The battle for the AFC crown should be one of the best in the NFL. It features three elite teams that are built to win in the playoffs.
The Houston Texans, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos feature some of the best quarterbacks in the game.
While each team has it's defensive flaws, all three can make a case for being balanced.
The Texans are built around J.J. Watt, and he gives them tremendous physicality. New England shuts down the red zone and forces turnovers left and right. Denver features an elite pass rush that will challenge any team.
And yet only one team can head to the Super Bowl. So whose it going to be?
Predicted Landing Spot: AFC Divisional
The Houston Texans have been fantastic this season. They enter the playoffs 12-4, as one of the most balanced teams in the AFC.
Not only has their offense been stellar, but the defense has been just as good.
But the Texans stumble into the playoffs, having lost three of their last four games. That—combined with their shellacking at the hands of the Patriots—was enough to knock them down to the No. 3 seed.
No more bye week and no more home-field advantage in the Divisional Round.
Just like that, the deck is slightly more stacked against Houston. They shouldn't have much of a problem with Cincinnati this Saturday, but after that, it's back to Foxborough for a rematch with the Pats.
And if they can get through that, they face even more challenges.
If things move as expected—and the Texans do manage to trump the Pats—they would face the equally challenging Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship.
If the Broncos falter, the Texans could possibly be facing Andrew Luck and the Colts. The two teams split their series this season, but Indianapolis won the most recent contest 28-16.
That doesn't mean one should bet against the Texans. They're a real great football team and a perfectly timed turnaround could propel them straight into the Super Bowl.
Houston did beat Denver earlier in the season 31-25 and it wouldn't surprise anyone if they could do it again. The Texans played too well earlier in the season to be written off as a fluke.
But losing out on the bye week has given them a big step back and it makes the playoff mountain that much steeper.
New England Patriots
Predicted Landing Spot: AFC Championship
Nothing is more dangerous in the playoffs than the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick duo.
This is when the Pats thrive and it's an environment they're built for. New England surged their way to the Super Bowl last season and given the chance they could do it again.
Clinching their 10th AFC East crown in 12 years, the Pats will once again ride a bye into the second round of the playoffs. They await either Houston, Baltimore or Indianapolis.
Neither team should give the Pats fits. They previously trounced both the Texans and Colts this season, and could very well do it again. They did lose to Baltimore earlier in the season, but that game was an officiating mess.
The biggest thing about nabbing the bye though, is that it gives the Patriots a chance to get healthy.
After limited playing time last Sunday, Rob Gronkowski should be close to full health by the time the AFC Divisional round arrives. It also gives the secondary time to heal up, which has dealt with injuries all season.
The biggest challenge for Tom Brady could be his old nemesis, Peyton Manning. While the rivalry has died down since Manning moved to Denver, it's still one of the best matchups in the NFL.
The Pats previously beat Denver 31-21, but that was back in October. 11 games later and the Broncos have yet to suffer another loss. Not to mention, if the teams do meet, it'll be in Denver this time.
New England is one of the best teams in the AFC, and they should never be underestimated. With that said they will need to be perfect to beat the Broncos (if both teams make it to the Championship).
Until that secondary is healthy, the Pats are anything but AFC favorites.
Predicted Landing Spot: Super Bowl
Can anyone beat the Broncos now?
Denver has won their last 11-straight games, and in dominating fashion. The Broncos are an incredibly balanced team, with the NFL's fourth-best offense and second-best defense.
Yes, they have already lost to Houston and New England this season. But those games were way back in September and October.
Now it's January, and the Broncos are the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That means a bye week, and home-field advantage all the way through. A home field, where Denver has lost only one game this season.
Peyton Manning is back, and leading his offense like a well-oiled machine. He's thrown for over 4,600 yards and 30 touchdowns this season, and could be in for an MVP award.
Just like adversary Tom Brady, he's leading a more-balanced offensive attack. Denver averaged over 110 rushing yards a game this season.
The Broncos also featured a devastating pass rush, which a team needs in this league. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller have a combined 29.5 sacks this season.
The road to the Super Bowl won't be easy, but it's laid out in front of Denver.
They'll most likely face Indianapolis or Baltimore in the Divisional Round. Neither team should be able to keep up with Peyton Manning offensively.
Another likely opponent for the AFC Championship would be the New England Patriots. Tom Brady also beat Manning this season, but that was at Foxborough.
No AFC team has an easy road to the Super Bowl, especially Denver. They'll have to stare down some of the AFC's most elite quarterbacks to get to the big one.
But if anyone can do it, it's going to be Peyton Manning.
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