Key AFC playoff questions
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 high-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.
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 will have to 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.
Key NFC playoff questions
OK, fine. The AFC was the stronger conference during the regular season. I'll concede that much.Just don't underestimate what the NFC has going for it as the playoffs begin. For one, the defending Super Bowl champions (the New Orleans Saints) didn't suffer the same hangover that has crippled the repeat hopes of past winners. The NFL's most exciting offense (the Philadelphia Eagles) is primed to take a shot at making it to Dallas in February. Throw in another team that has regained its bite (the Chicago Bears) and another that has ranked among the league's elite all season (the Atlanta Falcons), and you've got what should be some compelling matchups. So while the NFC playoff picture wasn't decided until Sunday night -- when the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks became the final two entries -- it will be just as exciting as whatever happens in the other conference this month. Here are 10 questions on the NFC playoffs:
1. Will the Saints repeat?No. The Saints proved they had staying power by winning 11 games this season, but they won't have the luxury of home-field advantage this year. Their offense isn't nearly as dominant without a strong running game to complement Drew Brees' passing, and leading rusher Chris Ivory recently became the latest back to go down with an injury. That doesn't mean New Orleans will wither away in the first round. The Saints are definitely good enough to beat the NFC West champion Seahawks on the road. But they're going into the playoffs with too many dinged-up players to win again at Atlanta, and any games played in chilly inclement weather (see Chicago or Philadelphia) won't bode well for them, either.
2. Will Michael Vick be contained during the playoffs?
Don't be discouraged by Vick's disappointing effort in a loss to Minnesota in Week 16. He's coming off a rest during Week 17, and his bruised quad should be in better shape by the time the Eagles welcome Green Bay on Jan. 9. What can't be overlooked is Vick's motivation. Now that he has taken his game to a different level, it's time for him to prove that he can lead the Eagles to heights he never found in Atlanta. With weapons like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy surrounding him on offense, Vick has his best shot ever at winning a title.
3. Are the Bears really legitimate?People can laugh all they want to about how many backup quarterbacks Chicago has faced this season (it has seen four third-stringers in all). All I know is the Bears looked good in a shootout win over the New York Jets a couple weeks back. They played host Green Bay tough on Sunday when they had nothing to gain in that eventual defeat. The Bears also have far more balance now that quarterback Jay Cutler has thrived under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. So while they might not be pretty, they are certainly plenty hungry after missing the past three postseasons. Plus, the no-respect card usually plays well this time of year.
For more, click here.
The Giants may not have made the playoffs, but the season-ending win over the Redskins may have saved Tom Coughlin's job. After the victory, owner John Mara said Coughlin would be back next season. One of the reasons Browns coach Eric Mangini is expected to lose his job on Monday is how poorly the team's offense has developed during his two seasons. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to feel good about Jason Garrett getting a last-second, 14-13 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. It helped justify Jones' expected decision to make Garrett the full-time coach. Garrett makes about $3.25 million a year as the offensive coordinator, so you figure he's going to make a head-coaching salary in the same range once the deal is complete. Had Garrett not been retained, the Vikings might have tried to get him, according to two sources. But once the story got out that Garrett was getting the Cowboys' job, the Vikings focused on keeping Leslie Frazier. For what it's worth, interim coaches have ended up getting the full-time job in 22 of 48 interim situations since 1978. The Lions' four-game winning streak to end the season offers great hope. If QB Matthew Stafford stays healthy next season, Detroit might have a chance to get close to .500. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh reached 10 sacks Sunday, becoming only the second rookie defensive tackle to reach double digits. Dana Stubblefield, the former 49er, did it in 1993. Believe Brett Favre when he says it's over. His consecutive games streak has ended and at his age (41), he's no longer invincible. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis finished the season with a close loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Under Lewis, the Bengals have gone 60-69-1 in eight seasons. He will meet with owner Mike Brown this week. There is a chance Brown and Lewis could come to a compromise that would keep Lewis in Cincinnati, but Lewis would have to get more control of personnel decisions. If Lewis could get an indoor practice facility thrown in, he might stay, but it's not out of the question for the University of Pittsburgh to come after him. The way things are shaping up, Bill Cowher's only chance of getting a head-coaching job this year is if the Dolphins' job opens. If it doesn't, he will be staying in broadcasting.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: Arian Foster started the season with a 231-yard rushing day against the Indianapolis Colts. He finished with a 180-yard game against the Tennessee Titans. Foster had two touchdowns in the Texans' 34-17 victory over Jacksonville and won the NFL rushing title.
• Defense: It's rare for a defensive end in a 3-4 defense to have a three-sack game, and the 49ers' Justin Smith had a rare day in a 38-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. He had three sacks, three hits on the quarterback, 10 tackles and one forced fumble. He was everywhere; Smith has always been a blocking nightmare for the Cardinals.
• Special teams: With 18 seconds left in the second quarter of the Patriots' 38-7 blowout of the Miami Dolphins, Julian Edelman, a slot receiver who has become a forgotten man in the offense, returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. Edelman had only 10 catches this season, but his return gave New England a 24-0 lead and put the game out of reach.
Week 17 rundown
• Pittsburgh 41, Cleveland 9
The Browns, who ended the season on a four-game losing streak, couldn't block the Steelers' path to the AFC North title.
• Detroit 20, Minnesota 13
Brett Favre was a bystander for what was likely his last NFL game. It was a rough season for sure, but at least he didn't end it with an INT -- like the previous three seasons.
• Tampa Bay 23, New Orleans 13
The Bucs' playoff bid fell short, but they'll take a lot of optimism -- and momentum -- into the offseason.
• N.Y. Jets 38, Buffalo 7
With the Bills playing Brian Brohm at QB and the Jets resting several starters, this game had a distinct preseason feel to it. Still, the Jets had to be encouraged by Joe McKnight's effort (32 carries, 158 yards).
• Indianapolis 23, Tennessee 20
Make that nine straight years in the playoffs for the Colts, who got all they could handle from the surprisingly game Titans.
• San Francisco 38, Arizona 7
The 49ers played well under interim coach Jim Tomsula. Does he have any chance to land the full-time gig? It probably depends on Jim Harbaugh's level of interest.
• N.Y. Giants 17, Washington 14
What might have been for the Giants. If not for the now-infamous collapse against Philly, the Giants would have 11 wins and the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
• Seattle 16, St. Louis 6
The Seahawks are NFC West champions -- at 7-9. That's right, the same Seahawks who allowed 30 or more points eight times this season will host a playoff game next week.