- Ashley Fox
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It took 17 weeks and 512 games, but the 2012 playoff field is finally set after a huge final Sunday of the regular season.
The Houston Texans blew the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC and fell all the way to No. 3, meaning they will host the Cincinnati Bengals in a wild-card game this weekend. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots capitalized on Houston's loss and claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, setting up a potential dream matchup between Denver's Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady in the conference title game.
The Texans and the Atlanta Falcons, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, limp into the postseason with questions aplenty. The New York Giants didn't get in. Neither did the Chicago Bears or Dallas Cowboys, who lost the Week 17 nightcap in a win-or-go-home matchup for the NFC East title against the Washington Redskins.
Adrian Peterson fell 9 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old single-season rushing record, but he helped the Minnesota Vikings get into the playoffs after winning just three games in 2011.
In a season in which the hottest team has changed from week to week, the postseason race to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII could be wide open. Can a team with a rookie quarterback make a run? Can a team that utilizes the formation du jour, the pistol, create havoc for defenses not used to seeing it? Or will history repeat itself and once again give us an elite quarterback who can pick defenses apart from the pocket hoisting the Lombardi Trophy?
Anything can happen. Any team can create that elusive cocktail of momentum and confidence the way the Giants did last year and Green Bay did the year before. But given the body of work over the last course of the season, given their quarterback and their defense and the overall completeness of their team, the Broncos are the team to beat.
There is also this little nugget, perhaps a foreshadowing of what we will see on Feb. 3, 2013, at the Mercedes Benz Superdome: The last time Denver held the top seed in the AFC was 1998, when John Elway was the quarterback and Denver won it all. So it seems the Broncos are destined to repeat that history. It is, after all, why Elway, now the team's executive vice president of football operations, recruited Manning last March.
Elway thought one piece was missing in Denver, which claimed the AFC West title in 2011 and won a playoff game with Tim Tebow as its quarterback. Manning was that piece.
And Manning is no dummy. He saw all the other pieces: A defense that can rush the passer and stop the run -- two keys to playoff success -- and offensive weapons in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen. Manning knew Denver had a serviceable running game that would keep defenses honest.
That the season started slowly for Denver wasn't much of a surprise or reason to panic. Chemistry between a quarterback and his receivers doesn't develop overnight. Minicamps and training camp and preseason games help, but nothing compares to regular-season game action.
Manning missed an entire year of football and switched franchises. Everything was new. That Denver lost three of its first five games was understandable, particularly considering those losses came to Atlanta, Houston and New England, three of the most successful teams this season.
The Broncos traveled to San Diego for a Week 6 Monday night game and fell behind 24-0 at halftime. They were 30 minutes from falling to 2-4 heading into their bye week. Then they made history, scoring five unanswered touchdowns to win 35-24 and become the first team ever to trail 24-0 and win by double digits.
Denver rolled through the rest of its schedule, averaging 31.5 points during an 11-game winning streak that included a 38-3 win over Kansas City on Sunday.
During that stretch, the Broncos topped 30 points nine times. The defense allowed an average of 11.9 points. For the season, Denver tied for the league lead with 52 total sacks and was third in rushing defense at 91.1 yards per game.
The knock will be that the Broncos beat only two playoff teams -- the Bengals in Week 9 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15 -- during that winning streak and that they lost to Atlanta, Houston and New England early in the season. The Patriots are tough. Bill Belichick has historically had success against Manning's teams. Belichick is the master of the postseason.
But this was a unique situation for Manning and the Broncos. Manning needed time. He needed to acclimate to the NFL again, to adjust to a new team for just the second time in his career. He knows how to win in the postseason and has taken ownership of the Broncos and their offense. Manning is the best quarterback in NFL history at the pre-snap read, dissecting defenses and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Those skills are hard to defend when utilized at their highest level in the postseason, which is where Manning is operating now.
Washington and the Seattle Seahawks will be tricky to prepare for, given their use of the pistol offense. The San Francisco 49ers have the potential to be the most complete team in the bracket if they can figure out an identity and commit to it. Atlanta has weapons, but also a troubling postseason history.
Houston and Baltimore have sputtered down the stretch. New England is New England, but if the seeding holds the Patriots would have to play for a Super Bowl berth on the road against the Broncos. Green Bay won nine of its last 11 games and looks like the most dangerous team in the NFC, but it went 2-4 this season against playoff teams, or 3-3 depending on how you see their Week 3 "Fail Mary" game at Seattle.
Denver has the résumé, the quarterback and the complete team to make a Super Bowl run. The regular season is over. Black Monday is upon us. Coaches will lose their jobs today and teams will start to retool. Twelve teams are moving on to the NFL's second season. When it is over, one will be standing: the Denver Broncos.
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