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Sunday, December 30, 2007
Updated: January 3, 10:42 AM ET
Key playoff questions for the AFC

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Randy Moss
Randy Moss and the Patriots' offense may be too formidable for any opponent.
Half of the AFC playoff teams are new, but none of the newbies cracked the top three seeds.

The Patriots, Colts and Chargers repeated as division winners, and the Steelers took over for the Ravens in the AFC North. Behind the Patriots' perfect regular season, the second-biggest story of the AFC season was the emergence of the AFC South as the league's best division. Three AFC South teams, the Jaguars and the Titans in addition to the Colts, made the playoffs. The Texans finished at 8-8. Overall, AFC South teams went 30-10 against the rest of the league -- the best record against outside competition.

The question now facing everyone in the AFC is how to stop the Patriots. So far, no one has answered that question. Here are the other big questions in the AFC.

More on NFL playoffs

NFC QUESTIONS: Will the Cowboys be re-energized? Who's the darkhorse? Len Pasquarelli addresses the key questions. Column

AFC QUESTIONS: Where will injuries be a concern? How important will running the ball be? John Clayton addresses the key questions. Column

WHO CAN BEAT PATRIOTS? The Jaguars may be the trendy pick, but the Colts are the only ones who can. John Clayton

PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Wild-card games begin Saturday. Schedule

WATCH WASHINGTON: The Redskins may be the league's most resilient team. Mike Sando

BEWARE THE TITANS? The way the Tennessee Titans entered the postseason on Sunday night may not have been inspired. But it was certainly appropriate. Jeffri Chadiha

WILD-CARD WEEKEND COVERAGE: Stories, stats, video and more.
NY Giants at Tampa Bay

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
Washington at Seattle
Tennessee at San Diego

1. What are the most anticipated games?

Obviously, the world is waiting for the Colts to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

At the close of the regular season, the Colts appear to have upstaged the Patriots for defensive play, but the Patriots have the clear advantage on offense. Tom Brady, Randy Moss and the Patriots' offense in general broke several NFL records.

The second-biggest game could be the Colts and the Chargers if the Chargers win their opening-round game. Peyton Manning was at his best while being at his worst in a 23-21 Chargers' win Nov. 11 in San Diego.

Manning threw six interceptions in that game. But he also didn't have Marvin Harrison, Anthony Gonzalez or Dallas Clark.

Despite that, he drove the Colts inside the Chargers' 10-yard line and got a first down to set up a field goal. A replay official challenged the placement of the ball and took away the first down, and Adam Vinatieri missed the game-winning field goal. At least the Chargers could go into Indianapolis with the confidence of having a win against the Colts.

2. What revenge factors will be noticeable in the wild-card round?

The Steelers can't believe they allowed the Jaguars 224 rushing yards and lost 29-22 on Dec. 16. Even more amazing was that it happened in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have a history of stopping the run. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will try to figure out the correct run blitzes to stop the Jaguars.

The Titans-Chargers matchup was one of the most physical games of the year. The Chargers won 23-17, but bodies from both teams were aching for weeks. The Titans have one of the most physically imposing defensive lines in football. Albert Haynesworth dominates the middle of blocking schemes. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch attacks from the flanks. For the Chargers, Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips blitz like crazy and make a lot of hits on quarterbacks. The Titans-Chargers playoff game will be Round 2 of a heavyweight fight.

3. Where will injuries be a concern?

The Steelers have the biggest worries. They enter the playoffs without halfback Willie Parker, defensive end Aaron Smith and left tackle Marvel Smith. Without Parker, Ben Roethlisberger can't work his play-action passes.

The Colts have a long list of injuries, but the bye week should heal most of them. Tony Dungy delayed Marvin Harrison's return from a knee injury until the playoffs as a precaution. Harrison should start the first playoff game. Right tackle Ryan Diem should be back from a knee scope, and defensive end Robert Mathis should have his foot injury behind him.

The Titans have major concerns. Quarterback Vince Young has a bad quad. Defensive tackle Haynesworth has been nagged by leg problems the second half of the season. Guard Benji Olson has a bad back that has him thinking about retirement.

4. What will be the main trend of these AFC playoffs?

Quarterbacks are the key to everything in this conference, and the AFC has some of the best in the league. Brady and Manning are the two best in this decade. Both are destined for the Hall of Fame. They have four Super Bowl rings between them, and it's likely if they meet in the AFC Championship Game, the winner will earn another ring.

The other four AFC contenders made the playoffs with reasonably good quarterback play, although the quarterbacks' styles are so much different. Except for the Jaguars, who have David Garrard, three of the four lower seeds have quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft.

Roethlisberger is the best of the rest. He threw 32 touchdown passes, had a 104.1 quarterback rating and completed 65.3 percent of his passes in the regular season. Young wins games with his arm and his feet. The Chargers' Philip Rivers, of all the AFC playoff quarterbacks, has struggled the most, but he gained some confidence in December with successful home games.

5. If a game comes down to a game-winning field goal, which teams might have difficulty?

In the greatest kicking year in NFL history, Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee might have the biggest worries, because he will start out kicking in Heinz Field.

He was 12-for-13 in seven games this season. He missed eight games with a quad injury. Visiting kickers consider Heinz Field the toughest place to make field goals. The field is slick, and it's hard to get the right footing. The winds make it hard to connect accurately on a long field goal. That could be a big factor in the AFC wild-card game.

AFC kickers have come close to making 85 percent of their field goals this year. Adam Vinatieri, despite having one of his most inconsistent seasons, is the best clutch kicker in the game. The Steelers' Jeff Reed missed only two field goals this year. The Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski missed only three field goals this year.

The Chargers' Nate Kaeding has one of the best legs in the conference, but he's fighting a fibula injury. The Titans' Rob Bironas is the AFC's Pro Bowl kicker. It's an elite crowd.

6. What type of games should we expect?

These could be pretty high scoring. The Colts showed last season that defense alone doesn't win Super Bowls anymore. They were the first Super Bowl winner since 1983 that didn't have a top-10 scoring defense.

To a certain degree, the Patriots copied the Colts' style of managing 10-possession offensive games. The Manning model is to work out of no-huddle, control the ball for 10 possessions and score on about half of those, whether it's a touchdown or a field goal. The Patriots acquired wide receivers Moss, Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker to ramp up the offense and show no mercy. The Patriots turned 40 percent of their offensive possessions into touchdown drives. They can be counted on for four touchdowns a game. The Patriots spread the field with receivers and pass the ball, creating a wide-open game. The scoreboard lights should be flickering for the next three weeks.

7. Are there factors that could result in low-scoring, defensive games?

Weather and officiating can factor into games. The Colts have the only indoor facility, so cold weather or precipitation could play into most of these games. Snow or a sloppy field could slow down passing offenses and limit the range of field goals.

At this time of year, it's hard to figure out whether the weather conditions on the East Coast will be clear for each game. At some point, weather will be a factor.

Another brewing factor is officiating. Different crews call games different ways. Some crews don't call many holding penalties. Others do. As the NFL witnessed this season, the overall lack of holding penalties has turned the game into an offensive show. The fewer the holding penalties, the more time quarterbacks have to work the middle of the field. That will help slot receivers such as the Patriots' Welker and the Colts' Gonzalez. But if a game gets a crew that calls a lot of holding penalties, it will be harder for the offenses to sustain drives and score points. Ron Winter's crew calls the most holding penalties. Walt Coleman and Bill Leavy call the fewest holding penalties.

8. How important will running the ball be in the playoffs?

The Patriots are going against tradition. They have evolved into a spread-the-field, passing team in a cold-weather city. That will be a change for the playoffs.

In the past, teams with hot running backs have had an edge in the playoffs. Were it not for Parker's injury, the Steelers would have entered the AFC playoffs with the best running attack. Najeh Davenport isn't explosive, so the Steelers might have to rely more on Roethlisberger.

The Jaguars follow the old playoff formula. They run the ball well, and Garrard doesn't make many mental mistakes or turnovers. The problem facing them is converting drives into touchdowns. They won't go far in the playoffs unless that happens.

9. Which coach is on the hot seat during the playoffs?

Clearly, it's Norv Turner. The Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer because he didn't win playoff games. Turner won't be fired if he loses to the Titans, but he might have to make changes on his staff or something.

Everyone knew going into the season Turner could take the Chargers to the playoffs. The team is talented, and he's a good playcaller. Now, he has to win a playoff game.

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio entered the regular season with a lot of pressure. His 11-win season eased any threat of him being fired. He did one of the best coaching jobs of the season.

10. Which quarterbacks have the most pressure on them?

San Diego's Rivers has struggled this season. He hasn't been comfortable throwing from the pocket. He hasn't been as strong on his long throws.

Jacksonville's Garrard might be the quarterback with the second-most amount of pressure on him, but you wouldn't know it. He's a calm operator. He doesn't seem to get flustered. His game is moving the chains and keeping a running offense moving. He survived pressure early when he made Jaguars fans and players forget about the departed Byron Leftwich.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.