AFC Playoffs Q&A: Rested, or rusty?
The top seeds are ready, but the Colts and Bolts are riding emotional highs
We knew the AFC postseason race was going to be wide open. We just didn't think it would be this wide open. The Indianapolis Colts opened the wild-card weekend with a miraculous win over the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that led the Colts by 28 points in the third quarter. The San Diego Chargers went into Cincinnati -- where the Bengals hadn't lost all season -- and won by 17 points. On top of all that, Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton morphed into Jerry Rice and the Chargers' defense continued to make us wonder why it looked so inept earlier this season.
ESPN.com is your online source for the most comprehensive playoff coverage.
ESPN.com is your online source for the most comprehensive playoff coverage.
If there's a theme that developed during the wild-card weekend, it was that you can be anything you want to be at this time of year. Everything that happened during the first 17 weeks of the season was mere prologue to what we are seeing now. Call it reinvention. Call it the new normal. Or, simply, call it life in the AFC playoffs before the big boys join the party.
That's where we're heading this weekend, with the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots -- the AFC's top two seeds -- preparing to show us what a week's worth of rest can do for a contender. From the looks of things, they better not show up rusty. Both Indianapolis and San Diego are riding emotional highs that are certain to carry over into next weekend. And they don't have the looks of teams that will be awed by the bright lights on this stage.
In fact, here are 10 questions worth asking now that we know the matchups for next week's divisional round:
1. Will Denver be upset again? Of all the potential opponents for the Broncos coming off their first-round bye, the Chargers were by far the most dangerous. The Chargers suffered a 28-20 defeat in San Diego on Nov. 10 and then beat the Broncos 27-20 in Denver on Dec. 12.
San Diego also has done something few other teams have consistently done against Denver this season: It has made life tough on Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning, who actually has lost four of the past five home games he's played against San Diego (including contests that occurred during his time in Indianapolis). It's really hard to see the Broncos blowing a second straight divisional playoff game -- they lost to Baltimore in this round last season -- but this game will not be easy. Manning and his record-setting offense will have to find a way to attack a mediocre defense that seems to play its best against Denver. The Broncos' defense also will have to frustrate Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers without the benefit of injured Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller.
It says here that the Denver will do both and advance. But don't be surprised if the Broncos walk away from that contest with more bumps and bruises than they already have.
2. Who is the most valuable Patriot after Tom Brady? Cornerback Aqib Talib has been well worth the gamble New England took since trading for him last season. He made his first Pro Bowl, received second-team All-Pro honors and became the best lockdown defender on a team that has endured considerable injuries on that side of the football.
The Patriots are playing without a Pro Bowl defensive tackle (Vince Wilfork) and a Pro Bowl linebacker (Jerod Mayo), but Talib's presence has helped ensure that the back end of their defense hasn't been as big a liability as it was before his arrival. To understand his significance, just remember how quickly the momentum in last year's AFC Championship Game shifted when a thigh injury sidelined him early in that contest. Before that point, Talib had held Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin to no receptions. After that, Boldin had five catches and two touchdowns. Talib has the size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and athleticism to handle any receiver in the league (and he shut down Saints Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham earlier this year). Given the way Hilton just terrorized the Chiefs' secondary, Talib will have to be at the top of his game once again.
3. Can Andrew Luck keep rallying the Colts to comeback wins? Luck has been building quite the legacy when it comes to clutch play. After Saturday's 45-44 win over Kansas City -- when Indianapolis overcame a 28-point deficit -- he now has eight fourth-quarter comeback victories and 11 game-winning drives in just two NFL seasons. No young quarterback in the league is more comfortable with the pressure mounting and defeat all but certain.
It would even be more impressive if more of those comebacks actually came against good teams. The reality is that only four of those game-winning drives have occurred when Indianapolis was facing teams that made the playoffs (they pulled the feat against Minnesota and Green Bay in 2012 and Seattle and Kansas City this season). So, the odds of them falling behind and winning as this postseason continues seems less likely. It makes for great theater when those rallies occur. But quarterbacks such as Manning and Brady rarely let teams survive once they have leads that seem insurmountable.
4. What has gotten into the Chargers' defense? That is one of the best questions of the postseason. This unit had been awful against the pass all season (the Chargers ranked 29th in that category), and the secondary has been a big part of the problem. But ever since a 41-38 win at Kansas City on Nov. 24, the Chargers have been clamping down on opponents. Only two teams have scored at least 20 points against them over the past six games and Cincinnati looked downright feeble in attacking the Chargers' defense in San Diego's 27-10 wild-card win. The Chargers were especially dominant in the second half of that contest, as they forced Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) and sacked him three times.
Let's face it: This is a unit finding itself at just the right time, which doesn't bode well for Manning. He sustained a sprained ankle in his first meeting with San Diego and suffered a loss in the second. He better get ready for another long day.
5. How big a question will Wes Welker's health be? Welker has been cleared to play after sustaining concussions in Weeks 10 and 13 and missing the final four games of the regular season. That's good news for the Broncos because he had 73 receptions and 10 touchdowns this season.
It's also a bit scary because of how Welker makes his living. He has been the most dominant slot receiver in football over the past seven years but that also means he's susceptible to considerable pounding, game in and game out. That same fearlessness that allows Welker to make plays over the middle also means he's one decent hit away from being lost for the remainder of the postseason. The Broncos don't lack for other weapons to go to -- including wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas -- but Welker is still the underneath weapon that takes so much pressure off Manning. His absence was noticeable in Denver's 27-20 loss to San Diego on Dec. 12. The Broncos will feel his loss even more should he get dinged again.
6. Can anybody stop Hilton? That would've been a surprising question before this postseason began. Now it's one that every team left in the playoffs should be asking.
Hilton just produced one of the best performances ever by a receiver in a playoff game, as he had 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns against Kansas City. Granted, most of that damage came after the Chiefs lost Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers to a concussion, but Hilton has matured. The second-year wideout is coming off a season in which he set career highs in catches (82) and yards (1,083) and he's quietly filled the void left by injured Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Hilton always had the speed and the savvy to be a formidable second option at receiver. Now he has the confidence and desire to be a legitimate go-to guy for Andrew Luck. In other words, expect the big plays to continue.
7. Is LeGarrette Blount New England's secret weapon? Blount shouldn't be much of a secret any longer, not after how he finished the regular season. The fourth-year running back set a team record with 334 total yards (189 rushing and 145 on kick returns) in a 34-20 win over Buffalo.
He also has proven to be quite the coup for a New England team that grabbed him as soon as his brief career in Tampa Bay flamed out last season. Blount has rushed for 772 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns, all while splitting time in a crowded backfield rotation that included Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Even with all that competition, Blount has emerged as the Patriots' steadiest backfield threat, as he has been the team's leading rusher over the past five games. Look for that trend to continue in the playoffs. The Colts ranked 26th against the run this season and the Patriots need to balance an offense that relies heavily on Brady's brilliance.
8. Can the Chargers keep winning without Ryan Mathews playing a prominent role? One of the major surprises in San Diego's win over Cincinnati was the noticeable absence of Matthews in the second half. After rushing for a career-high 1,255 yards during the season -- and averaging 23 carries over his team's previous six games -- Mathews received only 13 rushing attempts against the Bengals. Televised reports said Mathews wasn't hindered by an ankle injury that had bothered him earlier in the week, so somebody has some explaining to do.
Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown did a solid job of handling the backfield duties Sunday, but Mathews proved himself to be a clutch performer as the Chargers were fighting to make the postseason. Case in point: His 29 carries for 127 yards were critical in that upset win over Denver last month. There's no way the Chargers beat the Broncos again without a similar performance from their best back.
9. Of all the quarterbacks still left in the playoffs, who is the most dangerous? Manning has the records, Brady has more Super Bowl rings. Luck has the pedigree. That said, no signal-caller looks as scary as San Diego's Rivers at the moment. Every time his team appears ready to be written off -- and that possibility already has been discussed a few times in this space -- he finds a way to help them get a critical win.
The Chargers now have won six of seven games, and Rivers has continually reminded people of how much head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have improved his play. Over the past seven games, Rivers -- who had 15 interceptions and 15 fumbles in 2012 -- tossed 14 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Keep in mind, he's also guiding an offense with an aging Antonio Gates and a rookie wide receiver, Keenan Allen, who's become a go-to target. For all the love Manning and Brady have received in the MVP conversation, Rivers deserves some votes of his own.
10. Who is going to the AFC Championship Game? So much for that Bengals-Broncos prediction last week. Denver still looks like a safe bet, even with the Chargers knowing them as well as they do. The same holds true for New England. As well as Luck played in the second half of that win over Kansas City, he will find it for more difficult to make those same plays against the Patriots. The Chiefs made some mistakes that you simply won't see a Bill Belichick-coached team make at this time of year.
So it will be Manning versus Brady once again, with the Super Bowl hanging in the balance.
Something tells me nobody will be disappointed with that arrangement.
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