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AFC No. 1 Seed: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos slid into the top overall seed following their 27-20 victory against the San Diego Chargers in Week 17. This will keep them in Denver throughout the AFC playoffs and provides a bye week to rest. Most importantly, now they have time to figure out what to do at quarterback.
On one hand, Peyton Manning’s return to the field was encouraging. If he is 100 percent healthy, he has the higher upside to play well compared to Brock Osweiler. But Manning almost led the NFL in interceptions despite missing six games, so the risk in playing him is clear.
Denver must make a difficult decision in their week off. Do they go with Manning, who can provide a higher ceiling but lower floor? Or do they opt to play ball control with Osweiler at the helm?
AFC No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots
New England lost to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, looking like a shell of its former self. Injuries and a conservative game plan held the Patriots back, and it’s fair to wonder whether they should have benched all of their healthy players instead of risking further damage. Their effort across the board was frightening.
One week off because of the bye should help Julian Edelman return, and perhaps he will be enough to spark this offense. The run-heavy approach with Steven Jackson may have helped him get back into the flow of the NFL game, but a terrible Dolphins defense easily stopped it. There are many reasons to be concerned with the Patriots right now.
AFC No. 3 Seed: Cincinnati Bengals
While the Bengals won a tight but entertaining game against Baltimore, they didn’t earn a first-round bye. Denver won, and Cincinnati is stuck playing on Wild Card Weekend, which they surely did not want. Without Andy Dalton at quarterback, it’ll be tough to advance.
Cincinnati gets home field for their playoff game with Pittsburgh. Head coach Marvin Lewis has a strong team, but they will likely be the underdog in their home stadium. He may have to wait another year to get his first playoff win.
AFC No. 4 Seed: Houston Texans
Houston avoided the crazy parlay scenario the Indianapolis Colts needed to win the AFC South, clinching the division themselves. Bill O’Brien and his team deserve major credit for bouncing back after key injuries and poor play plagued the team early in the year.
Houston would likely be the underdog in any matchup, but not a significant one. Wild Card Weekend gives Houston the crowd advantage, and not going to Kansas City is a major positive. If quarterback Brian Hoyer can return, Houston has a real chance of advancing.
AFC No. 5 Seed: Kansas City Chiefs
The title of hottest team in the AFC belongs to Kansas City. Led by a terrific defense, the Chiefs nearly won the AFC West while storming their way into the fifth seed. Everyone should fear the Chiefs right now.
Andy Reid and his staff have been masterful this season. They’ve survived losing their best offensive player and got their defense playing as well as anyone could have expected. That should pay off well in the wild-card round—and perhaps beyond.
AFC No. 6 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers got the help they needed to win the final wild-card spot when the New York Jets lost to Buffalo. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, their Week 16 loss to Baltimore ultimately didn’t matter. Now they enter the playoffs with arguably the best quarterback in the conference.
Pittsburgh’s defense has shown glimpses of being Super Bowl-worthy. Facing off against AJ McCarron is the ideal matchup in the wild-card round.