Commentary

AFC playoffs battle of finesse teams

Mailbag: While defense reigns in NFC, AFC's best fueled by aerial attack

Originally Published: December 31, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

NFL traditionalists like to say defense wins championships, but will that hold true in the offense-heavy AFC playoffs?

Maybe, but only if the Cincinnati Bengals win the conference title. The Bengals finished third in the NFL in yards allowed (305.5), trailing only Seattle and Carolina in that category. The other five AFC teams finished from 19th (Denver) to 26th (New England). And things could get tougher for Denver after losing linebacker Von Miller for the season with a torn ACL.

Conference playoffs always have their nuances. This year's NFC playoff field is littered with physical teams that run the ball well and are stout on defense. The NFC also features several good young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles.

The AFC is more of a finesse conference, with defenses struggling to keep up with the high-octane offenses. The Indianapolis Colts tried to be more physical but got burned by injuries. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton planned to use a fullback or emphasize a two-tight end approach to take some hits off quarterback Andrew Luck. But tight end Dwayne Allen and running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw were all lost for the season before the plan could take shape, and Trent Richardson has been a major disappointment since coming over from Cleveland in a trade.

The Colts finished the season as more of a three-receiver team. They averaged 33.2 of their 63.9 plays out of that formation.

While the Bengals try to be physical using their 4-3 front on defense, their offense still stresses the pass more than the run. They didn't run a fullback play all season, preferring to run 56 percent of their offense out of two-tight-end sets.

This could shape up to be a high-scoring AFC playoffs. The Denver Broncos are the league's first 600-point offense. Tom Brady, Luck, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers and Manning can all move the football and put up points in a hurry.

Kansas City's Alex Smith piloted an offense that averaged 26.9 points – tied for sixth in the league with the Bengals. A glaring problem the Chiefs encountered down the stretch was how much their defense struggled as linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali fought through injuries. Without a healthy pass rush, a Chiefs defense that started hot finished cold and ended up ranking 24th overall, yielding 367.8 yards a game.

All this should add up to an exciting and somewhat wide-open AFC playoff race.

From the inbox

Q: Although the dreaded 1 p.m. ET game time for West Coast visiting teams (10 a.m. West Coast time) has been less of a factor this year, it still annoys me that the games are scheduled before visiting teams have an opportunity to reset their biological clocks. Wouldn't it make sense for these games to be scheduled at 4 ET to level the playing field?

Steve in Sammanish, Wash.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsRussell Wilson and the Seahawks weren't fazed by early starts or traveling to the East Coast.

A: I don't see owners making much of a change, but something needs to be studied. The big issue is inconveniencing East Coast home fans. They like the 1 p.m. starts. Fans go to a game then go home for dinner or have dinner out on the town. The compromise might be limiting the number of 1 p.m. East Coast starts for West Coast teams. I do believe it's a problem. The Seahawks helped to fix their East Coast problem by practicing at 10 a.m. in training camp. It also helped that they have a good starting quarterback in Russell Wilson.

Q: Head and body injuries are a big storyline this season, and I wonder what you think of a solution that I haven't heard yet. How about a longer season with the same number of games? The NBA and NHL might not like it, but the NFL is an 800-pound gorilla, and there's no reason it can't play from, say, the first week of August and hold the Super Bowl early in March. More bye weeks would allow more healing, especially of concussions.

John in New Orleans

A: The owners would extend the season by two weeks if they could get players to accept an 18-game schedule, but the players won't allow that because they fear the injury concerns. The NFL model has worked because of the timing of the season. The NFL would not start the regular season in August for two reasons. One is that families have vacations in August, so regular-season games would presumably hurt home attendance. The second, and bigger, reason is television. Ratings for television are down in August. September begins the ratings period and it allows networks to maximize viewership and gain back the huge money they invest in the NFL. 

Q: Every year there's talk of Jon Gruden coming out of the announcer's booth and returning to coach. Gruden was a brilliant coach in Oakland and Tampa, but he hasn't coached in since 2008. Has the game changed too much for Gruden to coach in the NFL?

Bryan in Springfield, Va.

A: Teams looking for coaches will always check in with Gruden for several reasons. He's a winner (95-81 career record). He knows offense. He's a great face for a franchise. We already know he's staying with ESPN for the 2014 season, but I think he will stay in the broadcast booth beyond that. The game has changed, and I'm not sold that he likes the changes. You undoubtedly already know how he feels about how the game is officiated. But I also don't think he would like the limitations on the time a coach can prepare a team. Gruden is old school, and I mean that in a good way. He likes hard-hitting football. The game is more of a finesse game now. If he returns to coaching, he would be successful, but I don't see Gruden or Bill Cowher coaching in the NFL in the next few years.

Q: I see playing in a tough division such as the NFC West both as an advantage and a hindrance when the games really count. The advantage is having experience of knowing as a team you have already won in playoff-game environments. The flip side is a team is broken down by the end of the season or can't even qualify for the playoffs. I think if the team with the tough schedule can qualify, it has an advantage over the teams with easy schedules. Thoughts?

Jacob in Cuiaba, Brasil

A: Great insight. The NFC West was good last year and great in 2013. It could get better next year, but the four teams could pound one another and wear one another down by the end of the season. This isn't unlike the NFC East when that division was at its peak. The division became so difficult that it was hard for the division winner to do better than 3-3 in divisional games. To get to 11 wins and a bye in the playoffs, a team in an elite division usually has to go 8-2 out of the division, which is difficult. But if those teams get into the playoffs, they are dangerous. It's a great time for the NFC West.

Q: I'm a longtime fan of the Dolphins and I'm really having a hard time with this season. I like what I've seen from Ryan Tannehill if we can give him a little time and I like the Mike Wallace signing. But defensively, why did we move up for Dion Jordan? And Dannell Ellerbe didn't have the impact I thought he would. Obviously, we can't run or stop the run. Do we need a change in players or do some changes need to be made in coaching?

Stacy in Indianola, Iowa

A: Changes obviously must come after this average season, but the team should be cautious. Look at the changes at linebacker as an example. General manager Jeff Ireland dumped linebackers Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby and went with Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Ellerbe and Wheeler gave the Dolphins a better ability to blitz, but they weren't as good against the pass. Dansby had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in Arizona. One step forward, one step backward. Look at the changes along the offensive line. They let Jake Long go at left tackle, and that spot became a big problem. Was the team better at cornerback with all the changes? Changes are often needed, but they have to be the right changes.

Q: What I'm about to say will have a major factor working against it, and I'm aware of it, yet I still believe it could be a logical fix for the Dallas Cowboys' regular-season woes. What if they trade Tony Romo? The major factor, of course, is that trading him before at least 2016 would carry with it major dead-money problems for Dallas. If Dallas can trade him to a team attempting to "win now" with a closing window such as the Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals or Minnesota Vikings, then Dallas could stockpile draft picks and possibly add a solid, established defensive player. That would alleviate the monetary implications that come with losing Romo because of the CBA's lowering of rookie salaries.

Arneet in Seattle

A: Trading him would be almost impossible. The Cowboys would have to take a $19.9 million cap hit in addition to the $8.2 million Romo would count on the 2014 cap. That's $28.1 million of cap on a team that is already $26 million over the cap. But Romo's back surgery has to get Jerry Jones thinking about the future. Once Romo goes, the Cowboys could go from an 8-8 team to a 4-12 team, and I don't think Jones wants to go into a rebuilding mode. Trading him would also be tough because teams that might want him will be worried about his back.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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