AFC playoff story lines

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

It's not a complete lock that the Super Bowl winner will be decided by the AFC playoffs this season.

But the prong of the Master Lock most of you use to secure your belongings at the YMCA has just about clicked.

While much of the discussion going into the playoffs will center around which team has the best chance to stop New England's assault on history, there are anywhere from three to five teams in the AFC that can beat the best the NFC has to offer.

Be it the Patriots, defending champion Indianapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh or Jacksonville, they all are legitimate threats to win the Super Bowl. If they get there – and that's the hardest part.

Defenders of the NFL's senior circuit will point out that Green Bay was 4-0 in interconference play this season. Nice, but the Packers played the AFC West, which is the worst division in the conference. Overall, the six AFC playoff teams were 19-5 against the NFC. The six NFC playoff teams were 15-9. That's a sizeable disparity.

Dallas was 3-1 and has the best chance to score with teams like New England and Indianapolis, but the Cowboys have been struggling over the past three weeks and the injury to wide receiver Terrell Owens may not heal quickly.

Thus, here are the issues and questions to consider for the AFC side:

1. Can anyone beat the New England Patriots?

Let's get this out of the way quickly. The short answer is: yes. Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the New York Giants all took the Pats to the mat before falling. Indianapolis, San Diego and Jacksonville all have the raw talent to beat the Pats.

Pittsburgh does, too, but New England simply owns the Steelers at this point. The beauty of the Pats is not only do they start fast (they have scored on their first possession in 13 of 16 games), but they have the best clutch quarterback in the league in Tom Brady. In order to beat the Patriots, teams must get pressure on Brady constantly. Not just early, but all game. Get him out of rhythm and you disrupt the offense.

On offense, you have to be able to run on the Patriots by countering the adjustments they make. Finally, you can't make obvious mistakes, such as allowing Randy Moss to run wild open past the secondary. The Patriots always exploit blatant miscues.

2. A New England-Indianapolis Colts conference title game would be a dream.

Most people would say that the Patriots and Jets are archrivals, but that's not the case. The Patriots and Colts really dislike each other a lot more. It's just that the dislike is tinged by a heavy dose of respect.

No team in the AFC has forced the Patriots to change their style more than the Colts. After the AFC Championship game last season, a bitter Bill Belichick completely changed his view toward the need for high-end wide receivers and got Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth. Even management of the two teams dislike each other.

It's beautiful stuff. Beyond that, if the Colts receiving corps is healthy and the weather is decent in Foxborough on Jan. 20, Indy could put up some serious points.

3. Are the Jacksonville Jaguars a legit contender?

Jacksonville is very tough, particularly on defense, and the offense doesn't make a lot of mistakes (David Garrard protects the ball the way soccer players defend a free kick). Its running back tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew ranks among the top two or three in the league. In short, the Jags will compete much better than they did when New England dispatched them 28-3. Is that good enough to get anywhere? Yes, into the second round, which would probably mean a rematch with the Patriots. But that's where it ends.

4. Are the San Diego Chargers the team that was 1-3 to open the season or the one that went 10-2 from that point on?

The Chargers are still an imposing team because of their talent. Any team that starts with LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Shawne Merriman has to be taken seriously. However, they have spent the past three months beating up on a bunch of stiffs (four wins against Denver and Oakland, plus three more against Kansas City, Detroit and Baltimore).

The win over Indianapolis was lucky and the win over Tennessee was improbable, coming after the Titans had dominated much of the game. Moreover, the two losses were troubling as the Chargers were blown out by Minnesota and not all that competitive against Jacksonville. On paper, the Chargers have the talent to beat the Patriots. In reality, I wouldn't bet on it.

5. OK, the Chargers will struggle against New England. What about against Indianapolis?

After all, San Diego beat the Colts this season and it has owned the Colts in the past three years. Yeah, that's true, but the game this year featured way too much luck for the Chargers, starting with a pair of return touchdowns in that game. The Charges had no offensive scores.

It used to be that the Chargers would physically overwhelm the Colts. That doesn't happen right now. In fact, if there is one player to put at the top of your Goat Watch, start with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

6. Is there one player who impacts the playoffs more than any other?

For the sake of a reasonable discussion, we have to eliminate just about every quarterback from this discussion. They are all, aside from LaDainian Tomlinson, the most important players to their teams.

However, the Tennessee defense is so much different without Albert Haynesworth that it's stunning. Haynesworth is a force who changes almost everything when he's in there. He makes Kyle Vanden Bosch that much better and he changes the way the Titans get to run their coverages in the secondary. If the Titans defense is whole in the playoffs, the Titans are capable of creating trouble.

7. Having said that about Haynesworth, what about Vince Young making a splash in the playoffs?

Young has had an inconsistent season as the Titans work hard to make him a better passer. If the Titans let Young go a little more in the playoffs, he's part of what makes them interesting.

8. As much as many people outside of New England love to hate the Patriots, is there some reason people should cheer for them?

The Pats have a lot of really good guys on their team, from Tom Brady to Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Tedy Bruschi. But if there's one sentimental reason to cheer for them, it's the legacy of linebacker Junior Seau, who is in his 18th season and plays the game with the passion of a high schooler.

Seau plays the game for all the right reasons and respects the game. In the 1994 season, he helped lead the Chargers to their only Super Bowl appearance. After the Chargers were trounced by San Francisco, Seau spent the next day in the Miami airport waiting for his plane, humiliated and thinking that everybody was laughing at him. He deserves a better memory of the Super Bowl.

9. Are the Steelers capable of winning in the playoffs without Willie Parker?

That depends on your definition of winning. If winning means getting to the second round, then maybe. Najeh Davenport is good enough to get the Steelers through a first-round game against Jacksonville, but even that's iffy. Davenport is a pure power guy and lacks the burst he had a few years ago and, more importantly, the burst that Parker had to turn 3- and 4-yard runs into 7 or 8. Davenport will not be good enough when the Steelers face either Indianapolis or New England in the second round.

10. What's the best reason to cheer for the Patriots to go undefeated?

No, it's not about history, the joy of seeing something completely unique and of seeing a team willing to have the guts enough to try it. As wonderful as those reasons are, the best reason is that the world will no longer be subjected to the rap artistry of 1972 Dolphins running back Mercury Morris, who can't let go of his place in history without being something of an embarrassment. Likewise, former Dolphins guard Bob Kuechenberg, who can't let go of the fact that he hasn't made it into the Hall of Fame, needs to move on with his life a bit.

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