The wild-card round in this year's AFC playoffs can best be summed up by one word: disappointing. The Baltimore Ravens scored a nice win over Pittsburgh while Steelers Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell watched with an injured knee. The Indianapolis Colts beat up on a Cincinnati Bengals team without the services of Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green. With those key offensive cogs missing, the results were no surprise. This is the time of year when you want to see the best face the best. Instead, we were left to wonder what might have been if the losers had been at full strength.
The divisional round won't be nearly as predictable. The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos now join the dance, both fully rested after first-round byes. There also have been whispers about the Ravens having some of that late-season mojo that helped them win a championship two years ago. Finally, you never know what can happen with Andrew Luck guiding the Colts. He's pretty good at those late-game heroics, and he'll only improve with every postseason start he makes.
We also have some stacked rosters for this round. New England didn't have Rob Gronkowski at this time last year. Denver didn't have Von Miller (or newcomers DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib, for that matter). Even the teams that have lost key performers have found reliable replacements (such as Denver's C.J. Anderson and Baltimore's Justin Forsett).
So what's left to say about the divisional round? Plenty, judging by these 10 questions:
1. Is Tom Brady going to be frustrated by the Ravens' pass rush? No. Baltimore did a magnificent job of pressuring Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Saturday's 30-17 win -- they sacked him five times, all when the Ravens only sent four pass-rushers -- but Brady is a different animal. The Patriots only allowed 26 sacks this season, which ranked fourth in the NFL. If the Ravens have to blitz to force Brady's hand, that's an even scarier prospect. Brady is exceptional at reading coverage and finding open receivers in such situations. He also won't be hamstrung in the same way Roethlisberger was Saturday. With Bell sidelined by a hyperextended knee, the Ravens were fully prepared to unleash Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and the rest of their pass-rushers. Brady has just enough help with his own rushing attack to keep the Ravens honest.
2. Will Julius Thomas make life easier for Peyton Manning? Yes. It's difficult to pin down exactly what happened to Thomas in the second half of this season, but Denver will have had a full two weeks to correct it. The star tight end seemed destined to shatter Gronkowski's record of 18 touchdowns receptions by a tight end. He started the year with nine scores in Denver's first five games. Then things changed drastically. Defenses looked for more ways to neutralize Thomas. An ankle injury cost him three games (weeks 12-14), and he wasn't thrown to in Week 17. The Broncos' offense also became more run-heavy late in the season. The end result was 43 receptions for a player who made last year's Pro Bowl and was on his way to being the NFL's latest game-breaking tight end. Thomas clearly has been frustrated by those struggles. Look for him to be a happier camper after facing the Colts this coming weekend, especially since he burned them for seven receptions, 104 yards and three touchdowns in a season-opening win.
3. Will the Colts' defense look as good on Sunday as it did against Cincinnati? No. Let's face it: There were a lot of favorable circumstances that played into Indianapolis' holding Cincinnati to 254 yards in that 26-10 win. The Colts were going against a quarterback (Cincinnati's Andy Dalton) who has played poorly in his postseason career. They were facing a Bengals offense that had lost its best wide receiver (Green) and tight end (Jermaine Gresham) to injuries. Most importantly, the Colts were at home, where they usually play fast and furious. Denver might have scaled back the high-powered passing game that has been its signature since Manning arrived in 2012, but it can still score points. Remember, the Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead when these teams met in Denver's season-opening 31-24 win. Don't be surprised if Denver bolts out to a similar advantage.
4. How vital is Steve Smith Sr. to the Ravens' hopes for an upset? Huge. The Ravens have thrived with 30-something receivers in recent years (see: Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin), and Smith has the look of a savvy veteran who could pay huge dividends as well. It isn't just the five receptions and 101 yards he produced in Baltimore's win over Pittsburgh. It's that oversized chip he still carries on his shoulder at age 35. Smith is exactly the kind of player the Ravens need when facing a Patriots secondary blessed with physical cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Smith already has an impressive postseason résumé (957 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 10 career playoff games), and he's been splendid for Baltimore this season (79 receptions for 1,065 yards, both team highs), after Carolina released him. Boldin was an invaluable target for quarterback Joe Flacco when the Ravens made a championship run two years ago. Smith can have the same impact.
5. Can Daniel Herron be an X factor against the Broncos? It sure looks that way. The Colts' running game has been unreliable since they made the trade that brought Trent Richardson to town last year. With Richardson sidelined due to illness, Herron took advantage of the chance to showcase his skills against the Bengals. His work with his feet (12 carries, 56 yards and a touchdown) and his hands (10 receptions, 85 yards) was something that shouldn't be dismissed easily. Those 141 combined yards were the most by a Colts running back since Week 15 of the 2011 season. That versatility is the very thing the Colts will need against the Broncos because Denver has enough talent in the secondary to control the pass. It's a safe bet that big plays will be hard to come by for Luck, so Indy will have to search for some suitable options. Herron, a former practice-squad running back, has made the most of his chance to play when called upon. Given that Richardson had four carries for 1 yard in two playoff games last season, Herron might have to do even more this weekend.
6. Will the Ravens advance with another dismal effort by Forsett? Not likely. Forsett has been one of the biggest surprises of this NFL season. When Baltimore lost Ray Rice in the midst of a domestic violence scandal, Forsett emerged to set career highs in attempts (235), yards (1,266) and touchdowns (eight). So where was that guy Saturday night, when the Steelers held him to 36 yards on 16 carries? One explanation is that in this physical AFC North rivalry, yards on the ground always are tough to come by. That being said, Forsett needs to have a few more surprises in him when the Ravens meet New England. The Patriots are adept at taking away a team's strengths, and they'll have some ideas on how to frustrate Flacco. If Forsett can find room on the ground, Baltimore's play-action passing should thrive.
7. Which offensive player will we be talking about after this weekend? New England running back LeGarrette Blount. It's not a reach to say Blount needs to be ready to do some damage. Last year, he gained 166 yards and scored four touchdowns in the Patriots' 43-22 win over Indianapolis in the divisional round. The Ravens certainly have a better run defense than Indianapolis fielded last year (Baltimore ranks fourth against the run, while the Colts were 26th in 2013), but the Patriots have worked Blount into their offense quickly since the Steelers released him Nov. 18. Blount has averaged 12 carries in his five games since rejoining the Patriots, which far surpasses any other New England runner. The stars are aligning. The Ravens better be ready for a back who's been hungry to make a splash since Pittsburgh dumped him.
8. Which defensive player will we be talking about after this weekend? Denver outside linebacker Miller. He wasn't around for last year's postseason, after sustaining a torn ACL late in the regular season. He also was suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy and accused of trying to doctor a urine sample. It's quite unlikely Miller would've made any difference in the Broncos' 43-8 blowout loss to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII, but this year certainly has been about redemption. After being hailed as the game's best young pass-rusher --before Houston's J.J. Watt and San Francisco's Aldon Smith reached elite status -- Miller lost his way with a Broncos team that sorely needed him to become a leader. His 14 sacks and third Pro Bowl selection indicate he's playing like a new man these days. He'll be looking to make just as big a statement in his first playoff game in two years.
9. Do the Ravens have another magical Super Bowl run in them? It's tempting to think Baltimore can shock the world in the same manner it did two years ago, when they were falling apart at the end of that regular season before surging to a Super Bowl XLVII win over San Francisco. These Ravens have had late-season moments when they looked similarly unimpressive, but don't count on a repeat of that ride. There is no Ray Lewis to offer the emotional motivation that drove those Ravens. That team's core leadership group also included big personalities such as Rice, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. This year's bunch is younger and more understated, a collection of rising talents looking to make their own names. True to its nature, Baltimore's brain trust is building another contender. It's just a year or two away from being solidified.
10. Who will advance to the AFC Championship Game? The better question might be whether this is something really worth asking. Brady and Manning have met 16 times in their careers. It only makes sense they're destined to make it number 17 when the AFC Championship Game arrives. Even after all this time, it's the scenario that provides the most potential excitement. The Broncos are the defending AFC champs. The Patriots are trying to continue the momentum that made them the hottest team in the conference from Week 4 on. Yes, last year's meeting in the AFC title game turned out to be a dud (with the Broncos never trailing in a 26-16 victory), and the Patriots dominated 43-21 when these teams met in November. But it's unlikely you'll see a third consecutive mediocre matchup when these two quarterbacks are involved.