Season’s End Means Playoffs for Some, Rebuilding for Others
BY JAKE SALTZMAN
Boston Sports Desk Correspondent
With the regular season in the books, and the first of many off-season changes already finalized, teams across the league find themselves in one of three unique positions. For the twelve playoff teams, January continues to be all about on-field action, with wild card round games set to begin on Saturday. For teams like San Diego, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Jacksonville meanwhile, where major off-season changes don’t appear to be forthcoming, the remaining winter months become a time for in-depth roster evaluation, as well as for minor tweaks in personnel. And for the bottom-feeders of the league, in Carolina, Denver and Cleveland, the countdown to the 2011 NFL Draft has already begun as the 2-14 Panthers are currently on the clock. Before we begin previewing the Draft however, let’s take a look at the remaining twelve teams, and this year’s playoff contenders. Today, I’ll examine the AFC and the five teams competing with the Patriots for a spot in Super Bowl 45 in Arlington.
The AFC West will be sending one team to the postseason this year, and to the surprise of many, that team is the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs finished the regular season at 10-6 under second year Head coach Todd Haley, and are set to host a first round game Sunday afternoon against the Baltimore Ravens. As was the case for much of the regular season, the Chiefs expect to live and die on offense in the playoffs. Thomas Jones led the Chiefs in rushing touchdowns with six, while up-start youngster Jamaal Charles finished second in the league in overall rushing. Averaging over 164 yards on the ground per game during the regular season, Kansas City was tops in the league amongst teams in rushing, but expects to have success in the passing game as well. Star receiver Dwayne Bowe finished second in the league in touchdowns with fifteen for the Chiefs, and is guaranteed double coverage from the Ravens on Sunday. With limited options behind Bowe, expect quarterback Matt Cassel to seek out rookie tight end Tony Moeaki, who despite a fine rookie season tapered off significantly during the second half. Despite a capable defensive pass rush led by Tamba Hali, the Chiefs know that in order to beat the Ravens the offense needs to have a big game. Though the Ravens defense won’t make it easy, Baltimore veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are well aware of just how lethal this young Chiefs team can be, especially on offense.
The Baltimore Ravens meanwhile return to the playoffs yet again this season, and as the fifth ranked team in the AFC are well aware of the fact that in order to reach the Super Bowl, no fewer than two wins away from home are needed. Veteran leadership and defense certainly aren’t issues for Coach John Harbaugh’s gang, as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata are all healthy, but concerns on offense remain nonetheless. Thousand-yard rusher Ray Rice anchors the run game, and though full of big-play capability, has struggled with consistency at times this season. Rice had only two 100 yard games this season, and against elite teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, could never seem to develop any sort of rhythm. His backups Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain add physicality, but still only combined for a lone rushing touchdown during the regular year. While Baltimore’s offense is as pass-oriented as is any other in the league, (and with Anquan Boldin, Todd Heap, Joe Flacco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh why not?) should the Ravens run game struggle against the Chiefs, look for lesser-used targets such as Derrick Mason and Ed Dickson to be forced to step up big on Sunday.
The Indianapolis Colts return to the postseason for a record-breaking ninth-consecutive time, winning the AFC South yet again with a 10-6 record. Jim Caldwell’s squad has been shaky at times this year, but much like the 2009 New England Patriots overcame a plethora of injuries to cash a playoff ticket. Offensively for the Colts, as has been the case for over a decade now, the show both starts and ends with quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning finished the year with 33 touchdown passes, a number that seems unremarkable at face value, but is in fact quite impressive given the fact that aside from receiver Reggie Wayne, the Colts struggled to find a consistent pass-catching weapon this year. Even still, Pierre Garcon and Jacob Tamme both have playoff experience, and are to be viewed as respectable deep threats simply because of the fact that Peyton Manning is throwing their passes. On the ground, the Colts are perhaps the only team in league history to make the playoff despite not carrying a 500-yard rusher on their roster, as Joseph Addai and Donald Brown fell five and three yards short of the 500-yard mark respectively this season. With Addai back healthy for the playoffs however, Indy has at the very least a competent ball carrier and capable short-yardage back. Defense could be the Colt’s weak link in the postseason, not just because of the fact that Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets come to town on Saturday, but because of the inexperience at the outside linebacker position. Rookie Pat Angerer has been nothing short of brilliant for the battered Colts this season, but unlike his teammates will be forced to step up big without having the benefit of seeing a single postseason snap in his career. Look for the Jets to try to use the middle of the field in the intermediate passing game before taking any deep shots against safety Antoine Bethea and one of the AFC’s better defensive secondaries.
The NY Jets stumble into the playoffs as the AFC’s sixth and final seed despite starting the year impressively at 9-2. Rex Ryan’s team has faced more than its fair share of adversity this regular season, headlined by a blowout loss to New England, and three additional losses in which the victor scored ten or fewer points en route to a win at Giants Stadium (10-9 loss to Baltimore, 9-0 loss to Green Bay and 10-6 loss to Miami.) Clearly, the Jets have had issues on offense at times this season. Don’t expect that to be a problem on Saturday in Indianapolis though, as despite the blemishes second year quarterback Mark Sanchez will be healthy and rested for the Colts, and has the benefit of working in tandem with the league’s fourth best rushing offense. Veteran LaDainian Tomlinson brings a wealth of playoff experience to the offensive backfield, and defensively there is little reason to believe cornerback Darrelle Revis isn’t the most qualified man in the game (sorry Devin McCourty fans) to cover Reggie Wayne one-on-one. Entering the playoffs as arguably the league’s deepest team, and arguably the league’s most talented, I expect the Jets to make a game of it at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. Though only the conference’s sixth seed look for Rex Ryan and the Jets to get off on the right foot (Pun very much intended) this weekend.
The other AFC team (besides the Patriots) benefiting from a first-round bye this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have played nothing short of remarkable football the past two weeks, albeit against the Carolina Panthers and the Cleveland Browns. In fact, perhaps the Steelers’ only blemish during this two week period was failing to pitch a shutout in their week sixteen game against Carolina in the final Thursday night game of the season. The Steelers of course won that game, 27-3, but did what few teams had previously been able to; limit Carolina’s rookie receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. LaFell failed to record a single catch while Gettis was held to just one reception for five yards. What this means for the Steelers heading into the playoffs is that while teams like Baltimore and Indianapolis feature receivers far more talented than the likes of LaFell and Gettis, the Pittsburgh secondary, even without a fully healthy Troy Polamalu, is capable of playing shut-down pass defense. Given that the Steelers are led offensively by Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Heath Miller, if the defense can hold, the Steelers will be a force in the coming weeks. The bottom line: if you’re an AFC fan betting against the Patriots, chances are you should probably be betting for the Steelers. Of all the AFC playoff contenders, Pittsburgh is the team who most recently won a regular season game in New England.