mike Anderson, 1,014 and Tatum Bell, 914), and finished with the 2nd best rushing offense in the NFL.

And although their defense ranked 15th overall, they were #2 against the run and tied the Steelers for 3rd-fewest points allowed. But the pass defense might be the team's Achilles heel. The Broncos finished 29th against the pass. With New England, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati -- the AFC's top three passing offenses -- on the horizon, the Broncos might not have what it takes to make it to Detroit.

If Denver does win its first game but has to travel to Indianapolis for the AFC Championship Game, they will face a team that has beaten them in the playoffs two years in a row by a combined score of 90-34.

Indianapolis Colts

13-0. Wins over New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville. The Colts looked like they were on an unstoppable march to the Super Bowl. Then the Chargers came to town with the blueprint on how to beat Indianapolis and nothing's been the same since.

The Colts are still the favorites to get to -- and win -- the Super Bowl. But they are no longer unbeaten, and they are no longer unbeatable. In fact, their first opponent has the potential to put an early end to their playoff run. New England and Jacksonville have gone a combined 6-5 against the Colts over the last three years (including playoffs). And although Indianapolis beat Pittsburgh 26-7 earlier this season, the Steelers (like the Patriots) are not the same team that played them that night. The Colts will have a dogfight on their hands from the kickoff of their opening game.

The Colts' offensive stats are as gaudy as you would expect with a 14-2 team. Peyton Manning threw for 3,747 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions. He led the league in passer rating (104.1) and was 3rd in completion percentage (67.3%). Edgerrin James rushed for 1,506 yards and 13 touchdowns. Marvin Harrison (1,146 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Reggie Wayne (1,055 yards, 5 touchdowns) were Manning's favorite targets and always seemed to be open.

But what separates this Colts team from those of the last few years is their improved defense. They finished 11th in overall defense and 2nd in points allowed. This allowed the Colts to play offense differently. Instead of going for the quick strike every time they had the ball, they had the ability to play a field position game and win 10-3 (as they did in their first match-up with Jacksonville). They didn't set scoring and touchdown records as they did last year, but instead won 13 straight games.

During that 13-game winning streak, the Colts were close to unbeatable. If they can regain their form, they might be celebrating in Detroit on February 5. Their first game might resemble the early season slugfest they had with Jacksonville. But if the Colts come out on top, it might be the beginning of a Super Bowl run.

Darren is a regular contributor to 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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