The Indianapolis Colts steamrolled through the first 13 games of the season without stumbling, establishing themselves as the cream of the crop behind their normally-powerful offense and a suddenly dangerous defense. But the road to the Super Bowl isnt going to be an easy journey despite having home-field advantage through the conference championship game. The AFC playoffs are loaded this year and I could see any one of the top four teams winning it all. Going into Indianapolis and pulling the upset wont be an easy task, but there are teams that have the capability if all the stars align.
1. Indianapolis Colts
With three weeks to rest key personnel and let nagging injuries heal, the Colts should be in great shape heading into the playoffs. It can be argued that theyve lost some of their momentum, which they probably have, but they didnt have much momentum coming into the season either after losing all five of their preseason games. But that didnt stop them from running off 13 victories in a row. So with this squad, I wouldnt make too big of a deal over any lost momentum.
2a. New England Patriots
The Patriots have steadily gotten healthier over the second half of the season, and they are a big threat to anyone they face, including the Colts. The team cant afford any more injuries at linebacker or in the secondary, but if they stay healthy, they could do some damage. Tom Brady is the best clutch quarterback in the league, and head coach Bill Belichick is a great strategist. However, I feel the team is more vulnerable than they have been in the recent past, especially when they match up with an offense that can get the ball downfield.
2b. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers offensive line has improved with the return of Marvel Smith at left tackle and the offense has gotten back to pounding the football. The team itself is on a roll as they enter the playoffs, having won their last four regular-season games. The road to the Super Bowl will be tough, however, because theyll have to win against some tough teams on the road, and the Steelers have never won a road playoff game under Bill Cowher. Defensively, the Steelers seem to be peaking at just the right time, and its no coincidence that the unit stiffened, especially the run defense, with the return of ILB James Farrior. If they keep playing like they have the last few weeks, they could challenge for the AFC crown.
4. Denver Broncos
The Broncos are also coming off four consecutive wins, and they gave up just 37 points during that streak. They dont generate a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks without using the blitz, but their young secondary has played well and their run defense is among the best in the league. Offensively, they will try to pound the football on the ground with Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, controlling the clock and avoiding turnovers. Teams will stack the line against the Broncos, which opens up the passing game for Jake Plummer, who has done a good job of avoiding the big mistakes that plagued him earlier in his career. The Broncos are one of the four teams that I could foresee representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have improved by leaps and bounds, but I dont think they are quite on the same level as the four teams above. Nor do I think they will escape the AFC playoffs this year. The offense, led by QB Carson Palmer can strike as quickly as any in the league, and the defense is among the best at forcing turnovers. But when they dont force turnovers, theyre inconsistent at best. And they can be run on, as demonstrated by Kansas Citys Larry Johnson, who laid 201 yards on them in the season finale. With the quality of offenses in the AFC playoff field, at some point, some team is going to be able to outscore the Bengals offense.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars are a quality team, but you have to wonder how Byron Leftwich will respond after six weeks on the sidelines. And to complicate matters, his first opponent will be the world champion Patriots. If he comes out rusty, New England will eat the Jaguars alive. Jacksonville is banged up at some other key positions as well, and their defense would suffer a huge blow if MLB Mike Peterson cant go because of an injured wrist. Hes the teams leading tackler and the guy who makes the calls on defense. The defensive unit is great at getting after the quarterback, but if given decent protection, opposing quarterbacks should have little trouble attacking a weak secondary. Ill be surprised if this team escapes the opening round.