Jussel: Broncos, Pats clear favorites in AFC playoffs
The Denver Broncos are on top of the heap ... for now.
The task ahead is to win three more games against good football teams and claim the Super Bowl XLVII title.
Let’s look at who is remaining, briefly first in the NFC, which would provide Denver’s Super Bowl fodder on Feb. 3 in Peyton Manning’s back yard of New Orleans:
My NFC pecking order would be Atlanta, Seattle, Green Bay, San Francisco, Washington and Minnesota.
Atlanta, which finished 13-3, beat the Broncos 27-21 on a Monday night in Atlanta early in the season. Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter, but Denver still could have won the game — and might have won it but for a botched call late by replacement officials.
Seattle is remembered as a preseason opponent in Denver in which rookie Russell Wilson got his first significant action and stood out, planting the seed in coach Pete Carroll’s mind that Wilson might be good enough to start. The Seahawks finished 11-5 on the season, outscored their opponents 170–43 in the final four games and have won five in a row.
Denver has had no contact with the other NFC teams.
San Francisco (11-4-1) has the best recent playoff pedigree, having reached the NFC Championship Game last season, losing to eventual Super Bowl champ New York in overtime thanks to a pair of late muffed punts.
Green Bay (11-5) made a great regular-season run last season before stumbling to the Giants and has the most recent Super Bowl title, winning over Pittsburgh in 2011.
Mike Shanahan’s Washington team won its final seven games on its way to a 10-6 record despite losing rookie sensation Robert Griffin III for two games at quarterback.
And Minnesota, also 10-6, has done it with running back Adrian Peterson, a strong pass rush and little else.
Atlanta and San Francisco have the byes this weekend and home field the next weekend. The Falcons are balanced but questionable defensively. The 49ers rely on a second-year QB, Colin Kaepernick, who became a starter midseason, and a stout defense.
Seattle is awesome at home, but the Seahawks won’t play there, instead going to Washington. And Green Bay will have a rematch with the Vikings in Lambeau Field after losing 37-34 to the Vikes in Minnesota on Sunday.
The only team I don’t think can advance in the NFC is Minnesota. Any of the other five could reach New Orleans.
Now, let’s look at Denver’s competition against the AFC:
The AFC is more clear-cut than the NFC and looks like a two-team race, with Denver, 13-3, and New England, 12-4, the top-heavy favorites.
Denver has won 11 in a row, and the Patriots have won nine of 10.
Two other AFC teams, the wild-card teams, also finished the season on a roll. The 10-6 Bengals won seven of their final eight after a four-game losing streak early in the season (one of those a 31-23 defeat in Denver). And the 11-5 Colts won nine of their final 11, losing only at New England and at Houston.
Cincy and Indy are good, young teams, led by good, young quarterbacks in Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck. Are they good enough to lead their teams to two playoff wins each on the road? Doubtful.
That brings us to the two remaining teams from the AFC, two heavy favorites as the season began: Houston and Baltimore. These two have really struggled of late.
Houston, which finished 12-4, lost three of its final four after looking to have the top seed sewn up a month ago. They scored only one touchdown in the past two games as quarterback Matt Schaub repeatedly messed up and star running back Arian Foster repeatedly went nowhere.
Baltimore lost four of its final five on the way to a 10-6 finish, with one of those a 34-17 pounding at the hands of the Broncos in Baltimore. The Ravens, who were decimated on the defensive side with injuries, also lost Sunday 23-17 to the Bengals in Cincinnati in a meaningless game laced with replacements on both sides.
Baltimore hosts Indy, and Houston hosts Cincinnati this weekend in AFC wild-card games.
I have the hot teams winning, with Indy and the Bengals getting the “upsets.”
That would have Denver outscoring the Bengals and New England romping over the Colts, setting up the Broncos vs. New England at New Mile High in the AFC Championship Game.
Think a few people will be watching that one?
I know I will be.
And so will you.
Let the second season begin.
Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School Journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.