If you believe much of what's being said, there isn't much to like about the AFC side of the NFL playoffs. The NFC has more depth and has won the past three Super Bowls. The AFC also is filled with more teams that failed to live up to high expectations, including the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.
There has been so much bellyaching about the AFC this season that it's easy to forget many of the positives about its postseason participants. Peyton Manning has returned to elite status with the Denver Broncos. The New England Patriots are back in their usual spot, with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick well positioned to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. The Houston Texans are as talented as any team in the NFL, and the Indianapolis Colts are the feel-good story of the year, given how they've thrived while coach Chuck Pagano has fought leukemia.
So take that, haters. There might have been more suspense in how the NFC playoffs picture evolved, but there is ample star power in the AFC postseason. There also are plenty of questions to sort through, starting with these:
1. Which quarterback is more dangerous entering the postseason: Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? You have to love Brady's blasting his teammates after a lackluster effort in a Week 16 win at Jacksonville. That tells us that he wants a fourth Super Bowl ring more than ever. But it's difficult to find a quarterback who has played better than Manning the past two months. Along with leading the Broncos to 11 consecutive wins -- and proving that four neck operations wouldn't be his undoing -- he has given Denver the kind of confidence that goes a long way in the postseason. Consider this: Manning has had only two games all season in which he has thrown more than one interception, and he has tossed 23 touchdown passes in the Broncos' current win streak. On top of everything else, you can bet he won't be satisfied until he takes this team all the way to his hometown of New Orleans for this year's Super Bowl.
2. Is New England's defense trustworthy? Yes. Despite awful numbers -- the D has ranked near the bottom of the league in yards allowed all season -- this unit has been improving. The Patriots have more playmaking ability on the back end with the midseason acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, the position change of Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety and the maturation of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Young talents Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower have added versatility, and Pro Bowlers such as nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo continue to excel. New England still has flaws that can be exposed, as the 49ers proved in a 41-34 win at Foxborough in Week 15. They just don't seem as glaring anymore.
3. Can the Texans regain their swagger? Houston, we have a disaster. The Texans have lost three of their past four games and literally played themselves out of a first-round bye. First came a 42-14 blowout defeat at New England on Dec. 10. Then the Texans showed hardly any intensity in a 23-6 loss to the Vikings the next week. Finally, the Colts' 28-16 win over Houston on Sunday should've left plenty of people wondering what happened to the powerhouse that once was a trendy pick to win the AFC. There's little question that the Texans still have ample talent and far better circumstances than they faced last season, when they entered the postseason with a third-string rookie quarterback. What's lacking is the fire that tends to separate contenders from pretenders at this time of year. Houston has been pushed around too much in the past month. The Texans will need to change that in a hurry if they want to avoid an early exit.
4. Can the Colts continue to surprise? As inspirational as the Colts have been this season, they're playing at an entirely different level this week. The emotional edge they gained by playing for sidelined coach Chuck Pagano most of the year won't mean as much when their opponents raise their own intensity level in the postseason. Remember, the Colts have only three wins over teams with winning records this season. Their offense also has nine starters who have never appeared in a postseason game, including four rookies. So, although the long-term future looks extremely bright in Indianapolis -- especially with first-year quarterback Andrew Luck growing up so quickly -- this coming weekend might not be nearly as much fun to watch.
5. Do the Baltimore Ravens have enough defense to make a run? It would've been heresy to suggest this at the start of the regular season. Now it's a legitimate question. Even with Ray Lewis returning from a torn right triceps, this unit has plenty of issues to address. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has had little impact since his return from a torn Achilles. The unit also lost cornerback Lardarius Webb in mid-October (torn ACL) and wasn't exactly shutting people down before the injury bug hit. The encouraging news for the Ravens earlier in the season was that their offense seemed explosive enough to compensate for those problems. Not so much anymore.
6. What chance does Cincinnati have of advancing past the wild-card round? Don't think the Bengals' humble credentials make them an easy out. They know how to play defense -- ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in total yards and points allowed -- and they've won six of their past seven games, with the lone loss coming by one point. Throw in the experience of being a playoff team last season and Cincinnati has some positives working in its favor. The Bengals meet the Texans in a rematch of last year's wild-card round. Given the situation in Houston, anything is possible for the Bengals.
7. Which defensive player will be the X factor in the wild-card round? Baltimore's Lewis hasn't played since tearing that triceps in mid-October, and he was healthy enough to play in the season finale. But what can he bring to the table at this stage of his career? Nobody doubts the passion, desire and intensity the 37-year-old Lewis has brought the Ravens throughout a 17-year career that unquestionably will lead him to the Hall of Fame. What is more difficult to measure is his ability to make the game-changing plays that have defined his legacy. Opponents were gashing Baltimore's defense before he ever went down, and it's hard to imagine he'll be more dangerous upon his return. Bottom line: If Lewis can't be more dominant, the Ravens will have a tough time moving on.
8. Which player needs to step up his game as the wild-card round begins? Houston quarterback Matt Schaub might be going to the Pro Bowl, but voters might think twice about that nomination based on recent numbers. He has thrown only one touchdown pass in the past four games, against three interceptions, and his passer rating has slipped below 72.1 in three of those games -- all losses. In Schaub's defense, he has been under fire. He has been sacked 12 times in the past four weeks. But that's also not an easy out. In a conference in which Manning and Brady likely will battle for AFC supremacy once again, the Texans need their leader to remind people why he's considered among the league's best, as well.
9. Which offensive player will be the X factor in the wild-card round? Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck has been everything the Colts could've wanted this season. After arriving as the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, he has displayed the maturity and playmaking skills that had so many scouts salivating about his potential. The Colts wouldn't have won 11 games if he hadn't acclimated to the NFL so quickly. Now he'll have to prove he can handle the pressure of the postseason. The good news here: Luck already has led four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives this year. He likely will have to continue such magic to get his first playoff win.
10. Who is the favorite to make it to the Super Bowl? There are plenty of reasons to like New England, especially because the Patriots represented the AFC last season. But there are more reasons to support the Broncos. Denver has been on a roll ever since it won the offseason chase to sign Manning. Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs also offers the Broncos a great opportunity to continue the magic. On top of all that, most of the Broncos remember what it was like to reach the playoffs -- and beat Pittsburgh -- with Tim Tebow as their quarterback last season. If they had enough faith to succeed with Tebow at the controls, they'll go far with a surefire Hall of Famer slinging the rock.