AFC playoffs Q&A: Pats are primed

There are plenty of things to like about this year's AFC playoff field, especially if you love quarterback play. In a league driven more than ever by the pass, the AFC offers more compelling storylines than ever. The most obvious involves New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning. Their clashes have been must-see TV in the NFL over the past 14 seasons, and there will likely be another meeting before this postseason ends.

Along with Brady and Manning, Baltimore's Joe Flacco returns to the postseason -- he missed last year after winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XLVII. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, who already has two Super Bowl rings, is back after a two-year absence by the Steelers. Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton both have made the playoffs every year since entering the NFL. They're also both trying to find a way to reach the AFC Championship Game.

But this year's AFC postseason won't be entirely about the quarterbacks. There are too many well-rounded teams for them to dominate the spotlight. Instead, it will be about who gets hot at the right time and, just as importantly, who can answer the questions that arise at this time of year.

Here are 10 of the most pressing issues worth discussing as the playoffs begin.

1. How worried should the Broncos be about Manning? Extremely. Despite his typically gaudy numbers -- 4,727 yards, 39 touchdowns, a 66.2 percent completion percentage -- Manning has been far from himself over the past month. He has thrown just three touchdown passes with six interceptions in his past four games. He threw for more than 300 yards only once in the past six games. Manning also saw his 51-game streak of tossing at least one touchdown pass end in a 24-17 win over Buffalo. The easy spin on this story is that Denver has become more balanced as running back C.J. Anderson has emerged as a consistent threat. The eye test tells us something else -- that something is off with the five-time MVP. Manning threw more interceptions this season (15) than he has since 2010. That isn't merely the result of a banged-up receiving corps. Manning might still be dangerous enough to lead Denver back to the Super Bowl. The question is when will he start proving it.

2. Can anybody contain Rob Gronkowski? Nope. It's no coincidence that the Patriots started rolling the minute Brady started feeding the ball to Gronk on a weekly basis. Gronkowski had only 13 receptions and 147 yards in the first four games of this season. Since that time, he amassed 69 catches and 977 yards. The Patriots have lost only twice in that time, and they basically mailed in their season-ending defeat against Buffalo (when Gronkowski was inactive and Brady threw only 16 passes). The key issue for New England is whether Gronkowski, who scored 12 touchdowns this season, can stay healthy. His injury problems have factored heavily into each postseason defeat the Patriots have suffered over the past three seasons. If he's intact throughout these playoffs, it's difficult to see anybody in the AFC overtaking New England.

3. Is this the year when Dalton finally thrives in the postseason? Not unless he's about to make a drastic change in what we've seen in the regular season. Inconsistent Dalton had four games when his passer rating was 115 or higher, but he had five games when his passer rating was below 70. The major concern for the Bengals is that Dalton has saved some of his worst efforts for the time of the year when he needs to be at his best. He has thrown just one touchdown pass and six interceptions in three playoff games, all losses. The one thing that might make Cincinnati fans more optimistic about Dalton this season is his supporting cast. Jeremy Hill has given the Bengals a bruising presence in the running game, and A.J. Green continues to be one of the best wide receivers in the game. If Dalton can keep the ball in their hands, the Bengals have a shot. If he can't, we shouldn't be surprised by another early playoff exit for Cincinnati.

4. Do the Colts have enough defense to make a run? The Colts aren't horrible on defense. But they rank near the middle of the pack in most major categories and tend to put major pressure on Luck to single-handedly outscore opponents. That approach works when you play in the weak AFC South. It tends to be problematic when Indianapolis is facing opponents with just as much offensive firepower. It's telling that Indianapolis faced six playoff teams this season and beat only two (Baltimore and Cincinnati). It's more revealing that it was smashed by three of those teams (a 51-34 loss at Pittsburgh, a 42-20 defeat to New England and a 42-7 thrashing by Dallas). Let's also not forget the Colts surrendered 87 points in two games in last year's postseason. They're flawed enough to be even worse this time around.

5. Can the Steelers win without an elite defense? It's difficult to buy into that line of thinking. Since defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh in 2004, the Steelers have made the postseason seven times. This is the first of those appearances when they haven't fielded a defense that ranked in the top three in scoring defense. This year's group ranks 18th (giving up 23 points per game), with the secondary especially plagued by injuries to aging veterans such as safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. The Steelers have plenty of talent in their front seven, as well as a balanced offense led by three Pro Bowlers: Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and game-breaking wide receiver Antonio Brown. But without that dominant defense, it's going to be tough to mount a playoff run. This is still the same team that lost to the Buccaneers, Jets and Saints. The Steelers will remain vulnerable as long as they can't shut down opponents on a regular basis.

6. Can Flacco be magical in the postseason again? Flacco delivered a transcendent performance in the 2012 playoffs, throwing 11 touchdown passes without an interception in leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl win over San Francisco. Don't bet on that happening again. He's simply not the kind of quarterback who is going to get into a zone like that very often. That's one reason the Ravens have been criticized for rewarding him with a $120 million contract extension. Flacco isn't entering this postseason with as much talent as he had that year -- or the emotional motivation supplied by retiring linebacker Ray Lewis -- but he does deserve credit for his play down the stretch. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions (three of which came in a loss to Houston) over the past seven games and has developed a nice chemistry with first-year offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Flacco never will be the type of quarterback who can carry a franchise. But given what he has right now -- a surprisingly effective running back in Justin Forsett and some solid receivers -- he might get the Ravens past the wild-card round.

7. Which player needs to step up his game as the playoffs begin? If the Steelers are going to make a run, safety Mike Mitchell needs to be at his best. Pittsburgh already knows Polamalu has reached the point in his career when he simply can't supply the big plays that defined his game for years. That means Mitchell has to pick up the slack for the Steelers' defense to elevate itself. He was considered a strong free-agent acquisition because he can combine a hard-hitting presence with the ability to create takeaways. But Mitchell's first year in Pittsburgh has been plagued by mental errors and inconsistent play. The Steelers' secondary isn't good enough to handle elite passers without a difference-maker on the back end. Mitchell has to be that guy.

8. Which offensive player will impress the most in the wild-card round? Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton made his first Pro Bowl this season, and he'll continue to remind people why he's a rising star. The Bengals didn't have an answer for him when these two teams met Oct. 19, when Hilton had seven receptions for 107 yards in a 27-0 win. They'll have the same problem Sunday. Hilton has been Luck's go-to guy in this offense over the past two years, and he clearly shines brightest in the biggest moments. He produced franchise records for receptions (13) and yards (224) in a 45-44 win over Kansas City in last year's wild-card round before adding another 103 receiving yards on four catches in a divisional-round loss to New England. Don't be surprised if Hilton explodes again this postseason.

9. Which defensive player will impress the most in the wild-card round? Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons had been one of the most underrated players in the NFL until he finally received his first Pro Bowl invitation this season. He makes tackles all over the field. He's an effective blitzer who can create takeaways. He's also quite familiar with the Ravens after spending the past eight seasons colliding with them twice a year. Timmons had 23 tackles and a sack against Baltimore this season -- each team won at home -- and he'll be critical to defusing Forsett. The Steelers' defense might have more flaws than ever, but Timmons isn't one of them.

10. Who will win the AFC championship? The Patriots have gone 10-2 since a Week 4 loss to Kansas City, so it's probably unwise to pick against them now. Brady always has made New England a championship contender, but this year it feels as if the right pieces are back in place: a healthy Gronkowski, the emergence of wide receiver Brandon LaFell as another threat, a running game that does just enough and a defense that has been bolstered by the presence of cornerback Darrelle Revis on the back end. If those factors aren't enough evidence, just remember that the Patriots already have crushed Denver (43-21), Cincinnati (43-17) and Indianapolis (42-20). Throw in home-field advantage throughout the postseason and you get the point. The only way the Patriots lose another game this season is if an NFC team beats them in the Super Bowl.