Unlike last season, when the 6th-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers were on an even playing field with the top seeds, this year's Wild Card entrants don't appear to have the cache for a deep playoff run. Meanwhile, the four division winners are the cream of this year's NFL crop, and home field advantage might be the only thing that separates winning from losing.
Of course NFL home teams went just 136-120 this season, for a winning percentage of just 53%. And with the Steelers pulling off the rare three straight road playoff wins last year, this year's traveling teams must be feeling pretty confident of their chances. But we've got two groups of teams in the AFC this year: the Wild Cards and the Chalk. Given the match-ups, we might see something that hasn't happened since 2002: the top seeds winning every game heading into the AFC Championship Game.
The Wild Cards
After blowing a 14-point 4th quarter lead in an overtime loss to Cleveland in Week 13, the Chiefs were in trouble. They then lost back-to-back games to Baltimore and San Diego, the top two seeds in the AFC, and the season looked over. Remarkably the Chiefs won their final two games and got help from Denver, Cincinnati, and Tennessee -- all of whom lost at home in Week 17 -- to grab a playoff spot.
Their reward is a match-up with the Indianapolis Colts, who just might be the best opponent the Chiefs could face. The Colts had the worst rush defense in the NFL this season. Larry Johnson rushed for a career-high 1789 yards, and doesn't appear to be worn down even after carrying the ball an NFL-record 416 times.
But Trent Green has thrown 9 INTs and been sacked 21 times in seven games since returning from his Week 1 concussion. And the Chiefs defense allowed Jacksonville 3rd string quarterback Quinn Gray to throw for 166 yards and rush for two touchdowns in just 22 minutes of action to make last week's game closer than it should have been. Peyton Manning just might be licking his chops after watching that game film.
Even if the Chiefs can somehow get past Indianapolis, they are facing the prospect of two more road wins against two of the best teams in the NFL. The Chiefs only had three road wins all season, and the combined record of those teams was 13-35. I don't think we can expect the Chiefs to now knock off three straight teams with 12 or more wins.
The Jets have inched into that "sneaky good" category in a lot of people's minds. It's clear that head coach Eric Mangini has brought the "bend but don't break" method of defense with him from New England to the Meadowlands. The Jets allowed the 6th-fewest points in the league, but were 20th in yards against. The comparisons are starting up between this Jets team and the 2001 Patriots and last year's Steelers.
But before we get too far with the comparisons to Super Bowl champions, let's consider a few things. First, since knocking off the Patriots in Week 10, and losing to the Bears 10-0, the Jets have faced 0 playoff teams. Their 5-1 record in the final six weeks was forged against some of the dregs of the league. As a matter of fact, the win over New England was the only win the Jets had against playoff competition all season.
The Jets are playing solid defense, allowing just 9.4 points per game in their final five wins. Of course they allowed 31 to the Bills in Week 14. One of Buffalo's touchdowns came on an interception return, but on offense they had scores of 57 yards (a Willis McGahee run) and 77 yards (a J.P. Losman pass to Lee Evans).
The real problem for the Jets lies in their offense. Chad Pennington (3,352 yards passing with 17 TDs and 16 INTs) and company are averaging just 305.7 yards of offense per game, while scoring only 19.8 points per game. Both of those statistics are the worst of any of this year's playoff teams. Their top running back is Leon Washington (650 yards, 4 TDs), who hasn't rushed for more than 55 yards since Week 7.
Yes, the Jets have a good draw in the first round with division foe New England. But does anyone see this team winning three straight on the road?
With impressive wins on the road against two teams fighting for playoff spots, the Patriots have put their back-to-back home losses to the Colts and Jets in the rearview mirror. They finished the season 6-1, knocking off the top team in the NFC (the Bears) in the process. The only head-scratcher was the 21-0 disaster in Miami.
Tom Brady (3,529 yards passing, 24 TDs, 12 INTs) has had one of his most challenging -- and impressive -- seasons. His leading receiver was Reche Caldwell (760 yards receiving, 4 TDs), who had more receiving yards this season than in his last three seasons combined. Brady completed passes to 15 different receivers, and only Caldwell (61) had more than 50 catches. When healthy, running backs Corey Dillon (812 yards and 13 TDs) and Laurence Maroney (745 yards, 6 TDs) have provided added spark to the offense, and both appear ready for the playoffs.
But the defense has been the story this year. The Patriots are allowing the 2nd-fewest points per game (14.8) and have the #5 rush defense (94.2 yards per game). They've also intercepted 22 passes, good for 4th-best in the NFL.
The real concern is the health of Rodney Harrison. The Patriots went 4-3 after Harrison went down in the 1st quarter of the loss to the Colts. And last year New England went 9-6 after Harrison was lost for the season, losing to Denver in the 2nd round of the playoffs. If Harrison can't return to the field, it will be up to the rest of the defense to step up and make up for his missing leadership.
It was another banner season for the Indianapolis Colts. They had the #2 scoring offense, the #2 passing offense, 12 wins, and another AFC south crown. Peyton Manning threw for 4,397 yards and 31 touchdowns. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne each had over 1,300 yards receiving. And rookie Joseph Addai rushed for 1,081 yards.
But their defense took another step backward, as they finished dead last against the run, allowing an incredible 173 yards per game. Teams that can follow the Jaguars' game plan from Week 15 -- run the ball down the Colts' throats -- are going to give Indianapolis trouble. And just Indy's luck, the AFC bracket features the #2 (San Diego), #9 (Kansas City), and #12 (New England) rushing offenses in the NFL.
Worse than all of the Colts' defensive woes is the reality that Peyton Manning struggles against the 3-4 defense -- and in order to get to the Super Bowl, they'll have to knock off two teams that play the 3-4 defense.
It was another typical season for the Colts. Great early (a 9-0 start including four big road wins at the Giants, the Jets, Denver, and New England) and not so good late (three straight road losses to Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston). It's one of many reasons another playoff run is expected to come to an end without a Super Bowl appearance.
All discussions about the Ravens must begin with the defense. This year's edition ended the season #1 in points allowed per game (12.6), #1 in yards allowed per game (264.1, which is 30 fewer yards per game than the Bears allowed), #1 in interceptions (28), and #2 in rush defense (75.9 yards per game). They posted 2 shutouts and held 11 teams to 14 points or fewer.
But what separates the '06 Ravens from those of years past is the offense. Steve McNair has done exactly what head coach Brian Billick expected him to do: provide a solid, steady presence for his usually inconsistent offense. His numbers certainly aren't flashy (3,050 yards, 16 TDs, 12 INTs), but he completed 63% of his passes, was sacked a mere 14 times, and lost just 1 fumble. With a healthy Jamal Lewis (1,132 yards, 9 TDs), the Ravens' offense has been the definition of ball control. They led the league in one of the most important offensive stats: time of possession.
The Ravens went 7-1 at home and 3-0 against playoff teams (including wins over top-seeded San Diego and road wins against New Orleans and Kansas City). This team looks an awful lot like the 2000 Ravens team that won the Super Bowl. They've already beaten San Diego once this year, but before a possible match-up with the Chargers, they'll probably have to knock off either Indianapolis or New England. Dating back to 2002, they've lost all three of their games against the Colts and their only match-up with the Patriots.
This team is far better than any Ravens team of the last four years, though, and all the ingredients appear to be there for an extended playoff run. In 2000 the Ravens introduced the NFL to the "top defense/ball control offense" recipe. It's taken six years, but they just might have cooked up another winner.
MVP LaDanian Tomlinson's incredible year (1,815 yards rushing, 508 yards receiving, an NFL-record 31 touchdowns, and two touchdown passes) was the main focal point of the best offense in the NFL. The Chargers had the #1 scoring offense (30.8 points per game), and their 161 rushing yards per game were second only to the Falcons. Philip Rivers, in his first year as a starter, had a breakout year with 3,388 yards, 22 TDs, 9 INTs, and a Pro Bowl invite. He sprained his ankle in the Chargers' final game, but by all accounts will be ready for San Diego's first game. Tight end Antonio Gates was Rivers' favorite target, racking up 924 yards receiving with 9 TDs.
The Chargers went just 2-2 against playoff teams, losing to potential playoff opponents Baltimore and Kansas City. The good news is that both of those games were on the road, and the Chargers will have home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Also, they went 5-0 against teams who were alive for a playoff spot entering Week 17. Their four game stretch of wins at Buffalo, over Denver and Kansas City, and at Seattle, solidified this team as the one to beat in the playoffs.
The main concern everyone has with the Chargers is their head coach's playoff history. Marty Schottenheimer's conservative game planning come playoff time is cited as the main reason for his teams' 5-12 record in the postseason. Schottenheimer-coached playoff teams have lost five straight games dating back to 1993. His teams have lost their first playoff game eight times.
The Chargers were undefeated at home this season, have won 10 straight games, and appear to have the most balanced team in the postseason. They've allowed the 7th-fewest points in the NFL, and have the 7th-best rush defense and 10th-best pass defense to go along with their offensive numbers. If the Chalk holds, it will be the Chargers and the Ravens for the AFC Championship. And if Schottenheimer can buck his own personal history and this team plays the way they are capable of, they might just be headed to Miami for Super Bowl XLI.