Unlike the NFC, which should host an interesting set of games leading up to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, the AFC figures to lack much drama prior to the conference title game.
In fact, the AFC is a long way from what it was four years ago, when any of roughly four teams could have won the Super Bowl. Once you get past the top two teams, the AFC looks like a collection of bruised fruit.
With that in mind, here's a look at a handful of questions regarding the AFC playoff field:
1. Should No. 1 seed Indianapolis be concerned about how it played in the final two games of the season?
Generally, it's not a great idea to go into the playoffs with two losses, but the Indianapolis Colts may be the exception to that rule. The Colts' decision to pull starters in the third quarter of the Week 16 loss against the New York Jets was the real shame of the season. It would have been really cool if the Colts tried to chase an undefeated season. Then again, that subject has been debated thoroughly. Unlike in 2005, when the Colts went cold at the end of the season and lost their first playoff game, this team plays with a much greater sense of confidence in tough situations. The prime evidence is that the Colts have come from behind in an NFL-record seven games this season, but they have never played what you would call frenetic. They have played with a sense of calm and control. This is a team that seems to know exactly what it needs to do in a given situation and plays very hard even when it's not executing.
2. Do any of the four teams playing next weekend have a chance to beat San Diego or Indianapolis?
No, none of them have any real hope of knocking off the Chargers or Colts. It's just not going to happen. Really, the only teams that would have had a shot would have been the ever-inconsistent Houston Texans because of quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) and wide receiver Andre Johnson(notes) or maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers if safety Troy Polamalu(notes) had gotten healthy. But the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Jets just don't have it in them to get to the AFC championship game. The Bengals have the best combination of cornerbacks in Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes), but they don't have the third and fourth corners to stop the Chargers or Colts. Ditto for the Jets, who also don't have the quarterback (at least not yet). Baltimore is just way too banged up (and way too mediocre) in the secondary. As for New England, go to the next question for that discussion.
3. So, the Patriots are really dead, that's what you're saying?
For the time being, New England just doesn't have what it takes to post one of those interesting upsets, like it did in 2001 at Pittsburgh on the way to its first title or in 2006 when it beat San Diego and came close to beating Indianapolis. The last blow was the injury to wide receiver Wes Welker(notes), who is expected to miss the playoffs with what is believed to be a torn ACL in his left knee. As well as rookie Julian Edelman(notes) has played, he's not good enough to replace Welker on a full-time basis, and anybody who plays the Patriots will now be able to focus completely on Randy Moss(notes). Combine that with a mediocre defense, almost zero ability to win on the road and this is just not the year for the Patriots.
4. Is there a sentimental storyline that's worthy of attention?
Absolutely, and his name is LaDainian Tomlinson(notes). Tomlinson is coming to the end of a great run with San Diego, if not his career entirely. He has hinted at retirement multiple times since the end of the 2008 season and had to endure a contract showdown this offseason in order to stay with the Chargers. He may be the greatest Charger ever (yeah, yeah, I've heard of Alworth, Fouts and Seau), if not one of the top five running backs in NFL history. Beyond that, he's one of the greatest people in the league, a truly kind, engaging and honest person. Add to this that he and his wife are finally expecting their first child after years of hoping and this is a heart-tugger of a story.
5. All right, since I've made it obvious that San Diego and Indianapolis are the only teams with a chance, what happens in that game?
Everybody knows that the Chargers have had the Colts' number for years. The reason is that San Diego combines a 3-4 defensive front with a very quick, smart secondary. If Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) has an Achilles' heel, it's the 3-4 defense. He doesn't like all the disguises that go with the blitzes, even though Manning is historically really good against the blitz. The problem for San Diego – and this is just a hunch – is that linebackers Shawne Merriman(notes) and Shaun Phillips(notes) have been pretty banged up the past three weeks. That means the Colts should be able to score enough points to win. The question is whether they will be able to contain the extraordinary passing of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), who has made a strong bid this year for his first MVP award. This should be a great game from start to finish, an absolute classic.
Winner: San Diego (yeah, I'm a softy for a good story).
- San Diego