Sunday, January 2, 2011
AFC playoff Q&A: Chiefs' finale hurts
By John Clayton ESPN.com
After being so productive on offense all season, the Kansas City Chiefs dropped the ball Sunday.
Their untimely, 31-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders may have made their first trip to the playoffs since 2006 that much tougher. The Chiefs, the No. 4 seed, host the Baltimore Ravens at 1 p.m. ET next Sunday, a tougher matchup than if Kansas City ended up as the No. 3 seed and hosted the New York Jets.
The problem facing Kansas City is how experienced the Ravens are in the playoffs. Quarterback Joe Flacco has won three playoff games on the road and is taking his franchise to the playoffs for a third straight year.
By getting the third seed, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts may have enhanced their chances of getting back to the AFC title game, most likely in Foxborough, Mass. The Jets don't have the offensive potential of Baltimore, and by getting the No. 3 seed, the Colts might not have to face the Patriots until the AFC Championship Game.
Here are 10 questions on the AFC playoffs:
1. What kind of games should we expect?
Believe it or not, they could be more higher scoring than normal. The Patriots have the No. 1 seed, but they rank among the lower five on defense. The Colts normally play games in which both teams score in the 20s. The Ravens have the potential to put 30 points on an opponent. Each team has an effective quarterback. The AFC playoffs have some of the top receivers in the conference -- Reggie Wayne of the Colts, Dwayne Bowe of the Chiefs and Anquan Boldin of the Ravens. Mark Sanchez of the Jets is the only quarterback who didn't finish among the top seven vote-getters for the Pro Bowl.
Matt Cassel is the only starting quarterback in the AFC field who has no playoff experience.
2. Which AFC quarterbacks could be intimidated?
The Chiefs probably have the most to worry about. Even though Matt Cassel has had a magical season, the Raiders threw him off his game with a relentless pass rush. Cassel was 11-of-33 for 115 yards and two interceptions against the Raiders, but he was hit 15 times and sacked five times. Cassel has never started a playoff game. The other five AFC quarterbacks have at least two playoff wins and all have shown that they can win on the road. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots has a 14-4 playoff record along with home-field advantage. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers is 8-2, Manning is 9-9, Flacco is 3-2 with all three wins being on the road and Sanchez is 2-1 with two road wins. Winning a playoff game is hard. Just ask Tony Romo. It probably doesn't help matters that Cassel and head coach Todd Haley must answer questions this week about the post-playoff departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who is leaving the Chiefs to take a similar position with the University of Florida.
3. What matchup problems are created by the five AFC teams using 3-4 defenses?
The unpredictability of the blitz schemes in the 3-4 will be a puzzle for all the quarterbacks. Brady has been clearly affected by blitzes from 3-4 defenses that have most -- if not all the defenders -- standing up to prevent Brady from reading how many players are coming or are in the box. The Cleveland Browns totally confused Brady with those types of looks. Of the AFC 3-4 defenses, the Ravens might be the best in creating those looks, and Brady is still stinging from last year's embarrassing home playoff loss to the Ravens. To win in the AFC, you must be able to hold up against the 3-4. Manning was 3-2 against 3-4s in the regular season and put up 28 points against the Patriots in a Week 11 loss.
4. If it comes down to a field goal, who has the edge or the disadvantage?
The Ravens and Colts have a significant advantage. The Colts have Adam Vinatieri, perhaps the best clutch kicker of his era. He's 26-of-28 this season. The Ravens have Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff, who made 26 of 29 field goals and tied a league record with 40 touchbacks. Though field goal kickers made close to 82 percent of their attempts this season, many of the top kickers struggled in last year's playoffs. At least four of the other AFC teams have concerns. Shayne Graham of the Patriots, who was 12-for-12 this year for the Pats, missed two field goals in the Bengals' wild-card playoff loss last season. Shaun Suisham of the Pittsburgh Steelers has made 14 of 15 replacing Jeff Reed, but kicking in Heinz Field is tough. Nick Folk missed nine of his 39 attempts for the Jets this year and is the shakiest of the AFC kickers. Ryan Succop of the Chiefs is 20-of-26 and will be playing his first playoff game.
The Ravens' Ed Reed is a big-time playmaker who's capable of wreaking havoc in the playoffs.
5. What position other than quarterback is highlighted in this group of playoff teams?
Safety. That was very evident Sunday. The Steelers' Troy Polamalu returned after missing two games with a sore Achilles and intercepted Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns in a 41-9 blowout. Ed Reed of the Ravens intercepted two Carson Palmer passes Sunday and has eight picks in the 10 games he's played. It's probably not a surprise that six of the top defensive backs in Pro Bowl voting are in this field -- Pro Bowl selections Polamalu, Reed and Brandon Meriweather, and alternates Antoine Bethea of the Colts, Dawan Landry of the Ravens and rookie Eric Berry of the Chiefs. There is a growing belief in some NFL personnel circles that defenses need to be built from the back, not necessarily the front. Although many games are won by the physical play at the line of scrimmage, a strong secondary is essential. Safeties can make the difference, especially those who can stop the run and have the range to cover receivers or tight ends along with confusing quarterbacks.
6. How important is a running offense?
It's important but not vital. The NFL is a passing league, and the AFC is more of a passing conference than the NFC. The Chiefs and Jets are the ground-and-pound teams, but Thomas Jones of the Chiefs and Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers are the only true pounders. Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and Ray Rice of the Ravens are known more for their big plays, not their physical runs. The Patriots have undrafted BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,008 yards), but the Patriots use the pass to set up the run. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and Roethlisberger take some criticism because they prefer to line up in three-receiver sets. The Ravens and Jets are the only teams in the AFC playoffs that line up in two-back formations -- halfback and fullback -- more than 20 plays a game. The Chiefs do it about 15 times a game. The Patriots, Steelers and Colts use a fullback in a two-back formation fewer than three plays a game.
7. How is the injury situation going into the playoffs?
The Chiefs are the healthiest. Backup safety Donald Washington (ankle) is the only player the Chiefs have had on the injury list the past couple of weeks. The Steelers are getting healthier. Polamalu is back and there is an outside chance defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) might be ready for backup duty given the extra rest from the bye week. The Jets rested cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (hamstring) and Antonio Cromartie (groin), safeties Eric Smith (concussion) and James Ihedigbo (knee and ankle), and pulled Sanchez after nine plays. Sanchez said his right shoulder is sore, but he should be ready for the wild-card game. The Colts are getting healthier and may have linebacker Clint Session (dislocated elbow) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (neck) next week. The only concerns for the Patriots are the lingering concussion problems of defensive end Mike Wright and guard Dan Connolly, and the elbow injury of defensive end Ron Brace. The Ravens had the biggest scares Sunday. Left tackle Michael Oher sprained a knee and Reed suffered a stinger, but the injuries were considered minor. Tight end Todd Heap seems to have bounced back from his hamstring problems and played Sunday. Linebacker Tavares Gooden (shoulder) and safety Tom Zbikowski (back) have been out for weeks and might not be ready next week.
8. How often have the AFC playoff teams met during the regular season?
Unlike most seasons, that isn't much of a factor. The Jets haven't played the Colts and the Ravens haven't played the Chiefs. The Colts beat the Chiefs in October, but there is a good chance they won't meet. The Jets do have the memories of losing last season's AFC Championship Game in Lucas Oil Stadium (30-17). If the Ravens beat the Chiefs, they would head to New England in the divisional round. The Ravens beat New England 33-14 in the wild-card round last season, but lost to the Pats this season (23-20) in Foxborough. The Pats defeated the Steelers and Colts in Weeks 10 and 11.
9: Which is the hottest team going into the playoffs?
It goes in this order -- New England, Indianapolis and Baltimore. The Pats have won eight in a row and Brady just completed a season in which he threw 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. The Colts are on a four-game winning streak and have been in playoff mode for a month. By the way, the Colts won a Super Bowl the last time they were the No. 3 seed. The Ravens finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak.
10. Who is the favorite to go the Super Bowl?
No doubt, it's the Patriots. Brady has won 28 consecutive home games and the bye week should allow the Patriots to be a healthy team. It could end up with the Patriots playing former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan of the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.