AFC West: 2014 Quick Takes AFC

Quick Take: Patriots at Broncos

January, 12, 2014
Jan 12
DENVER -- Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 3:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Once more with feeling: Commence hyping, but it's Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady again, with a Super Bowl trip on the line. And no matter how much Manning tries to deflect in the coming days -- and he will try with all of his conversation-directing might -- most folks will want to make Sunday's affair another high-profile chapter in the Manning-Brady saga that has played out over the course of two Hall-of-Fame careers. It will be the 15th time the two have faced each other and the fifth time in the postseason. And while Brady has a decided advantage -- 10-4 -- they are 1-1 against each other in previous AFC Championship Games. It will also be a meeting of the only two quarterbacks in league history to have thrown at least 50 touchdown passes in a season.

2. Don't sleep on the ground (attacks): While the pregame hoopla will center on the two quarterbacks, the two offenses' running games may really decide the issue. The Patriots, especially over the past month of the regular season, have shown their run-game chops and they simply overwhelmed the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round Saturday night. The Broncos then pounded out 133 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. Denver rushed for 280 yards against New England in Foxborough, Mass., in the Patriots' 34-31 Nov. 24 overtime win. Whichever defense holds up against that burly approach just may earn a Super Bowl trip.

3. Cover up: When Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. left Sunday's game early in the second half with knee and ankle injuries, what had been a dominant defensive performance for the Broncos got a little dicier down the stretch. Harris is their do-it-all guy in coverage and plays in all of the team's defensive packages. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers went after Harris's replacement -- Quentin Jammer -- plenty after the change, and had success. The Broncos will have to consider what they do if Harris does not play against the Patriots. They could stick with Jammer or try rookie Kayvon Webster on the outside against Brady. Or they could move Champ Bailey back outside. Bailey has played in the nickel, as the slot cornerback, since his return to the lineup in mid-December.
CINCINNATI -- Three things to know about the San Diego Chargers' matchup against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round on Sunday at Sports Authority Field:

1. No secrets: These two teams have played twice in the past eight weeks, so they’ve pretty much seen everything the other team has to offer. The Chargers will have some confidence playing at Denver because they won there just three weeks ago, a 27-20 victory in a nationally televised Thursday night contest. San Diego's defense held the Broncos’ Peyton Manning-led offense to its lowest point total of the season. That said, the Chargers also understand that Manning likely will have a few more tricks up his sleeve this time.

2. Streaking: San Diego has won five consecutive games and six of its past seven. The Chargers are playing with a lot of confidence and remain dangerous because of the carefree, energetic way they perform on both sides of the ball. San Diego players said they could see the Bengals tightening up in the second half with the game slipping away. The Broncos are a team expected to go to the Super Bowl, so if San Diego can put pressure on Denver by getting ahead early, perhaps the Broncos could suffer the same fate as last year, when they lost to Baltimore.

3. Veteran leadership: Longtime Chargers such as Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle and Nick Hardwick have helped provide focus for this young team, exuding a quiet confidence that shows up on the playing field. As it's done throughout the second half of the season, San Diego does not get rattled when things do not go its way. That ability to handle adversity serves it well in the playoffs. The Chargers essentially have been in playoff mode since Week 14 of the regular season, so they approach each week with a sense of urgency that other teams have failed to match until this point.

Quick Take: Chargers at Broncos

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the San Diego Chargers in the AFC divisional round at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Get loose: Over the previous eight seasons, six of the Super Bowl winners have played on wild-card weekend, including the past three champions. While there is a talent factor there -- or in the case of the past three Super Bowl winners quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco -- there is also the matter of the favorite feeling pressure. The top two seeds wait and the pressure builds around them, as their opponent has already worked through the butterflies and earned a win. It could be even more of a factor for a team like the Broncos. For many fans, last January’s double-overtime loss to the Ravens overshadows all the broken records this season. How the Broncos work through that this week and deal with it early on Sunday -- on all fronts from the head coach down -- will have a lot to do with whether they advance. They just need to live up to coach John Fox’s words to Peyton Manning in Houston when the quarterback was staring at the touchdown record in the game’s waning minutes: "Go play ball."

2. No keep-away: No opposing coach worth his headset needs to be reminded of the troubles that come with giving Manning the ball too often. Having been the Broncos' offensive coordinator with Manning behind center, Chargers coach Mike McCoy has a better working knowledge than most. The Denver offense has run fewer than 65 plays in two games this season -- both against McCoy’s Chargers. In San Diego’s win in Denver on Dec. 12, the Broncos ran a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps. Their average drive start was the 19-yard line. Sunday the Chargers’ first two touchdown drives against the Bengals went for 12 and 10 plays for 86 and 80 yards respectively. The Broncos' defense has to get San Diego off the field. The Broncos' odds of winning go up if their play count on offense is north of 65 plays.

3. Arrive early: The Chargers are going to want to slow things down and shorten the game. But the sooner the Broncos can squash the threat of an upset the better. The Chargers are not built for comebacks filled with explosive plays, so if the Broncos open with some precision in their speedball game they can get the pace they want. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has largely chosen coverage over pressure against Manning this season, banking on the idea they can get to Manning out of a three- or four-man rush before he can find room against seven- and eight-man coverage looks. The Broncos must protect Manning better than they did last month against San Diego -- especially against the Chargers' interior pass-rushers when Pagano attacked the left side of the offensive line, and got to work right out of the gate.

Quick Take: Chiefs at Colts

December, 29, 2013
Three things to know about next week's Kansas City Chiefs-Indianapolis Colts wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium:

1. Containing Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs running back finished with 106 yards on 13 carries in the first matchup between the two teams on Dec. 22. But those yards don't tell the whole story. Charles gained 37 yards on Kansas City's opening series. That means the Colts held one of the NFL's premier all-around players to only 69 yards the rest of the game. Indianapolis will have to do the same again because Charles has proved that he can run the ball -- he ran for 226 yards against the Colts in 2012 -- and he had 195 yards receiving against the Oakland Raiders in Week 15 this season. Charles finished the season with 1,287 yards rushing, 693 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns.

2. Do it on defense. Yes, Andrew Luck is the Colts' most valuable player, but they'll need their defense to play well. They're heading into the playoffs with the defense getting 11 sacks and forcing eight turnovers during their three-game winning streak. The Colts sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith four times to go with four turnovers in the game. Indianapolis held Kansas City to 287 yards of total offense.

3. Continue to protect the quarterback. The offensive line has done a good job protecting Luck. He was sacked only three times in the final three games of the season. The ability to keep the young quarterback on his feet has helped the Colts' passing game, as he was 26-of-37 for 282 yards in the season finale against Jacksonville on Sunday. Luck also completed 67 percent of his passes to receivers with six touchdowns and only one interception in the final four games of the season. He had completed only 50.5 percent of his passes to his receivers in the first five games without Reggie Wayne.

You know what you're going to get out of receiver T.Y. Hilton. But fellow receivers Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen are about to step into unfamiliar territory. The three have developed a nice continuity with Luck. The playoffs aren't the time for them to have a setback by showing their inexperience. The Colts won't be able to run their no-huddle offense if Luck can't depend on them to get open and catch the ball.

Quick Take: Chargers at Bengals

December, 29, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- Three things to know about the San Diego Chargers' matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC wild-card round at 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:

1. Nothing to lose: San Diego is a hot team, winning five of their last six, including four straight to finish the regular season. They can go into the playoffs with a loose and care-free attitude as the No. 6 seed. At 5-7 at one point this season, few NFL observers expected the Chargers to make the postseason. But with one of the top offenses in the league, San Diego should be a tough test in the AFC.

2. Road warriors: One thing the Chargers can lean on is the team’s success on the road this season, finishing 4-4, including wins over two playoffs teams in Denver and Kansas City. Those victories should give this team confidence going into a hostile environment on the road. San Diego, of course, faces a Cincinnati team the Chargers played earlier this season, losing 17-10 at Qualcomm Stadium on Dec. 1. So San Diego coach Mike McCoy should have some familiarity in game-planning for the Bengals.

3. Experience at QB: The Chargers have another advantage with an experienced hand at quarterback in Philip Rivers. Although Rivers is 3-4 in the playoffs as a starter, the game should not be too big for him, having played on the road in the postseason at New England and Pittsburgh in the past.

Quick Take: Chiefs at Colts

December, 29, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- Three things to know about the Kansas City Chiefs’ matchup against the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC wild-card playoff game at 4:35 p.m. ET Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium:

1. Road warriors. The Chiefs certainly would prefer to be playing at home, but they actually have been a better team on the road this season. They finished 6-2, with one of the losses coming Sunday in San Diego with all but a handful of starters on the bench, and the Chiefs still took the Chargers to overtime. No NFL team finished with a better road record. For at least part of the season, the Chiefs fit the profile of a team that should play well on the road. They were playing great defense and creating a massive number of turnovers while not committing many turnovers themselves. Before Sunday’s loss, the Chiefs had won their two previous road games by a combined score of 101-41. The Chiefs were 5-3 at Arrowhead Stadium, with three consecutive losses, including a 23-7 defeat against the Colts on Dec. 22.

2. The all-important turnover battle. The Chiefs thrived during the first half of the season on forcing opponents into turnovers and limiting their own. They ran into problems about midway through the season when they stopped consistently winning the turnover battle. The issue was particularly obvious against the Colts in Week 16. The Chiefs were minus-4 in turnover ratio that day, eliminating any realistic chance they otherwise might have had to beat the Colts. Quarterback Alex Smith committed just 10 turnovers all season, but three of those came against Indianapolis. So ball security will be crucial in this one.

3. The well-rested Chiefs. The Chiefs played on Sunday, but the game felt like a bye to Smith, running back Jamaal Charles and most of the other starters. Because their playoff seeding already had been decided, coach Andy Reid kept all but two out of the starting lineup. Some starters were worked into the game as reserves, but the list of players who didn’t get into the game included Smith, Charles, offensive linemen Branden Albert and Rodney Hudson, tight end Anthony Fasano, defensive linemen Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito and Tyson Jackson, linebackers Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson, and defensive backs Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers.