Commentary

AFC playoff Q&A: Haves, have-nots

Only three of the six AFC qualifiers look the part; clear divide among QBs

Originally Published: January 1, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

DENVER -- No AFC West Championship hats were distributed in the Denver Broncos' locker room Sunday. No champagne was popped.

While reporters were in the Denver locker room, the Broncos -- 7-3 losers to the Kansas City Chiefs -- awaited the results of the Oakland-San Diego game to find out if they backed into the playoffs.

By virtue of the Chargers' victory, that's exactly what happened. The Broncos are the AFC's No. 4 seed, but cornerback Champ Bailey wasn't in the mood to celebrate after his team's lackluster performance.

"It's not going to cut it,'' Bailey said. "When you look at our team, you can't say everything is a strength. We looked pretty mediocre.''

The AFC playoffs feature extremes. In fact, only three teams look like playoff teams -- the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. You have three teams that look mediocre -- the Broncos, Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals.

There is an extreme division at quarterback. You have three of the top quarterbacks in the conference in the playoffs -- Tom Brady (Patriots), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) and Joe Flacco (Ravens). Then you have three young quarterbacks -- Tim Tebow (Broncos) and rookies T.J. Yates (Texans) and Andy Dalton (Bengals).

Injuries could close the divide, but the playoffs open with the Steelers visiting the Broncos and the Bengals at the Texans.

Here are 10 biggest questions heading into the AFC playoffs.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireTom Brady has a 14-5 playoff record, but he and the Pats have struggled in recent years.

1. Who has the quarterback advantage? Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings, a 14-5 playoff record and home-field advantage. But don't discount the Steelers' Roethlisberger, who is a close second. He's 10-3 and has two championship rings in three trips to the Super Bowl.

As great as Brady is scoring points, Roethlisberger has an offense that has averaged more points in the postseason. Brady has averaged 23.9 points in his 19 playoff games. Big Ben has averaged 26.8, but he's playing at about 60 percent of his abilities because of his high ankle sprain.

If the importance on scoring carries over to the postseason, the Ravens could have problems. The Ravens have averaged only 19.7 points a game in Flacco's seven postseason games. Of course, Flacco has played all seven on the road, which makes it tougher to score.

Flacco's problems are minor compared to those in Houston, Denver and Cincinnati. Dalton probably has the best chance of the three young quarterbacks. He averaged a respectable 21.5 points this season. Tebow was held to three points Sunday by the Chiefs. The Broncos have scored only 53 points over their past three games. Yates is averaging only 17 points a game over the past three weeks and now has a banged-up left shoulder.

2. Who looks like a one-and-done? Houston. The Texans may have finished as the No. 3 seed, but they've lost three consecutive games heading into the playoffs. To make matters worse, Yates, their third starting quarterback, suffered a left shoulder injury that forced the Texans to use veteran Jake Delhomme in Sunday's 23-22 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Coach Gary Kubiak labeled the injury a bruise, but it's going to be tough for a rookie quarterback to face his first playoff appearance with a shoulder injury.

Since getting to 10-3, the Texans have taken their foot off the gas. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had stomach surgery. They've nursed the return of wide receiver Andre Johnson from his second hamstring injury of the season. Tight end Owen Daniels had his knee drained a few times this week. The Texans have talked about their '"next man up" philosophy, but the odds seem stacked against them.

3. Is home-field advantage vital? Not very. Since 2005, the lower seeds in the divisional round have a 7-5 record, thus New England and Baltimore can't be complacent about obtaining a bye and home games in the second round.

All you have to do is go back to the Jets' 28-21 victory over New England last season. Because the Patriots haven't won a playoff game since losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, they aren't feared anymore, even when they are in Foxborough, Mass.

The AFC has quarterbacks who can go into hostile environments and pull out victories. Roethlisberger and Flacco have won road playoff games.

Home field hasn't been a big advantage in the AFC wild-card round, either. Since 2005, the wild-card team has beaten the division winner seven of 12 times. There is a good chance the Steelers will win in Denver and the Bengals win in Houston.

[+] EnlargeAndre Johnson
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesA nagging hamstring injury has limited Andre Johnson's playing time and production.

4. Which team is most affected by injuries: I'd vote for the Steelers. Roethlisberger has limited mobility because of a left high ankle sprain. Because of the injury, he's not getting his legs into throws. His passes are more arm throws. Halfback Rashard Mendenhall injured a knee Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and will probably miss the Broncos game. Backup Mewelde Moore has been out with a knee injury and offensive lineman Doug Legursky has been out with shoulder problems. Center Maurkice Pouncey played Sunday despite after missing two games with a high ankle sprain. The Steelers should have linebacker LaMarr Woodley back from his hamstring injury.

The Texans have concerns with Johnson (hamstring), Daniels (knee), Yates (left shoulder), guard Mike Brisiel (ankle) and safety Troy Nolan (ankle).

The Pats should have guard Logan Mankins (knee) back in two weeks and maybe tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back).

The Ravens are in the best shape. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin will be back after knee surgery two weeks ago.

The Broncos lost right guard Chris Kuper for the season Sunday with a broken lower leg. Safety Brian Dawkins has a neck injury that could keep him out and leave two rookies at safety.

The Bengals are reasonably healthy.

5. Is it more important to have a great offense or a great defense? The Patriots better hope offense is the key to going to the Super Bowl. If not, they are in big trouble. The Patriots' defense is horrible. It was the second worst in the NFL, giving up 411.1 yards a game, including 293.9 yards through the air. The Green Bay Packers were slightly worse at 411.6 yards allowed.

What has to be concerning for New England coach Bill Belichick is the team's recent poor starts. The Patriots trailed 17-0 to the Miami Dolphins in Week 16 and came back to win. They scored 49 unanswered points after falling behind 21-0 to the Buffalo Bills Sunday. The Bills had 295 yards (235 passing) in the first half. Belichick can't figure out why the defense is having slow starts.

"We weren't trying to start that way,'' Belichick told reporters Sunday. "Again, give the players credit for turning that around.''

On the flip side, the Steelers, Texans and Baltimore were the top-three defenses in the league.

6. What is the 2011 history among the teams? The Bengals lost at home to the Texans 20-19 in Week 14, when Yates led two scoring drives -- a touchdown and a field goal -- of 83 and 80 yards in the final six minutes.

The Broncos didn't play the Steelers this year. If the Bengals beat Houston, they would head to New England. The Bengals and Pats haven't played. If the Texans win, they would go to Baltimore. They lost in Baltimore 29-14 in Week 6, and that was when they had healthy quarterbacks. If the Texans win and the Steelers beat the Broncos, the Steelers would play in the divisional round against the Patriots. They beat the Patriots 25-17 in Pittsburgh. The Ravens beat the Steelers twice this year.

7. What offensive formations will be seen and what will teams need to do? You better have good safeties if you are going to survive in the AFC playoffs. The Steelers have Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. The Texans have Danieal Manning. The Ravens have Ed Reed. The Patriots have question marks.

The reason you need good safety play is the abundance of two-tight-end sets. The Patriots use two tight ends 53 plays a game. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have had terrific seasons. The Ravens use either two backs or two tight ends 44 plays a game. The Texans use two tight ends 39 plays a game and spread the field with three-receiver sets only 15 plays a game. The Steelers, believe it or not, are the most open offense. They use three-receiver more than half their plays in a game.

The Bengals spread the field with three receivers about 30 plays a game and two tight ends about 21. Even though the Broncos run the read-option for Tebow, they line up three-receiver sets about 40 plays a game, but they complete less than 10 passes a game out of those formations.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice's explosiveness and versatility make the Ravens' offense tick.

8. What is more important -- running or passing? Although this is a passing league, a running team could advance because of the lack of top quarterback play. Brady, Roethlisberger and Flacco are the only elite quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs. However, Roethlisberger is hurt and Flacco has had a non-elite year.

The Texans and Broncos are pure running teams. Four of the six teams are pretty well set in the backfield. The Texans are a bear to stop because of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The Broncos have Willis McGahee and Tebow. The Bengals get tough yards from Cedric Benson. The Ravens' Ray Rice is one of the most explosive backs in the league. The Steelers have to work with Isaac Redman after finding out Mendenhall is likely out with a knee injury. The Patriots sprinkle in some running plays with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and others.

9. What can we tell from how these teams did against other playoffs teams: A lot. The Bengals went 0-7 against teams that made the playoffs. The Broncos beat Cincinnati 24-22 in Week 2, but they lost by an average of 27 points to the Packers and Patriots, the only other playoff teams they faced. The Texans went 3-2 against playoff teams, the Steelers 3-4 and the Ravens 6-0. The Patriots went 1-2 against playoff teams.

10. Who is the favorite for the Super Bowl? Injuries to Roethlisberger and Mendenhall clearly give the edge to the Patriots. They are at home and they have Brady. The Steelers could be a great No. 5 seed, but they will be challenged to pass the ball with a quarterback nursing a high ankle sprain.

The Bengals, Broncos and Texans don't have the look of teams that could win two games in the playoffs. That could set up a Ravens-Patriots championship.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer