There wasn't supposed to be much late-season suspense in regard to this year's AFC playoff picture. Except for deciding the sixth seed in the postseason race -- a spot the San Diego Chargers ultimately secured -- we had a fairly good idea of who would be involved in the run to Super Bowl XLVIII. The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts ran away with their respective divisions. The Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals clinched their own titles two weeks ago. The Kansas City Chiefs, the fifth seed, also had been assured of their postseason spot since a win over Oakland on Dec. 15.
It all seemed like a potentially anticlimactic conclusion until the games actually kicked off Sunday. Then Baltimore and Miami blew their shots at earning a wild-card spot. Pittsburgh watched the Chiefs, who rested most of their starters, nearly beat the Chargers before San Diego won in overtime. The Bengals also made a strong bid for a first-round bye with a 34-17 win over Baltimore, then watched as New England beat Buffalo to keep its hold on that prime advantage.
So what did all this action tell us? Basically that this year's AFC playoff race will be as wide open as ever. Here are 10 questions that need to be asked before all the fun begins:
1. Can Denver's defense survive without Von Miller? Yes. It's called the Peyton Manning effect. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has helped this team overcome plenty of setbacks already -- including the early-season losses of left tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen -- and he'll make up for a defense that has been less than impressive lately. The best-kept secret in the league thus far is that the Broncos D has been middling at best. It survived when Miller was serving a six-game suspension earlier this season because Manning had the Broncos scoring at a record-setting clip. But Denver also had some moments when it was apparent that its defense had major flaws. The Broncos gave up 48 points in an early-season win over Dallas, and four opponents scored at least 27 against them in the past six weeks. With Miller lost for the season with a torn ACL, it's difficult to see how the Broncos can improve on that side of the ball at this stage. The key is that Manning continues playing out of his mind while giving Denver the huge leads it has held for most of the season.
2. Does Tom Brady have enough help around him to make another Super Bowl run? No. Brady once again proved this season that he's the best quarterback of his generation. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was the only top receiver who returned from last season -- and injuries limited him to just seven games. Still, Brady led the Patriots to a 12-4 record. It was a remarkable run of success, but it's one that will not continue through the postseason. We've already seen how different the Patriots' offense is without Gronkowski, who missed the first six weeks of the season with a back injury and is now out for the season with a torn ACL. New England averaged 32 points per game with him in the lineup and just over 24 without him. But the Patriots have simply taken too many hits to think Brady can do this all by himself going forward. The season-ending injuries to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer will haunt this team. A first-round bye can only help so much.
3. Is Andy Dalton good enough to lead the Bengals to a deep playoff run? No quarterback in this year's AFC playoffs has more to prove than Dalton, and it says here that he'll be up to the task. He's enjoyed his best season as a pro -- setting career-highs in completions, attempts, yards, touchdowns and passer rating -- and he's playing with the best supporting cast of his three-year career. The Bengals have a big-play running back in rookie Giovani Bernard. They have one of the game's best wide receivers in A.J. Green and a defense that is better than anybody else's in this year's AFC playoff race. All Dalton has to do is keep playing as he did before throwing four interceptions in Cincinnati's 34-17 season-ending win over Baltimore. Before that clunker of a performance, Dalton had thrown 10 touchdown passes and only one interception in his four previous games. Look, he'll never be confused with Andrew Luck. But he does understand his strengths and helped this team reach the playoffs in his first two seasons. This is the year when the Bengals go far beyond the first round.
4. Which Colts team will show up for the postseason? No team has been more difficult to assess than the Colts. They have impressive wins over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver. They've looked feeble in losses to St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati. They also don't have many playmakers on offense, especially with Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne lost for the season with a torn ACL. What's even more difficult to like about the Colts is their first-round playoff opponent. The Colts' 23-7 win over Kansas City two weeks ago was the kind of game that probably made casual observers think the Chiefs couldn't win a rematch in Indianapolis. In fact, this is exactly the kind of game that should scare Colts fans. The Chiefs will be more prepared and more aware of what Indianapolis did to dismantle them in Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs also realize their franchise history -- they haven't won a playoff game in 20 years -- gives them ample motivation to win this contest. There's no question the Colts should be favored at home because of their raucous home crowd and Luck's continued maturation. Just don't be surprised if they disappoint in ways they already have earlier this year.
5. Can the Chiefs fix their defense before it ruins their playoff hopes? The implosion of the Chiefs' defense has to rank among the most bizarre stories of the regular season. This unit was unquestionably the league's best through the first nine weeks, as it forced turnovers, produced sacks in droves and consistently kept opponents out of the end zone. That was before they stopped facing second-rate quarterbacks and squared off against the likes of Luck, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Once that occurred, Kansas City's weaknesses -- poor coverage in the secondary and the inability of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to make adjustments to his aggressive schemes -- became major issues. The good news for the Chiefs is that their offense has blossomed in the second half, and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Justin Houston, who had 11 sacks before sustaining a dislocated elbow in a loss to San Diego on Nov. 24, is finally healthy again. That should be enough to help the Chiefs get past Indianapolis in the wild-card round. But it won't do much to help their chances after that.
6. Can the Chargers do any damage? The Chargers would've been a sexy pick to go from unheralded wild-card team to scary postseason contender before their 27-24 overtime win over Kansas City. That's not going to happen after their play in that contest. San Diego was fortunate that Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop missed a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, because they deserved to lose. The Chiefs didn't even dress their best players, yet San Diego needed an extra period to get that victory. That wasn't a good look for a team trying to build momentum for the postseason. Granted, the Chargers do have plenty to like: Rivers returned to Pro Bowl form this year and they have won five of their past six games (including a huge win at Denver on Dec. 12). But let's also not forget that San Diego was 4-6 at one point for a reason. The Chargers are as inconsistent as they come, and they're about to go on the road and face the Bengals. Cincinnati has enough defense to send the Chargers home early.
7. Which offensive player will be the X factor in this postseason? Denver has waited five years for running back Knowshon Moreno to make a major impact. The 2009 first-round pick delivered this season, just as the Broncos were looking at other backfield options for productivity. Moreno ran for 1,015 yards, added another 507 receiving yards (on 55 receptions) and scored 12 touchdowns. Those numbers mean even more when considering how valuable Moreno is to a pass-happy offense that still needs balance from time to time. Anybody who watched the Broncos' loss to Baltimore last postseason remembers how much Denver's offense struggled when Moreno sustained a knee injury. Denver has more depth at the position entering this postseason -- with Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman in reserve -- but Moreno is the best of the bunch. His presence means Manning can create even more magic with play-action passing.
8. Which defensive player will be the X factor in this postseason? Cincinnati middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is creating quite a reputation in a short time. He's gone from being a highly regarded college prospect to being undrafted because of character questions. He moped his way through one pre-draft workout before writing a letter to Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and begging him for a second chance to impress the Cincinnati brass. Now Burfict is the NFL's leading tackler on a defense that has ranked among the league's best all year. He gives the Bengals a tenacity that defensive coaches such as Lewis cherish, and that nastiness will be even more vital as Cincinnati embarks on a postseason run without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins (who is sidelined with a torn ACL). Burfict already has proven to be a terrific underdog-makes-good story. The next step is for him to establish himself as a big-time player in the postseason.
9. Which injured star will be most missed by his team? Nearly every team in this AFC playoff race has been plagued by a major injury this season. Denver has lost two Pro Bowlers (Miller and Clady). New England has lost three (Gronkowski, Wilfork and Mayo). Cincinnati (Atkins) and Indianapolis (Wayne) have lost one apiece. That said, Gronkowski is the biggest difference-maker in this bunch. He gives Brady the confidence to make throws the star quarterback wouldn't normally attempt, and New England doesn't have another pass-catcher who comes close to matching the tight end's size and athleticism. Brady has made the most of smaller, quicker targets all season. He won't go much further if he has to rely on players such as Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to consistently make game-changing plays.
10. Who will make it to the AFC Championship Game? The Broncos and the Bengals are the best bets right now. There's no way Denver can fall in the divisional round this season, not after that heartbreaking loss to Baltimore last year. The Broncos have had a year to think about how they blew that shot at a Super Bowl. That should be more than enough motivation this time around. As for the Bengals, they have the look of a team that is eager to get to the next level. They've been bounced from the wild-card round in each of the past two seasons, and they're scary at home. They also have a defense that is strong enough to give Brady problems in a divisional matchup on the road. Of all the AFC teams going into the postseason, these two are the strongest.