Let’s all be honest with each other: If we tried to say there is a definitive favorite American Football Conference team in the playoffs right now, we would be a trickster, a liar, and a crook all in one. Say whatever you will about the Broncos’ 606 points scored, the Patriots’ comeback streak, or the Chargers’ and Colts’ aptitude to knock down goliaths; no team in the AFC playoff picture stands out as an easy pick to go to Super Bowl XLVIII. Every team has at least one major glaring flaw – exactly what can knock you out of the National Football League playoffs – making this an open AFC playoff tournament.
The Denver Broncos earned their number one spot, there’s no doubt about that. Head Coach John Fox’s team has played like the second-best team in the NFL this year – which says something, since up top in the National Football Conference there are a number of spectacular teams. While the Broncos may have taken a significant defensive dip from last year when they were the most balanced team heading into the playoffs, the Broncos’ 2013 offense makes up for their mid-level defense. Aside from setting the record for most points scored in a season, they are leagues ahead of any other team in terms of offense. Their 33.7 percent Offensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, courtesy of Football Outsiders, is more than 10 percentage points higher than the second-best Offensive DVOA in the league (Philadelphia Eagles). Only three times this season have the Broncos been held to under 30 points, and in more than a third of their games Denver has put at least 40 points on the board. They have so clearly the best team in the conference this year that no other team in the AFC posted a point differential even close to the Broncos’ +207 this year; the nearest tallies were the Kansas City Chiefs’ and the Cincinnati Bengals’ +125 point differentials. Denver’s defense being a shadow of a shadow of their offense has been so inconsequential, because they can march into the end zone with such ease. Just ask the 2011 and 2012 New England Patriots: If you’re going to be middle-of-the-pack in terms of defense, then be sure to be on the moon on offense.
But none of those stats and anecdotes means the Broncos are flawless, or even close to flawless. Unlike the best team in football, the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos are not symmetrical in all three major departments of offense, defense, and special teams. The Broncos’ secondary has been shaky this season. Denver has given up the 27th-most passing yards in the NFL and they’ve surrendered 29 touchdown passes. While the Broncos scored with a flick of a wrist to balance their unstable secondary in the regular season, that is not a recipe they will want to follow in a do-or-die game in the following weeks. If their offense goes cold or someone gets injured before or after a playoff game, then the Broncos will lose. It’s offense or die for the Broncos, and any offense can die in a one-game sample; random chance can seep into any playoff contest.
Less of an issue but still another potential poison for the Broncos is the loss of Von Miller to an ACL injury. Miller may have missed six games earlier this season due to suspension, but his presence in the playoffs would have been major for the Broncos. Why? Well, an AFC tournament in which Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, and Andrew Luck are present isn’t the time when you want your best pass rusher to be out for the season. Those three passers can give the Denver secondary chills even if Miller and the Broncos’ pass rush is healthy, as Brady did in his comeback win against Denver earlier this season, but if you give them that extra time to stand up in the pocket without Miller, then the Broncos could be in for more disastrous shootouts. Teams can catch up to the Broncos’ offense in those types of games, and those duels finish due to small margins of error. The Broncos may have received the positive margin in their 51-48 offensive war against Dallas earlier this year, but that score tells you everything you need to know about Peyton Manning and company in shootouts: the result is essentially luck. Relying on luck in the postseason of luck is a dangerous flaw for the Broncos.
It makes you wonder, though: if Peyton Manning isn’t a favorite to get to the Super Bowl, then surely Tom Brady and his comeback New England Patriots are, right?
While the Patriots have been the best team to rally from behind this season, coming back to win in seemingly impossible score and time deficits against the New Orleans Saints, the Broncos, and the Cleveland Browns, they have flaws that are more evident than most teams in the AFC playoffs. For starters, the Pats have been maimed by injuries. It’s bad enough for them that they lost Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the season due to an ACL tear, but their offensive and defensive line are missing major cogs that tend to turn the horrid regular season defense into a stable postseason line. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Sebastian Vollmer not being on the field makes a major difference to the Patriots’ playoff chances; they’re much more susceptible to the run without those defensive stars.
If the New England secondary played well this season then the Patriots would be less anxious about losing on the ground, but their secondary was quite vulnerable at times. They coughed long passes for game-changing big plays and touchdowns, something that you can’t allow in the playoffs. One of those plays can end your season. Add that big play potential to the Patriots’ defensive line having trouble stopping the run, and you have a New England team that could go out in the Divisional Round.
As a whole, the Patriots’ defense has been almost as inconsistent as their offense. Football Outsiders ranks the New England pass defense as 21st in the league, and even worse in their late-season games. This is happening while the Patriots are averaging eight fewer points without Gronk on the field, and Tom Brady, with so few weapons, has had his worst statistical season since 2006. With Brady missing his receivers as often as he has this year, and these many question marks surrounding his team, the Pats’ first-round bye doesn’t look like much protection from a one-game disaster that their inconsistent team can create. They’ve been one of the top five teams in the NFL at times, and as bad as a low-level playoff team in other weeks. We can’t even accurately predict how the Pats will play, which, yes, makes the AFC open.
Then there’s the Cincinnati Bengals. While they are overbearing at home (8-0, with six double-digit victories), the Bengals’ success is dependant on their quarterback Andy Dalton. Make no mistake: if Dalton plays well, then this Bengals team can beat New England and Denver. The Bengals’ defense is legit and is the best in the conference. In terms of opposing passing yards, they’re second in the AFC; in terms of total yards given up, they’re number one in the AFC; in terms of opposing rushing yards, only the New York Jets’ premier front seven have been better in the AFC; in terms of points allowed, they’re tied with Kansas City with the fewest points allowed in the conference (305); and in terms of Defensive DVOA – yep, they’re second there too. All the Bengals really require to make it to their first Super Bowl since 1988 is for Dalton to cover their offense. They need their favorite Bengal-hair-colored thrower to perform well in these late-season games to put them over the edge.
But the last three seasons, Dalton only had four December games in which he posted a QBR greater than 51. In his two postseason games, he threw for a total of four interceptions and zero touchdowns. Worst for the Bengals, though, is that Dalton is struggling coming into the postseason instead of trying to right the ship by playing hot; Dalton threw four interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens last week, and recorded QBRs under 57 three of the last four weeks. Even with their soon-to-be easy win over the San Diego Chargers thanks to their home boost, the Bengals are not only going to have to go on the road for at least one game in the next few weeks, but they will need Dalton to play more than one nearly perfect game. That prospect can do them in, considering that Dalton has to prove himself to be a January threat. Sure, the Patriots are inconsistent and Cincy can march into New England and scrounge out a win there even if Dalton doesn’t show his hidden talents. But if Dalton doesn’t play his best in Mile High, then the Bengals won’t stand a chance against the Broncos in the potential AFC Championship Game. A playoff team can survive with a cold offense or defense, but if their QB plays lackluster then that team’s season is all but over before the final score. Even a team like Denver that doesn’t thrive on forcing turnovers can feast on Andy Dalton’s big game weakness and propensity to throw interceptions.
The Indianapolis Colts, on the other hand, may not give up many interceptions and other such turnovers, but the other AFC teams can feast on their middle-of-the-pack status. In a horrible division this season, the Colts had no issue wrapping up a Wild Card Round home playoff game. But despite being 4-0 against the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle, Denver, and Kansas City, the Colts’ glaring flaw is that they simply aren’t glaringly good. Even if the Colts keep possession of the football in the AFC playoffs, neither their offense nor their defense dominates. You can give Denver a thumbs up on offense; the Patriots a mild thumbs up on offense; defense for the Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs; and offense for the San Diego Chargers. But Indy fails to impress in any major department. Their 391 points scored is the lowest among the AFC playoff squads, their Defensive DVOA is a measly 1.7 percent, and their Offensive DVOA is only 4.2 percent. The Colts fail to make the Top 10 in offense and defense, coming closer to the 15th and 16th spots. They may have stamped on the Houston Texans, Chiefs, and Jacksonville Jaguars the last three weeks, but only two of those teams were good. Their offense has, for the most part, been particularly unimpressive since they lost Reggie Wayne to a season-ending ACL tear. The Colts may be streaking a bit, but their anemic receiving will fail to dictate any team in their side of the tournament. In any given playoff game, it will be difficult for the Colts to play with any other team, even the Chiefs or Chargers. Without a major power to utilize against the other AFC sides, it’s easy to imagine flaws on offense and defense doing the Colts in, in any playoff game.
But the Colts have plenty of reason to hope thanks to their opponent today, the Chiefs. You shouldn’t be fooled by their 11-5 record; this KC team is the weakest of the six AFC playoff clubs, because of their inability to defeat goliaths. The Chiefs are statistically one of the better conference teams in offense and defense (17.4 percent Total DVOA) but those values are quite inflated. They have yet to conquer a playoff-level team (the Eagles were not a playoff-level team when Head Coach Andy Reid’s team Chiefs his former team). The Chiefs beat the Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders, Texans – see a pattern? Even when the Chiefs played defense via offense late in the regular season, their 45- and 56-point efforts were against two teams with a combined record of 7-25. Against the playoff-bound Broncos and Chargers, they lost twice (although I’ll give them the benefit of the fact that they played mostly backups in Week 17 against San Diego), and they were held to just seven points in a 16-point loss to the Colts in Week 16. See a potential problem here?
The Chiefs have yet to succeed against a real challenge this season. There are opponents that KC may face that have worse stats than the Chiefs but they are tested. Give San Diego or Indianapolis the Chiefs’ schedule and each one would go at least 12-4. There is probably no worse inhibitor to a team’s playoff chances than not playing well against the teams they will face in the playoffs. Anything can happen in the postseason – the Chiefs could suddenly get hot, for example – but the Kansas City’s sample of failure against these big teams is a major Achilles ’ heel to burst against. How are the Chiefs supposed to get hot when their opponents can stand back, put their hands on the Chiefs’ heads, and watch them flail their arms about in futility?
Oddly enough, the hottest team heading into the AFC playoffs is the sixth-seeded Chargers. They have the longest winning streak of the six teams – a four-game streak, with one win against the Broncos in Mile High. Their comeback from 5-7 to enter the playoffs makes them hot enough, but their strength against the better teams in the league makes them intriguing: the Bolts are 5-2 against teams that ended up over .500.
The flaw, though? They’re 4-5 against teams that finished at .500 or lower, and their defense is horrendous.
OK, that sounded like two flaws, but the Chargers have reason to fear a do-or-die game. As potent as their offense is, posting a 51.3 percent Passing Offense DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, their defense is mind-numbingly bad. Their Defensive DVOA is 17.5 percent, worst in the league and 43.3 percentage points behind the best defense in the NFL in Seattle. Ouch. The only other AFC playoff group that is even in the Bottom 10 in the NFL in Defensive DVOA is the New England Patriots, and their Defensive DVOA of 4.1 percent is light years better than San Diego’s. That doesn’t sound like a good prospect when the Chargers could be paired against two of the best offenses in the NFL in the next few weeks.
A team can overcome bad defense by playing high-charged offense, yes, but the Chargers might be too inconsistent for this to happen. The Chargers’ losses to playoff teams were both by a single touchdown, but in many other games against average or worse-than-average teams, the Chargers either barely got by or fell. This is the team that provided the best answer to halting the Denver offense this year, rationing them to 20 points, but had a 10-point loss to the 4-12 Oakland Raiders. The Chargers’ +44 point differential is even worse than the Colts’ +55, and is a telling sign of their inability to find strong form. It’s hard to discern which Chargers team will show up against the Bengals tomorrow. It will be particularly bad for the Chargers if they don’t rediscover their giant-killing habits tomorrow, since Cincinnati has yet to blink at home.
So you see, it’s difficult to say with confidence what team will represent the AFC at MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver’s got secondary and pass rush exposures; New England has consistency and injury issues; the Bengals’ season hangs in the unstable hands of Andy Dalton; the Colts are too middle-of-the-pack; the Chiefs don’t know how to beat a really good team; and the San Diego Chargers are too inconsistent and defend poorly. Does that sound like an open AFC playoff picture to you? If you have to choose out of the six, you would likely select Denver, because they have too good of an offense and quarterback. But even that isn’t full proof; the Colts, Patriots, and the Chargers have already beat Denver. Sure, the Colts don’t have the offense to compliment the jarring physical play that they brought against the Broncos earlier in the season, and New England was able to comeback because the Broncos were forced to play zone defense after half time due to injuries, but San Diego still dominated the Broncos. The confidence people should have in the Broncos just isn’t as strong as it is in the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, or Carolina Panthers in the NFC; the Broncos’ opponents don’t look like underdogs, unlike the Hawks’, Niners’, and Panthers’ playoff opposition. You really could go with anyone in the AFC and you wouldn’t be a fool. But that’s perfectly fine for any football fan; as open, unpredictable, and exciting as the AFC playoffs will be, the NFC playoffs will be about who gets to lose to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. Thanks to six uncertainties on the other side of the tournament, we can still have some exiting playoff football in the next few weeks. Thank goodness for football flaws.