Peyton Manning’s surreal regular season was the talk of 2013; his single-season records in both passing yards and touchdowns helped propel his Denver Broncos to the top seed in the AFC. Manning’s longtime contemporary, Tom Brady, guided the New England Patriots to their 10th AFC East division crown in the last 11 seasons. Brady managed to excel this year even with the offseason drama of tight end Aaron Hernandez, season-ending injuries to other tight end Rob Gronkowski and defenders Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and building a rocky rapport with his inexperienced receiving corp. With his efforts, the Patriots were able to capture the AFC’s second seed this postseason.
Their teams are the favorites in the conference, but which of the wild card teams will strike the most fear into these elite quarterbacks?
1. CINCINNATI BENGALS
UPSIDE: Top-Flight Defense. The Bengals were stout the entire season defensively finishing third overall (number five against the run and the pass) led by second-year, Pro-Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who had 171 tackles, three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble this season. They maintained their elite defensive form without their 2012 Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, who tore his ACL earlier this season. With the inconsistencies of quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals defense must continue to shine.
DOWNSIDE: The Question Mark at Quarterback. Even though Andy Dalton has 33 touchdown passes this year, he has tossed 20 picks to go with them. Critics what to know which Andy Dalton will show up to play this weekend. Will it be the one who threw five touchdowns versus the New York Jets, or will it be the four-interception disaster Dalton from the season finale against division rival Baltimore Ravens? It may play in the Bengals offense’s favor that they began their postseason run against the San Diego Chargers, who rank 29th against the pass.
2. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
UPSIDE: The “Feel-Good” Factor. Unlike the Dallas Cowboys, who infamously struggles in the month of December, the San Diego Chargers went back to their old ways by dominating the final month of the season winning four straight. Perhaps the feel good story of the year might be Philip Rivers returning to elite quarterback status. Rivers’ 32 touchdown strikes, 4,478 passing yards 105.8 passer rating and return to the postseason have placed him in the Comeback Player of the Year discussion. Rivers surpassed the 4,000-yard barrier for the first time in two years and exceeded the 30-touchdown mark for the first time since 2010.
DOWNSIDE: An “All-Fly” Zone. The Chargers’ secondary has been a doormat to opposing offenses allowing 260 yards a game through the air, placing them at 29th in the league. They will have a tough task facing off against standout receiver AJ Green of the Bengals. Hopefully for the Bolts, the bad Andy Dalton will show up this weekend.
3. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
UPSIDE: Two sides to the story. The Indianapolis Colts have displayed several times this season that they can pound the ball or spread it out on offense. In an impressive road win against the 49ers back in September, Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 95 of the Colts’ 184 yards on the ground. In a December contest against the Bengals, Andrew Luck passed for 326 yards and four touchdowns in a shootout defeat. Indy has middle-of-the-road offensive rankings (17th in passing, 21st in rushing), so they will look to keep a balanced attack to be successful.
DOWNSIDE: Sporadic Success. The Colts have reached high points during 2013, but bad losses to the Chargers, the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals begs the question if they can be consistent enough and beat the teams they are supposed to beat. Season-ending injury to wide receiver Reggie Wayne may have been the death to the Colts’ offense at times this season. Without the veteran leader, Luck was forced to rely on explosive, yet one-dimensional receiver T.Y. Hilton and the inconsistent, drop-happy wide-out Darrius Heyward-Bey on the outside. The running game seem to be a disappointment due to the injury of Bradshaw and lack of production from Trent Richardson. Outside of the offense, the Colts’ 26th-ranked rushing defense will have to go up against the league’s number three rusher, Jamaal Charles.
4. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
UPSIDE: A formula that travels. Coming into the playoffs with the 1oth best rushing attack, the Kansas City Chiefs will look to release the burden of Alex Smith and continue to feed the rock to their Pro Bowl running back, Jamaal Charles. Charles rushed for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns averaging five yards a touch on 259 carries this season. Kansas City’s success this year is mainly due to their defense dominance for much of the season. Anchored by five Pro-Bowlers, the defense should continue to carry the Chiefs deep into the playoffs.
DOWNSIDE: Loss of its Luster. After starting the season 9-0, the Chiefs lost five of their last seven games to close out the season at 11-5. During their undefeated start, they only allowed 12.3 points per game. After their Week 10 bye, Kansas City allowed 28 points a contest dropping them to 24th in total defense at season’s end. Albeit they had to face Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers twice each in the second half of the year, the defense was the key to overall success. Can the defense return to its pre-Novermber form?
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