It’s playoff time for the 2015 NFL season, with this Sunday seeing the wildcard round matches taking place. So what team should be the considered the favourite to go and win Super Bowl 50? Well, here our writers make a case for each team, finishing with the AFC.
Who cares about the QB, Denver’s D is going to take them to the top
By Nathan Hards
We’re on our way to the offseason, and the Broncos are happily sat with a first week bye, waiting for the wild cards to batter each other to take a shot at them. The Broncos have had a battering in the headlines this season, with (Manning) taking a knee late in the season, after a terrible start, then the whole HGH accusations to top it off. People have doubted their capabilities from the get go. They were written off as has-been’s from week 1, after Manning showed a weak arm in his outing against the Raiders. Yet here they are, winning the AFC West so hard, they got a 1st week bye. How’d they get here? Winning. Take a look at the playoffs board. Bengals – Beat them in Week 16 Chiefs – Beat them in Week 2 (lost in week 10) Vikings – Beat them in Week 4 Packers – Beat them in Week 8 Patriots – Beat them in Week 12 Steelers – Alright, they lost that one The Broncos have put up 12 wins for four losses. Only two teams in the whole league have beaten that record this season. Both in the NFC. The Broncos are supposed to be having a bad season, and with their new giant Brock under centre, they have pushed their way right through to the playoffs. Everyone has had their eye solidly on the Patriots this season, watching them try and reclaim the trophy, but they’ve forgotten about the boys from Denver. With a pretty solid season behind them, and seemingly unconcerned with the injuries that they have taken, the Broncos are easily the most dangerous team to face in the playoffs. They’re quietly devastating the whole NFL this season, like silent assassins. You’re going against one of the best defences in the league, with a re-invigorated offense. Good luck boys, you’re going to need it.
Returning starters will drive New England to another AFC Championship
by Pete Halifax
The last two weeks of the season didn’t exactly go to plan for New England, with losses to divisional opponents the Jets and the Dolphins causing them to drop from the number one seed in the AFC. Hardly surprising, though, considering they’re down to their bare bones right now after an early bye week wreaked havoc on the team’s injury report. Julian Edelman has been practicing again and will be back for the home game against Cincinnati, Houston or Kansas City, as should Donta Hightower and Chandler Jones. It’s hard to overestimate how much of a difference Edelman makes; with him in the game Tom Brady has a reliable outlet for his short range, quick release passes which made the Pats look like world beaters in the first half of the season. Having a first round bye allows the players rest, and allows Bill Belichick and his staff time to plan. Having time to watch, think and plan is something that plays right into the hands of Belichick – the greatest football mind in a generation – whose ability to gameplan is second to none. His flexibility in approach means that his teams are set up to beat you by exploiting your weakest point, and demanding that you stop them, or they’ll just keep beating you. And the main reason why you should fear the Patriots as an AFC team in the playoffs – Tom Brady. The greatest playoff quarterback in the history of the game. Brady is astoundingly good in the regular season, but come January, and often February, he is something else. There seems to be magic in the air when he takes the field, the ultimate competitor, he seems to at least in part win through sheer willpower. At 38 years old, he’s still in great physical shape. A minor ankle sprain should be healed by the time the divisional round arrives. Oh, and Gronk will be there too.
Bengals will ride talented roster all the way – regardless of QB
by Remy Cabache
The Bengals have the most talented roster from top-to-bottom. End of. And that should be reason enough to make every team scared of facing the Bengals. Before I really dive into that, though, I will address the elephant in the room: A.J. McCarron will start against the Steelers. Personally, I don’t see this as that much of an issue. The Steelers may have owned McCarron is his first appearance this season but he has since started 3 games and he has shown promise since. He won 2 of his 3 starts and the loss was an overtime thriller to the number 1 seed Denver Broncos. Furthermore, this is likely only an issue for this week. If Dalton comes back, this team will unquestionably be very scary. Regardless of QB, a team has to be talented to earn a 12-4 record and this team is complete. They have one of the best receivers in the NFL in A.J. Green, they have the best one-two punch in the NFL with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, they have one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL in Tyler Eifert and their offensive line has been one of the best units in the league for several years. The same can be said about the defense. They have the ability to shut down opponents run games and passing games thanks to a ton of talent spread around this unit. They have one of the best defensive line’s in the NFL, led by Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict is one of the best linebacker’s – and enforcer’s – in the NFL, and their secondary is headlined by 2 of the better safeties in the NFL in Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. This talent is more than enough to carry this team passed a 1-dimensional Steelers team with McCarron at the helm, then they’ll have an early-season MVP candidate back at the helm, and if that combination doesn’t scare you, then nothing will.
JJ will take Texans all the way
by Tom Parry-Jones
At 9-7, the Houston Texans have the worst regular season record of the six AFC teams in this year’s playoff line-up. But don’t let that fool you… After going 2-5 in their first seven games, with three of those losses by a single score, they then won seven of their final nine, including three straight divisional wins at the end of the season, to nudge out the Indianapolis Colts at the top of the AFC South. As I predicted in our AFC South roundtable a couple of months ago, the main reason for the Texans’ resurgence in the second half of the season was their defense. Over the course of the season, they had the seventh best defense in the league in terms of points conceded, the third best in terms of overall yardage, first downs and passing yardage, and the second best in terms of opposition drive lengths, in both distance and duration. In the last nine games of the season, they managed to hold their opponents to 10 points or fewer no less than six times. Now, you can’t talk about the Houston defense without mentioning JJ Watt. After picking up just four sacks in the first six games of the season, The Milkman really built up a head of steam from week 7 onwards, tallying 13 sacks in 10 games, including three in their pivotal 30-6 victory over their division rivals, the Jacksonville Jaguars. And with form like that, Alex Smith and his Chiefs offense will have a torrid time when they come to NRG Stadium on Saturday. Add to that the fact that the Chiefs failed to register a single point in the second half of their meeting with the Texans all the way back in week 1. What could stand in Houston’s way on the weekend is their inconsistent offense. After an initial fiasco with their quarterback situation, head coach Bill O’Brien finally settled on Brian Hoyer under center, but the seven-year veteran was truly the best of a bad bunch and was underwhelming. Add to that a spotty run game and the Texans could struggle to put up enough points to reach the divisional round. But with players like JJ Watt on your team, who needs an offense, right?
Chiefs will ride win streak all the way to the title
by David Pruett
Winning 10 games in a row in the NFL is a rare feat and not to be underestimated. The Kansas City Chiefs might just be the first team in history to accomplish this and still not ever be ranked in the top 5 in columnists weekly Power Rankings. That lack of ‘respect’ won’t have gone unnoticed in the locker room and that ‘bulletin board material’ will be driving the players to prove they belong in the conversation of best team in the NFL. The NFL is a momentum league and no team comes into the playoffs in the AFC with more than the Chiefs. The Patriots are falling apart, losing 4 of the last 6, just 2 weeks ago Denver were in danger of missing out on the playoffs completely, Cincinnati are starting AJ McCarron, Pittsburgh are in only by virtue of the Jets loss and Houston beat a bunch of JV teams to ‘win’ the AFC South. Kansas City might just be the most complete team of the bunch. The formula for wins in the playoffs is tried and tested, run the ball well, don’t turn it over and play strong defense. The Chiefs do all 3 of those things, and do them well. Kansas City ranks 3rd in the league in scoring defense, 6th in rushing offense and 2nd in turnover differential. These figures are in spite of an abysmal start to the season that saw them languishing at 1-5, having lost their best offensive player (Jamaal Charles), and already 6 back in the AFC West! The turnaround has been nothing if not stark, and, don’t look now, but they return their best defensive player, Justin Houston, for the playoff run!
Pittsburgh’s aerial assault will carry them to the AFC title
by Toby Durant
Let’s start with the main reason; Antonio Brown. Brown finished with a massive 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season, and that’s while Ben Roethlisberger missed 3.5 games. He torched defenses and got open at will for almost the whole season. But what makes the Pittsburgh Steelers truly dangerous is that teams can’t just decide to double team him and focus in on #84 because the supporting cast is good. Martavius Bryant and Markus Wheaton are deadly in their own right, particularly going down the field. The Steelers offensive line has proven to be good enough to sustain such a downfield passing attack despite its unheard of individuals like Alejandro Villanueva who went through Chicago and Philadelphia before settling in Pittsburgh and becoming a solid starting left tackle. On defense these aren’t the Steelers of old. They’re not going to send zone blitz after zone blitz at you like the good old days but they can cause some havoc with the tremendous pair of Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier in the middle and Cam Heyward in the middle. Their secondary is certainly a weakness but it can do enough to keep the offense in touching distance, and with the rate at which the Steelers can score that’s more than enough. Despite missing LeVeon Bell for most of the year and Roethlisberger for almost a quarter of it this Steelers offense is 4th in points scored and 3rd in yards. They can score quicker than a hiccup and even if DeAngelo Williams can’t go on Saturday night they should get some joy on the ground to avoid being one dimensional and should he be healthy? Well there isn’t an AFC defense that can slow them down.