Well, here we are again: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. There’s a chance that this is the last time we see these two faceoff, so let’s try to enjoy it. That being said, this game isn’t just about the quarterbacks; it’s about the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots playing with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Let’s take a closer look at the AFC Championship Game.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Both teams had a great regular season, won their division, and ended up with a first round bye in the playoffs. Last week, the Broncos held off a feisty but overmatched San Diego team, while the Patriots withstood a good effort from Andrew Luck and the Colts before ultimately winning by a sizeable margin.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS. DENVER DEFENSE
The Patriots have made a surprising transition to a run-based offense that they’re hoping will take them to the Super Bowl. Last week LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined for 48 carries while Brady threw the ball just 25 times. Blount has become a near unstoppable force, running for 189 yards in the regular season finale against Buffalo and 166 yards against the Colts last week, and scoring eight touchdowns over the last three games. Even with all the injuries to their secondary, the biggest threat to the Broncos is New England controlling the ball and the clock with their ground game and keeping Manning off the field. Denver has to find a way to stop the run at all costs, so they can put the Patriots in passing situations and give their pass rush a chance to get in Brady’s face. If New England has success running the ball, not only will it keep the Denver offense on the sidelines, but it will also set up play-action for Brady, where he can be deadly, especially against a Denver secondary that could be vulnerable without a steady pass rush.
DENVER OFFENSE VS. NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
Despite a good collection of defensive talent, the Patriots have rarely shut teams down this season, and they certainly haven’t faced a dangerous set of skill players like this since they played Denver earlier this season, except this time they won’t the benefit of strong Foxboro winds deterring Manning from throwing the ball all over the field. The biggest area of concern for New England could be their rush defense, which was one of the worst in the NFL this year. Manning and his receivers get most of the credit, but the Broncos generally have a good balance on offense and have gotten steady production from Knowshon Moreno all season, as well as meaningful contributions late in the season from rookie Montee Ball. If New England can’t slow down Denver’s running game, the Broncos will stay ahead of the chains, putting Manning and his receivers in advantageous positions to challenge the New England secondary down the field. The Patriots will have to find a way to get the Broncos in long-yardage situations so that their pass rush can get after Manning, although the Denver offensive line has done a great job all season of keeping Manning on his feet, and as long as Manning is on the field and on his feet, it’s a safe bet that the Broncos are going to be able to move the ball and score points.
Pay no attention to the first meeting between these two teams; it was such an odd game played in unusual weather conditions, and if not for a botched punt return by the Broncos in overtime the game likely would have ended in a tie, so these two teams match up fairly evenly with one another. At least for now, the forecast in Denver calls for clear skies and fair temperatures, which is a sign that the Football Gods are smiling upon Manning and the Broncos. Brady will get his and both teams will score a lot points, but this game is Denver’s to lose. Denver 38, New England 24.
The NFC Championship Game will act as the rubber match between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers after the two teams split their two regular season meetings as NFC West rivals. They were the two best teams in the NFC for much of the season, and it’s only right that we see them meet again with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Let’s take a closer look:
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
These two teams finished with the two best records in the NFC, with Carolina tying San Francisco’s mark of 12-4. Of course, only one of these teams could win the NFC West, and that was Seattle, who has only had to play one playoff game to this point, holding on at home to beat New Orleans last week. Meanwhile, the 49ers have made it to the championship game the hard way, by winning two road games against division champions Green Bay and Carolina, doing so in impressive fashion, especially with their impressive 2nd half against the Panthers last week.
SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE VS. SEATTLE DEFENSE
Last week, the 49ers scored points in every quarter and moved the ball against the Carolina defense better than nearly every other team the Panthers had played all season. San Francisco is clicking offensively behind Colin Kaepernick and the receiving trio of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis. Any of the three is capable of having a big game in any given week, as Crabtree was the star in the wildcard game against Green Bay, while Boldin was unstoppable last week against the Panthers. This week, they’ll be going up against a Seattle secondary that has three Pro Bowlers, creating an intriguing matchup between the strengths of both teams. Kaepernick will have to be sharp throwing the ball, because the Seahawks are great at creating turnovers, but if he can be accurate with his throws, it will be tough for Seattle to keep all three receivers under wraps for the entire game. The X-factor in the matchup is Kaepernick and Frank Gore running the ball. Seattle has one of the best rush defenses in the league, but even they’re able to contain Gore, preventing Kaepernick from getting on the edge and making plays with his legs is another story. If Kaepernick can be effective with both his arm and his legs, the Seattle defense will face their toughest opponent of the season, but if they can force Kaepernick to be one-dimensional they’ll be in good shape at home, as their defense has been exceptional for much of the season.
SEATTLE OFFENSE VS. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE
The Seattle offense has been quite underwhelming over the past month, as they are a far cry from the form they had earlier in the season. Russell Wilson has thrown for more than 200 yards just once in the past five games, in part due to a lackluster set of receivers, as Percy Harvin has not become a factor after missing most of the season with an injury. Unless something changes against one of the best defensive teams in the NFL this week, the Seahawks will have to rely on running back Marshawn Lynch to carry the offense. Lynch has been great for much of the season, including last week against the Saints, but he was just a shade above average in two games against the 49ers during the regular season, and he’ll have to be much better than that to carry the Seahawks to victory on Sunday. Even for a physical and powerful back like Lynch, San Francisco’s linebackers pose a tough matchup and could be tough to run against. If Lynch can have some success, it should free up Wilson to make some plays and move the ball, but if the Seahawks can’t rely on their running game, they don’t have the receivers necessary to move the ball consistently and create big plays against such a talented defense.
The Seahawks have been sensational at home this season, but the Arizona Cardinals proved in week 16 that Seattle is not unbeatable at home. The Seahawks may have been the best team in the NFC during the regular season, but they’re not playing their best football of the season right now, especially on offense, while San Francisco keeps getting better each week. The 49ers have scored 23 points each of the last three weeks, and if they can reach that mark again, the Seahawks don’t have the playmakers on offense to top it. San Francisco 23, Seattle 16.
Few things ruin a week like watching your favorite team get booted from the playoffs. Chargers, Saints, Panthers, and Colts fans know exactly what I mean right now.
For some fans, there’s not enough tear-filled beer in the world to drown the sorrows of a season-ending defeat. And with emotions running high, it’s no surprise that fans from opposing teams often express their distaste for one another with a little violence.
Fresh off the heals of his team’s 24-17 loss to Peyton Manning and his lauded Broncos squad, one Chargers fan couldn’t contain his disappointment. The fan, donning a (very) dated Antonio Cromartie jersey, was caught on video throwing haymakers at a Broncos fan. The Chargers fan quickly knocks the Broncos fan -- Peyton Manning jersey and all -- to the ground. The knockdown marked the first time that day someone from the Chargers’ side was able to get their hands on a Manning jersey. The team’s anemic pass rush failed to sack Manning even once during their game.
Police say they arrested four people in connection with the fight. Here is the footage:
As for our victim the Broncos fan, he was taken to a nearby hospital with non life-threatening injuries. He’ll get to enjoy next Sunday’s epic Broncos-Patriots AFC Championship game from the comfort of his own home (or bar of choice.) In addition to featuring the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation, the game will also pit a bruising Patriot ground attack versus a suddenly dominant Bronco defense.
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount has racked up 431 yards and eight (eight!) touchdowns over his last three games. But check this out: over the last three games of their own, the Broncos’ defense has held each of their opponents under 260 total yards. That’s big time.
Combine this with the the heavyweight 49ers-Seahawks matchup happening up in Seattle, and NFL fans should be in for another awesome weekend of playoff action.
If you watched Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck play the last two weeks, it was hard not to be impressed. Heck, if you’ve seen him over the past two years it’s hard not to be impressed with him, and how far he’s taken a team that won just two games the year before he arrived. Luck’s performance over the past two seasons is that of someone poised to one day take over as the best quarterback and most impactful player in the NFL. But he’s not there yet, as Luck will be sitting at home this weekend while veterans Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will square off in the AFC Championship Game.
The accomplishments of Luck’s team over the past two seasons do not compare favorably to Brady or Manning, or even the other young quarterbacks in the league like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, who will be meeting one another in the NFC Championship game. However, over the past two seasons Luck has done more with less and elevated his team to great heights, despite supporting cast around him that pails in comparison to what the four starting quarterbacks still playing have around them.
Luck has played the last two seasons behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, which has kept him under constant pressure and forced him into turning the ball over an in ordinate amount of times, which is one of the biggest complains against Luck, and is seen as a hindrance to his team’s success. However, many of those interceptions, including some of the seven he threw in this year’s postseason, were the result of trying too hard to make plays under pressure, and were not necessarily his fault. At the same time, being under constant pressure has allowed Luck to showcase his superb pocket presence and surprising skills as a runner, which will be even more of an asset when the Colts get better support for him along the offensive line.
Many of Luck’s mistakes the past two seasons, including his seven interceptions in this year’s postseason, have come as a result of trying to bring his team from behind, which has forced him to take more chances and ultimately make more mistakes. The Colts have not had a strong defense the past two years, which has constantly put Luck in a position in which he has to overcome a deficit, much like 28-point deficit he erased last week against Kansas City. Obviously, Luck hasn’t overcome every deficit he’s faced, but he has made some spectacular comebacks, none more impressive than last week against the Chiefs, and as the Colts improve their defense, they will be less reliant on Luck to do everything for them, which will help Luck to cut down on mistakes and perform at an even higher level.
For now, Luck remains a shade behind Brady and Manning, and not quite as accomplished as Kaepernick and Wilson. But his play over the past two weeks has re-affirmed what we have seen over the past two years: he’s capable of some extraordinary things, even when facing an uphill battle, and without a suitable supporting cast behind him. As Luck continues to improve even more and the Colts presumably get more help around him, he will continue his take over of the league as the as the pre-eminent quarterback and most impactful player in the NFL. He’s already done so much in the first two years of his career, and while he’s not there yet, if the past two weeks are any indication he’s real close.
For the first time ever, these two bitter division rivals will face one another in the postseason, doing so appropriately in a season in which they split the regular season matchups, with each team winning on the other’s home field. Let’s take a closer look at round 3 between the Chargers and the Broncos.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Rarely was there a doubt this season that the Broncos would end up being the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Despite a couple hiccups, Denver finished 13-3 and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As for the Chargers, they won their final four games of the regular season in must-win situations and they carried that mentality into Cincinnati last week and came out with a convincing win after a dominating performance in the 2nd half.
SAN DIEGO OFFENSE VS. DENVER DEFENSE
The Chargers beat the Broncos back in week 15 because they were able to run the ball effectively and control the clock, keeping Peyton Manning and the Denver offense off the field, and that’s something the Broncos need to be aware of repeating itself this week. Outside of his 23-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter, San Diego running back Ryan Matthews rarely broke off a big run, but he consistently got positive yards with each rush attempt, which moved the ball down field and kept the Denver pass rush at bay. Matthews and the Chargers need to do their best to repeat that performance if they expect to knock off the Broncos in Denver for the second time this season. As well as Philip Rivers has played this season, San Diego does not want him in a shootout with Manning, as the Chargers have a .500 record when Rivers attempts more than 30 passes in a game, so they need to make sure they stay balanced on offense. Moreover, even without Von Miller on the field for the Broncos, San Diego does not want to give the Denver pass rush a chance to pin their ears back and come after Rivers, if that starts to happen the Chargers will be in trouble. But the Broncos need to make a commitment towards stopping the run so that they aren’t dominated in time of possession, even if it means relying on their banged-up secondary to contain Rivers and the San Diego skill players.
DENVER OFFENSE VS. SAN DIEGO DEFENSE
In the last meeting between these two teams, the Broncos had the ball for just 21 minutes but still managed to score 20 points, which says all you need to know about the Denver offense this season. The Broncos have been historically good this season, and keeping them off the field is just about the only way they’ve been stopped this season. Wes Welker has been cleared to play, which means he will rejoin the lineup alongside Demaryius Thomas, who is heading to the Pro Bowl, Eric Decker, who came on strong late in the season, and tight end Julius Thomas, who is also heading to the Pro Bowl. Of course, it’s not all about Manning and the passing game, as the Broncos stay balanced with running back Knowshon Moreno, who’s had a great season and has been an underrated part of the Denver offense. San Diego’s best hope for defending the Broncos would be to put pressure on Manning, as their pass rush was a big part of their 2nd half dominance over the Bengals last week. However, the Denver offensive line has held up well this season amidst injuries, Manning is great at getting rid of the ball quickly, and blitzing the Broncos leads to one-on-one matchups with their receivers, which can be a problem, putting the San Diego defense between a rock and a hard place. If the pass rush is effective, the Chargers will have a chance to keep the Denver offense from blowing them out; otherwise, the Broncos could start clicking on offense and be tough to stop.
To San Diego’s credit, they’ve played two good games against the Broncos this season, and they’ve made a great run by winning their last five games and reaching the second weekend of the playoffs. However, this is where their magical run comes to an end. It’s unrealistic to think that the Chargers can control the clock the way they did in week 15. That game was also played on a short week, while this time around Manning and the Broncos have had an extra week to prepare, which should make a difference. The Chargers will play well and put up a fight once again, but the Broncos will eventually be too much for them. Denver 38, San Diego 21.
The second weekend of the NFL playoffs gets started with a rematch of two teams that were once thought to be the best two teams in the NFC, and possibly the entire league. They now meet with a spot in the NFC Championship Game on the line; let’s take a closer look at the Saint and Seahawks.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
The Saints traveled to cold and blustery Philadelphia last week and came away with the first road playoff win in franchise history, continuing the momentum they built up in their regular season finale after losing three of their previous four games, a run that started with a 34-7 loss in Seattle. The Seahawks have been virtually unbeatable at home this season, losing only to the Cardinals in week 16, and despite losing two of their final four games, Seattle finished 13-3, which was enough to give them a bye last week and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
NEW ORLEANS OFFENSE VS. SEATTLE DEFENSE
Despite some struggles late in the season, Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense have started to click again the past two weeks. Brees shook off a couple early turnovers against the Eagles and went on to throw for 250 yards, doing a great job of spreading the ball around to a multitude of receivers. More importantly, the Saints were effective running the ball, getting a surprising effort from Mark Ingram. If the Saints can repeat that performance this week, they’ll be in great shape. However, the Seahawks are much better defensively than the Eagles, and the New Orleans offense had all kinds of problems when they played at Seattle earlier in the season, as they were made one-dimensional after falling behind early. It’s imperative that the Saints establish a viable rushing attack, because without it the Seahawks will be able to blitz Brees and put pressure on him, which is when the Saints tend to struggle offensively. The Seahawks also have three players in their secondary who were either first or second team All-Pro selections, which puts them in good position to defend Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and the rest of the New Orleans playmakers, especially if the Saints aren’t a threat running the ball. If the Saints can avoid trailing by multiple scores and force Seattle to respect their running game, they’ll be in position to win the game with a quarterback like Brees leading the way; however, if New Orleans becomes one-dimensional offensively, the Seahawks should have their way against them, just like they did back in December.
SEATTLE OFFENSE VS. NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE
Russell Wilson had his way with the New Orleans defense back in week 13, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, but with the Saints having the second best pass defense in the NFL, he’s unlikely to repeat that kind of performance. Wilson has been solid but unspectacular this season, and with New Orleans getting a second chance to face him this season, they’ll be better prepared to face him than they were in the first matchup, especially after the Saints held Nick Foles and the high-flying Philadelphia offense in check last week, limiting the Eagles to 256 total yards. The Saints should have little reason to fear the Seattle wide receivers, which means the Seahawks will need to rely on Marshawn Lynch and their running game to move the ball, while hoping Wilson can make plays without turning the ball over. The Saints may have to sell out on stopping the run, especially against a powerful back like Lynch, and take their chances on Wilson not being able to beat them with a 300-yard passing game for the second time this season.
Seattle beat New Orleans 34-7 during the regular season, but this game will be a lot closer, especially with the Saints getting the monkey off their back with regard to winning a road playoff game and the Seahawks not being perfect at home this season. Expect a close game without either offense having a lot of success, but expect the Seahawks to pull it out at home. Seattle 21, New Orleans 17.
The Chargers and the Bengals are probably the least intriguing matchup of the weekend, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an entertaining game between two teams that believe they can reach the Super Bowl. Let’s take a closer look.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
The Chargers had quite the journey to get into the playoffs, winning five of their final six games, including two against Kansas City and one against Denver just to stay mathematically alive heading into week 17. With Miami and Baltimore losing games early in the day last Sunday, San Diego controlled its own destiny in their game against the Chiefs, but struggled to defeat a watered down Kansas City roster, needing a 4th quarter comeback and some good fortune to beat the Chiefs in overtime and clinch the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Bengals, meanwhile, have been as steady and consistent as any team in the NFL this season, and while they didn’t clinch the AFC North until week 16, Cincinnati won their division with a three-game cushion after putting up a record of 11-5 during the regular season.
SAN DIEGO OFFENSE VS. CINCINNATI DEFENSE
Philip Rivers has had a resurgent season, and he and the San Diego offense are rolling heading into the postseason, as the Chargers won five of their final six games. Of course, their only loss over that span was to the Bengals in week 13, when the Chargers only scored 10 points, in part because of three turnovers. Rivers has received plenty of help this season from rookie receiver Keenan Allen, reliable tight end Antonio Gates, short-yardage receiver Danny Woodhead, and running back Ryan Matthews; as a result the Chargers have a top-5 passing attack. However, the Cincinnati defense is top-5 against both the run and the pass, which made it tough for San Diego to put points on the board back in week 13. In that game, Allen was the only dangerous skill player for San Diego, and in the rematch this weekend they’re going to need a few more players to step up and make plays for them, especially since they’ll be on the road. It’ll also be critical that Rivers doesn’t turn the ball over, which is a problem he’s had in the past but has been able to keep in check this season. If Rivers can avoid turnovers and spread the ball around, it’ll put the Chargers in a position to score points against a tough Cincinnati defense.
CINCINNATI OFFENSE VS. SAN DIEGO DEFENSE
The Bengals have one of the top wide receivers in football in A.J. Green, as well as a deep contingent of skill players, who have helped Andy Dalton have a great season in 2013. However, Cincinnati has two issues on offense. First is the health of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, as the presence of those players opens up the offense and helps give the Bengals a dynamic passing attack. Without them on the field, opposing defenses can pay more attention to Green on the outside, which makes it harder for Dalton to get the ball to their best playmaker. The other issue Cincinnati has is that Dalton can be turnover prone, throwing 20 interceptions this season. Dalton has looked brilliant at times this season, but he’s also looked terrible at times, and that inconsistency from week to week can be both frustrating and costly. If Dalton doesn’t play well, the Bengals have trouble winning, and considering the fact that he’s coming off a four-interception performance in the regular season finale, there’s no telling how Dalton will fair this week. However, the San Diego pass defense is vulnerable, as even Chase Daniel had success throwing against them last week, so Dalton should be in a position to have success, although he was mediocre against the chargers in week 13, and if he has a similar performance the Bengals will be in for a fight, as Dalton’s performance will dictate the direction of the game.
The first meeting between these teams was low scoring, but expect this game to open up a little more, as San Diego struggles defending the pass, while Rivers should rise to the occasion and play well to help make up for a bad defense. However, the Bengals have a better defense and a better overall roster, so unless Dalton has a disastrous game, they’ll be in good shape. Cincinnati is also perfect at home this season, and it’s hard to imagine that ending now. Cincinnati 28, San Diego 23.
The NFL has given us what could be a spectacular playoff game on Saturday night between two offenses that have the potential to be explosive. Let’s take a closer look at the wildcard matchup between the Saints and Eagles.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Earlier in the season, the Saints were arguably the top team in the NFC, but they struggled heading down the stretch and in the end they needed to beat Tampa Bay in week 17 to secure a playoff spot after losing three of their previous four games. Even more troubling is that they’ve lost their last three road games, and their only road win since week 5 is a close game against the Falcons. As for the Eagles, they weren’t in great shape at the midway point of the season, but they went 7-1 during the second half of the season and won the NFC East, so they enter the postseason with plenty of momentum.
NEW ORLEANS OFFENSE VS. PHILADELPHIA DEFENSE
This is a matchup, which some might call a mismatch, between one of the top passing offenses in the NFL and one of the most porous pass defenses. Drew Brees had another outstanding season, but like the rest of the team he struggled on the road down the stretch, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions in the team’s three most recent losses. The forecast calls for low temperatures, but little wind or precipitation, which should help keep Brees somewhat comfortable throwing the ball, although the conditions are not what the Saints would like them to be. If Brees plays well and isn’t hindered by the weather conditions, he has the weapons to do a lot of damage against the Philadelphia defense, especially Jimmy Graham, who should be a matchup nightmare for the Eagles. However, New Orleans doesn’t have the most balanced offense, and sometimes their running game is either under-utilized or ineffective. The Eagles are strong up front and have been good at stuffing the run most of the season, especially lately. Between that and a high-scoring offense, the Eagles have a chance to make New Orleans one-dimensional on offense, which would allow the Eagles to attack with their pass rush, and teams with a good pass rush have been kryptonite to the Saints this year. If Philadelphia is able to get consistent pressure on Brees, the New Orleans offense could have trouble moving the ball down the field consistently.
PHILADELPHIA OFFENSE VS. NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE
Over the last eight games, the Philadelphia offense has been nearly impossible to slow down for four quarters. Even in their only loss in the last eight weeks, the Eagles scored 30 points; and even when they were held scoreless for the first half in the snow against Detroit, the Eagles ended up with 34 points. Nick Foles has received a lot of the credit for making good decisions and playing mistake-free football, but LeSean McCoy has been the real catalyst for the offense. McCoy is averaging five yards per carry this season, and the fear opposing defenses have of him breaking containment along with a strong offensive line have given Foles time in the pocket and open passing lanes. However, the Saints have one of the best defenses the Eagles have seen in a long time, as New Orleans ranks second against the pass, allowing less than 200 yards per game. The Saints have the fourth most sacks in the NFL this season, and even against a good offensive line they’re going to have the ability to put pressure on Foles, which could lead to sacks, as Foles tends to hold the ball instead of risking throws that could lead to turnovers. If New Orleans can get pressure on Foles and keep the Eagles in long-yardage situations, it will make McCoy less dangerous and keep Philadelphia from moving up and down the field with great ease on every drive. However, stopping McCoy on early downs is another issue, and the Eagles will be able to get in a good rhythm and open up the playbook if McCoy is getting big chunks of yards on first down, so slowing him down on early downs will be the key to the game for the New Orleans defense.
This is a tough game to call; both teams can put a lot of points on the board, but both defenses have a chance to pressure the quarterback and at least slow down the opposing offense. Weather may not be much of a factor, outside of cold temperatures, but momentum coming into the game will play a role. The Eagles have played great football over the second half of the season and have won their last four home games, while the Saints have struggled on the road, especially on offense. Ultimately, the Philadelphia offense will be harder to keep under wraps for four quarters, and the Eagles will get the job done at home against a New Orleans team that looked more threatening two months ago than they do right now. Philadelphia 30, New Orleans 20.
The NFL playoffs get underway Saturday afternoon when the Chiefs visit the Colts, a rematch of a week 16 game that the Colts won in Kansas City. Let’s take a closer look:
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Kansas City backed into the playoffs, losing five of their final seven games, although they played well in their week 17 loss to the Chargers while many of their key starters were inactive. However, the Chiefs are far from the team that started the season 9-0, and while some may marvel at an 11-5 wildcard team, they haven’t looked like an 11-win team in two months. Meanwhile, a month ago the Colts looked like a team that was going to back up into the playoffs, but they ended up playing well down the stretch, winning their final three games and outscoring their opponents 88-20, albeit against weak teams, including the Chiefs.
KANSAS CITY OFFENSE VS. INDIANAPOLIS DEFENSE
The Indy defense has really stepped up its play over the final three weeks of the season, allowing just 20 points during that span, including just seven points against the Chiefs two weeks ago. They do have a bit of a weakness at stopping the run, which is a strength of the Kansas City offense behind Jamaal Charles, but the Chiefs trailed for most of the game two weeks ago, which means they couldn’t take advantage of the Indianapolis rush defense, as Charles was limited to just 13 carries, even though he averaged eight yards per carry. The Chiefs need to get Charles as many touches as possible and stay out of obvious passing downs, as the Indy pass rush sacked Alex Smith five times two weeks ago, forcing three fumbles from Smith and six fumbles overall. Kansas City was hurt by four turnovers in that game, and that’s something they’ll have to avoid this time around. The Chiefs will also need to stay ahead of the chains and remain within striking distance of the Colts, as they’ll be in trouble if they have to overcome a deficit against Indianapolis on the road.
INDIANAPOLIS OFFENSE VS. KANSAS CITY DEFENSE
The Kansas City defense that dominated teams the first half of the season has been no better than average during the second half of the season, and they had all kinds of trouble trying to defend Andrew Luck two weeks ago. Injuries to their linebacker corps have taken away their terrifying pass rush and left the rest of their defense vulnerable. Meanwhile, Luck has survived the loss of Reggie Wayne and rebounded from a mid-season slump, looking real sharp the final two weeks of the season. T.Y. Hilton continues to emerge as a big-time playmaker and a favorite target of Luck, and the Colts also have a few solid complementary receivers like Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen, who were both college teammates of Luck at Stanford and players he’s comfortable throwing the ball to. Of course, Indy’s offense has its flaws, as their running game can be inconsistent and the offensive line is not always reliable either. Some of the banged up players on Kansas City’s defense should benefit from sitting out last week, and if they can get healthy and stuff the run, they’ll give their pass rush a chance to do some damage. However, if Luck is given time in the pocket, he’ll be tough to keep under wraps for four quarters.
A big part of the postseason is momentum and playing well at the right time of year. The Chiefs have sputtered down the stretch, and on the season they have exactly one win over playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Colts are riding a three-game winning streak and have come out of their mid-season slump playing good football in December, and that gives them an advantage heading into this game. This game will go just like the game two weeks ago went: Luck will have his way with the Kansas City defense and the Chiefs will struggle to come from behind. Indianapolis 27, Kansas City 10.
There’s still a lot to be decided in the AFC this season with regard to which six teams will reach the playoffs, but when we eventually get there, look out for the wildcard teams, whichever they may be. Not only are the projected division winners in the AFC vulnerable, but also the teams in contention for the wildcard spots are playing better football down the stretch than the division leaders and appear to be more dangerous at the right time of year.
At the top, the Denver Broncos should be able to win their final two games and close out the AFC West and secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, Peyton Manning’s struggles in cold weather have been well documented, and that could become a factor whether the Broncos are playing at home or not. Denver also has vulnerability on the defensive side of the ball, as injuries have started to pile up, especially in the secondary, which has made them unreliable at times and could derail them late in the season.
The New England Patriots are also a far cry from the team we usually see late in the season. With Rob Gronkowski injured, the Patriots don’t have a go-to guy on offense that they need, especially in the red zone, which will make it harder for them to win close games, especially against playoff caliber teams. As for the other projected division winners, the playoff hopes of the Bengals are contingent on the play of Andy Dalton, who is prone to bad games and may not be the quarterback that Cincinnati needs to take them deep into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Colts have been the model of inconsistency over the second half of the season, and have suffered too many injuries to provide the support that Andrew Luck needs to take the team far this postseason.
Of course, it’s not all about the vulnerability of the favorites in the AFC; the teams contending for the wildcard spots are battle tested and have been playing meaningful must-win games down the stretch that have forced them to play their best football down the stretch and will have them prepared for playoff football, which is not necessarily something that can’t be said for the top teams in the conference.
Following their win Monday night, the Baltimore Ravens may have the most momentum of any team in the NFL. Despite their mediocre play for much of the season, the Baltimore defense is coming together late in the year and playing at a playoff-caliber level. Offensively, the Ravens are finally starting to run the ball effectively, while also giving Joe Flacco the time in the pocket he needs to make plays, which will make them a dangerous team that nobody wants to play once the playoffs start.
If the Ravens don’t snag the final wildcard spot, the Miami Dolphins will, and they could be just as dangerous in the postseason. The Dolphins have gained invaluable amounts of experience playing in close games this season, which has made them battle tested and ready for the playoffs. Miami has winnable games the final two weeks of the season, which means if they make the postseason they will do so on a five-game winning streak, giving them the confidence they need to take down the division champions that have sputtered down the stretch.
Finally, there are the Kansas City Chiefs, who could end up being a 13-win wildcard team. Despite lacking an elite quarterback, the Chiefs could be made for the postseason. Kansas City has struggled defensively over the past month, but they have the potential to have a suffocating pass rush that could carry them throughout the postseason. The Chiefs also have a dominating rushing attack behind Jamaal Charles, who could take over a game that’s played in poor weather conditions, along with a quarterback that will value the football and won’t make mistakes, which is critical in the playoffs.
We’ve learned in past years that when the playoffs start the records go out the window, and that could be the case once again in the AFC this season. The teams that have sat atop the divisions all season are not finishing the regular season strong, and that could make them vulnerable when the playoffs begin. Meanwhile, teams that are just hoping to sneak into the playoffs like the Ravens and Dolphins are peaking at the right time and look like they could carry a lot of momentum into the postseason, where they could be dangerous.