More: NFC story lines
There are two basic things every NFL coach wants going into the playoffs. First, he wants his team to be healthy. Second, he wants that team hot.
Haynesworth has been a bystander the past two games.
(US Presswire/Charles Smalls)
As the AFC playoffs get set to start, that's pretty much the case for everyone except the top-seeded Tennessee Titans, who have gone 3-3 down the stretch. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, knocked out of the Week 15 loss to the Houston Texans with a left knee sprain, is a question mark heading into Tennessee's playoff opener Jan. 10.
Of course, the Titans have a dominating win over the Pittsburgh Steelers mixed into that final six games and didn't play many regulars in their season finale against the Indianapolis Colts. So take that with a grain of salt. But do consider these questions:
1. Who is the hottest team?
This is like picking between a hot iron and charcoal. Either way, it's going to hurt. Indianapolis has won nine straight games. The Miami Dolphins have won eight of nine. Pittsburgh has won six of seven. San Diego has won four straight. However, the nod goes to the Baltimore Ravens, who have won five of six and have rebounded from a 2-3 start. Those three losses were to Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Indianapolis. In the closing weeks, Baltimore won with the pressure on in Dallas and against Jacksonville, and came within inches of beating Pittsburgh. Impressive stuff.
2. Does the regular season mean much?
If it does, Indianapolis and Tennessee figure to be the top contenders. During the regular season, the Colts went 5-1 against playoff teams and the Titans went 4-1. That makes them the only two teams in the AFC with winning records against playoff teams. Pittsburgh was 3-4, Baltimore was 2-5, Miami was 1-2 and San Diego was 0-5.
3. Hmmm, does that mean that the Chargers are a complete fraud?
That 8-8 record and that mark against playoff teams aren't good, but the Chargers have a truckload of talent and started to show it down the stretch. The snub of quarterback Philip Rivers from the Pro Bowl was ridiculous and the rest of the team is deep. They were a popular pick to go to the Super Bowl and while that may be a stretch, don't think the Colts are real happy about having to play them again.
4. Does Pittsburgh have enough offense to support that great defense?
In the seven games the Steelers have had against playoff teams, they have been limited to 14 points or less five times. They reached 20 points or more the other two occasions. The Steelers are a model organization and have a terrific, tough quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but that offense (with an unstable line and unreliable running game) just wasn't that impressive this season.
Brown, right, and Williams combined for 1,575 rushing yards.
(US Presswire/Mark J. Rebilas)
5. Speaking of bad offense, what about Tennessee and Baltimore?
Yeah, they're both pretty mediocre, too. But the big difference with the Titans and the Ravens is they have real running games with plenty of depth. The Titans have the best overall tandem of running backs with Chris Johnson and LenDale White (Miami is close with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams). The Ravens are more maulers with their running game, but they're nonetheless effective.
6. Is Manning enough to carry the Colts?
The daunting question for Peyton Manning, who looks like a decent bet to win his third MVP, is whether he'll make it through what's likely to be three road games in the AFC. Manning was good in Pittsburgh earlier this season, but the weather was decent for that game. When the Colts made it to the Super Bowl before, two of the three games were at home.
7. Who's the most important player in the AFC bracket?
Manning is obviously critical to what the Colts do, but all quarterbacks are important. Considering that, next on the list is Haynesworth, the dynamic defensive tackle who also deserves some mention for MVP this year. Although Tennessee beat Pittsburgh without Haynesworth, he's the rare game-changer at defensive tackle with his ability to make everyone around him better.
8. Can Collins channel the spirit of Dilfer?
The Titans don't ask a lot of Kerry Collins, but no team can get through the playoffs without at least two or three important plays a game from the quarterback. In 2000, Trent Dilfer made those plays to help Baltimore win the Super Bowl. Collins can do the same, although he's not quite as good a deep thrower as Dilfer was in his prime.
9. Who's the biggest liability in the playoffs?
Most people would pick Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, which is completely fair. Flacco has unusual calm for a rookie, but he still has moments when he misses a critical throw or holds the ball too long. That said, Miami quarterback Chad Pennington's lack of arm strength starts to show up at this time of the year when the defenses are better. The Dolphins-Ravens game could turn on how these two play.
10. Who has the best coach?
Miami gets disqualified because Tony Sparano has never been here before, so who knows how good he'll be. Same goes for John Harbaugh (Baltimore), although he has terrific coordinators. Norv Turner in San Diego doesn't create much confidence. Tony Dungy (Indianapolis) is one of the all-time class acts and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) isn't far behind. However, there's something about the body of work by Jeff Fisher (Tennessee) this year that gives him the edge. Some people call him overrated, but this might be the year he erases that tag.