AFC Playoff Preview - Look to the Quarterback
Seinfeld Fans the world over undoubtedly remember the famous episode entitled "The Dinner Party", specifically the scene when Jerry and Elaine make a quick pit stop at a local bakery to pick up a bapka on their way to said dinner party. It is here where Jerry casts his eyes on the black and white cookie, that ubiquitous New York City staple of lightly frosted 50/50 delight, imploring Elaine to "look to the cookie" for the benchmark example of racial amicability.
When handicapping the AFC Playoff Field, one should in turn "look to the quarterback", as this group of signal-callers offers something for everyone. From first ballot Hall of Famers to can't-miss rookie phenoms and under the radar Pro Bowlers, quarterback play will undoubtedly determine who lands in the Big Easy on February 3rd where beignets trump the black and white as the pastry of choice. With sub-plots galore percolating on a daily basis leading up to the Wild Card Round, there will certainly be many other intangibles to consider, but in a League that is now predicated on the forward pass, this year's crop is nothing short of sensational. Let's break down the 6 contestants:
Cincinnati Bengals - these tigers have shown bite all year long, fighting their way through some sporadic QB play in the early stages of the season while rallying to win 7 of their last 8 games down the stretch, highlighted by a 13-10 decision in Week 16 over the rival Steelers. With back-to-back Playoff appearances under their belt, the Bengals will now seek to earn their first playoff win since Jan 1991 vs. Houston. As in the Houston Oilers. With Boomer Esiason under Center. Yes, it's been a while and with an offense that ranks 17th and 18th in Passing and Rushing Yards respectively, the Bengals will have to do it with Defense. But with a path to the Super Bowl that could very well entail taking out Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (in that order), they will have to muster up a LOT of defense while protecting the football, something that Andy Dalton has been unable to do as of late, with his 5 INTs over the last 5 games serving as an example of his largesse. The Bengals are certainly capable of upsetting the Texans in the Wild Card Round if they can establish Benjarvus Green Ellis on the ground while containing Green Ellis' counterpart Arian Foster for the Texans, but this team doesn't appear to have quite what it takes to make a February surge that could potentially entail defeating the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in back-to-back weeks.
Baltimore Ravens - injuries coupled with an inability to stop the run have certainly plagued the Ravens all year, and with Joe Flacco clocking in with a relatively mundane season in what many viewed as a make or break year for him as he attempts to crack the league's short list of elite quarterbacks, the Baltimore faithful have been waiting for this group to start playing "Raven Football" as the stakes are raised. But it's been a season of streaks for Baltimore this year, as they broke out of the gate winners of 5 of their first 6 only to stagger down the stretch as losers of 4 of their last 5 just prior to a 4 game run of consecutive victories. Back just in time however to rally his troops is quite possibly one of the best leaders to every step on the gridiron, that of course being the incomparable Ray Lewis. Lewis' ability to lead and inspire is legendary, and his tenacity at the middle linebacker spot puts him on the short list with Dick Butkus, Chuck Bednarik, Mike Singletary, Ray Nitschke and perhaps a small handful of others. With legitimate playmakers the likes of Ray Rice, Anquan Bolidn and Torrey Smith on the offensive side of the ball, the Ravens do not lack big play potential. Look for this veteran group to be galvanized by Lewis' return and consequently emerge as a legitimate contender for the AFC Crown.
Houston Texans - although the Texans didn't finish the season the way they had hoped, having dropped 3 of their last 4 contests (all to playoff teams) it's hard to overlook what this this group accomplished this season. But as white hot as they may have been, owning 5 and 6 game winning streaks separated only by a blowout loss to Green Bay at home in mid-October, this Texans pass defense has been rather perplexing. Blue chip signal callers like Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck given them fits this season, and with all of the aforementioned QBs in the tournament, not to mention Peyton Manning, it doesn't bode well. But Houston plays an old school style of football, complete with a bruising running game and an ability to shut down their opponents' running game, ranking 7th overall in the latter category. Often overlooked Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub gives them a chance when playing at the top of his game, and should the match-ups fall favorably and they manage to get by Cincinnati in what should be a very tough 1st Round Match-up, their physical style of play could give the top seeds trouble, particularly New England, provided they keep the ball away from Tom Brady and manage a turnover or two.
Indianapolis Colts - perhaps the most intriguing and unpredictable entrant in this year's AFC Playoffs. Riding the golden right arm of Andrew Luck and the emotion fostered by their resilient leader Chuck Pagano, the Colts are the proverbial team that no one wants to play. Winning 11 of their 16 games including 5 of their last 6 on the heels of a 2-14 Campaign, Indy has shown a knack for winning the close games all year long, a true hallmark of a team destined for big things. But a closer look inside the numbers reveals a soft schedule, leading one to wonder why they struggled so badly in knocking off the likes of the Bills, Lions and Titans, 3 victories that came by a combined total of 11 points, not to mention inexplicable early season losses to the Jaguars and a lopsided defeat at the hands of the dysfunctional Jets. Early seasons losses are oftentimes merely a function of the growing pains that a young up-and-coming team will inevitably struggle with. But convincing losses in Houston and New England are hard to overlook, particularly since they will more than likely be visiting one of those destinations in Round 2 provided they are even able to pull of the upset in Baltimore in Round 1 as the Ravens rally to put one more bejeweled ring on Ray Lewis' finger. In light of what they've been through and how they've responded, I wouldn't bet against them and I simply couldn't root against them. But this Postseason looks for all the world to be a situation where a talented, destined young team learns the hard way what it takes to embark on the Championship Journey. Just don't tell them that.
Denver Broncos - The Broncos simply continue to get better and better at an alarming rate each week. An 11 game winning streak is impressive enough, but over the last month or so opponents haven't even been given the opportunity to duck, being outscored by a total of 163-45. Feasting on the likes of Kansas City, Cleveland and Oakland may not at first glance appear to be all that impressive but Peyton Manning's precision passing game coupled with his uncanny ability to check into the right play call at the line of scrimmage at seemingly every clutch moment is what leaves rival defensive coordinators mumbling to themselves. A running game that's bolstered by its feared passing game (and vice versa), frightening game-changing athletes on defense and a bonafide home field advantage all combine to make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC. Can they turn their 11 Game Winning Streak into a 14 Game Winning Streak and a Vince Lombardi Trophy to stand alongside the 2 others that another pretty decent quarterback named Elway brought to the Mile High City over a decade ago? Absolutely no question about it.
New England Patriots - Nary a single AFC Playoff preview article has been written in the last 10+ years that didn't include the New England Patriots as a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl Championship. Recent disappointments aside and realizing that Eli owns Giselle's husband, this Patriot Team has taken on the look and feel of a much more physical bunch than in recent years, where teams like the Ravens and Giants have essentially bullied and intimidated their way past the Pats in January and February respectively. Ranking 7th in the League in Rushing Yards and 9th in Run Defense, New England may not have the flash and explosiveness of the Randy Moss mini-Era, but they can score and score some more against just about anyone. Tom Brady casually completed 401 Pass Attempts this Season for 4,827 yards and 34 TD Passes, and with an underrated yet extremely steady receiving core backed by Stevan Ridley's 1,263 yards on the ground to go with a dozen touchdowns, Josh McDaniels certainly has an embarrassment of riches at his offensive disposal and he doesn't lack the confidence or creativity to leverage them to the max. The Patriots are obviously in the Super Bowl conversation.
Final Analysis: Upsets are certainly in the realm of possibility in Round 1 where you have 2 hot road underdogs taking on 2 struggling albeit savvy veteran teams that have both experiences some recent January success. But Round 2 is where you would expect to see the heavyweights and their legendary Quarterbacks take over. Although the Ravens appear to be the best bet to short circuit the inevitable, look for Denver to nip the Patriots 31-27 in the AFC Championship Game thus allowing Peyton Manning to chase his second Super Bowl Ring and attempt to catch up to his baby brother.
I wonder if the Mannings like black and white cookies?