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.