Five questions heading into AFC playoffs
Can Peyton Manning(notes) overcome the array of injuries the Indianapolis Colts have suffered? Will undrafted Matt Cassel(notes) become the only former USC quarterback left standing after the first round, rather than former first-rounders Mark Sanchez(notes), Carson Palmer(notes) and Matt Leinart(notes)? Will Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin(notes) overcome his late-season doldrums to lead the Ravens’ passing attack to another level?
Those are among the many questions and issues to consider as the AFC playoffs get set to start Saturday. After the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers preserved their spots at the top of the seeding to get byes, here is a look at the five crucial issues going into the postseason:
1. Is Manning completely out of his midseason funk?
During a five-game stretch from Nov. 7 to Dec. 5, Manning had 13 interceptions – the most for him over any such period – and the Colts went 1-4 to drop to 6-6. Manning gave a heartfelt speech to his teammates about the situation. More important, Manning went on a four-game run where he threw only two interceptions, the Colts went 4-0 and won the AFC South again. Despite further injuries – the Colts lost Austin Collie(notes) for the season along the way – Manning got back to the top of his game.
2. Did Baltimore catch a break when Indianapolis won and forced the Ravens to travel to Kansas City?
Maybe a little bit, although a good argument could be made that Baltimore would have beaten the Colts. Instead, the Ravens will get a shot at the playoff-inexperienced Matt Cassel. While the Chiefs can be forgiven for how they finished the season in losing to the Raiders, that’s not a good sign for a young team. The Ravens are a strong bet to take this one.
3. Who’s better, Cassel or Sanchez?
Statistically, this isn’t very close. Cassel had an extraordinary season, regardless of the two interceptions he threw in the season finale against Oakland. Still, Cassel has yet to be tested in true high-pressure situations. Earlier this season at Indianapolis, Cassel shrank and failed to come up with a big play that might have turned the game. Meanwhile, Sanchez has struggled a lot and is dealing with an ailing right shoulder. However, there is something about Sanchez that makes it seems like he’s better under a bigger spotlight.
Kansas City’s Eric Berry(notes) is only a rookie, but he has made some huge strides and is worthy of serious attention. He doesn’t play with the same freedom as Reed or Polamalu, but he will very soon.
5. Who is the best team suited to knock off New England?
Sorry Steelers fans, but the Patriots own Pittsburgh right now and have for the past decade. In fact, during that span, only one team has won a playoff game at New England. That was Baltimore last season, as the Ravens stuffed New England’s injury-ravaged passing attack. Then, earlier this season, the Ravens held Pats quarterback Tom Brady(notes) to a season-low passer rating of 69.3 and intercepted him twice in an eventual 23-20 overtime loss to New England. But that was before Brady had a lot of time to work with the likes of Deion Branch(notes) in New England’s reworked offense. That said, Baltimore is best equipped to derail the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes.