Predicting the NFL Playoffs Early: AFC Edition

Bob CunninghamSenior Analyst IDecember 20, 2008

The AFC is as wild and clustered as it's ever been in recent years.

Only two of the four divisions are clinched, and we're heading into the last two weeks of the season.

Tennessee seemed to have clinched the AFC South early on as it opened up the year at an impressive 10-0 before going 2-2 through the last four weeks. Pittsburgh and Baltimore battled it out in a controversial game that wound up going to the Steelers, along with the AFC North crown.

The AFC West and East are different stories, however.

In the West, the Broncos are leading the way at 8-6, but the 6-8 San Diego Chargers are not mathematically out of it, although they would need the Broncos to lose out, while they win out. The Chiefs and Raiders, as usual, are on the outside looking in.

In the East, there is a three-way tie for first place.

After a 5-1 start to the season, the Bills have collapsed and are now the only team out of the playoff hunt in the East. The defending AFC champion Patriots, the Jets, and the surprise of the year Miami Dolphins all sit at 9-5 with a shot to take the division.

The only problem for teams in the East is it's looking like only the division winner will make it in, as the Colts and Ravens are locks for the fifth and sixth seed if the Ravens can win out.

So, with that being said, here's how I see the AFC playoff picture shaping up.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers
  2. Tennessee Titans
  3. New York Jets
  4. Denver Broncos
  5. Indianapolis Colts
  6. Baltimore Ravens

The Steelers and Titans play each other this week, and the winner of that game will have the benefit of playing at home through the playoffs. I think the Steelers win that game given all of the injuries the Titans are going through right now, while the Steelers are healthy and on a hot streak at the moment. The AFC playoffs go through Pittsburgh.

The New York Jets have fallen off a bit since beating the then-unbeaten Tennessee Titans. However, given their bit of luck against a falling Bills team to win that game, I think they ride the wave of emotion they're on right now all the way to the eastern crown.

The Broncos really only win by default. The AFC West is almost as bad as their NFC counterparts and Denver is really in the same boat as the Cardinals. They win because the rest of the division provides no competition.

With their win over the Jaguars this past Thursday, the Colts have solidified their seventh straight playoff appearance, Dungy's 10th dating back to his Tampa days (an NFL record), and become the scariest team in the playoffs.

The Ravens are another surprise team, not to the extent of the Dolphins, but they were not a team expected to be in the playoff picture at the beginning of the season. They control their own fate, as winning out puts them in the playoffs.

Now to the games.

Baltimore Ravens @ New York Jets

Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos

A good slate of AFC wild-card matchups. However, I think both of these games, though close, should be fairly obvious.

In the first game, I'm going with the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens have played stellar defensively all season long and look for that to carry them into and through the playoffs. They rank in the top five in almost every major statistical category and are just smothering.

The Jets are a team searching for an identity. They are not a running team, nor are they a passing team. When push comes to shove, the offense really has nothing to hang its hat on. But could that work out to their advantage?

How do you plan for an offense with no persona? I think their are pro's and con's but I believe the con's will hurt them against a fantastic Baltimore defense.

Final Wild Card Prediction: Baltimore 17, NY Jets 13


In the second game, I have to go with the away team again. The Indianapolis Colts are playing too well to lose to the Denver Broncos, even at Mile High.

The Broncos have a very good passing offense that may even be able to stick with Peyton Manning and the Colts attack, but in the end I don't think the Broncos have enough defense to pull this one out. This game will be a shoot-out and will come down to which defense can pull it out in the clutch.

I think the Colts defense will come up with one very costly Denver turnover and put this game away for Indy.

Final Wild Card Prediction: Indianapolis 34, Denver 24


The divisional round of the playoffs could turn quite literal and get very interesting.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Indianapolis Colts @ Tennessee Titans

Both of these games would pit division rivals against one another and cause for some very exciting football. Not only would the rivalry be there, but it would have the extra added bonus of being a playoff game.

In the first game, I'm going to go out on a limb and say the Steelers cannot beat the Ravens three times in the same year.

While Pittsburgh's defense is unmatched this year, I believe their offense is not good enough to carry them. The Steelers' persona has always been to run the ball then use the play-action pass.

That has not come to fruition this year. The Steelers have bounced around with running backs while Ben Roethlisberger has been forced to throw the ball more often.

Roethlisberger has thrown up some ducks this season and given a couple of games away, specifically the Indianapolis game in which he threw two costly picks to keep the Colts in the game and eventually win.

The Ravens' defense is too opportunistic with 22 interceptions this year to not take advantage.

I think the Ravens finally stop the Steelers and pull this game out in a low-scoring squeaker.

Final Divisional Prediction: Baltimore 13, Pittsburgh 10


In the second game, I see the Titans stealing one at home.

The sexy pick for this game is the Colts. And why not? They're one of the hottest teams in the league right now and are finding numerous ways to win rather than on the arm of Peyton Manning.

But there's a catch.

None of those ways involve running the ball or stopping the run. And unfortunately for Colts' fans, that's how you win championships.

I know, I know. 2006. My answer to that is: aberration.

The Colt's defense started playing much better against the run in the playoffs and they found a way to get Addai going, I don't see them being able to do that twice in three years.

The Titans' defense knows Manning & Co. They understand how to stop the Colts' passing attack and how to expose them. I think the defense comes up huge in this game and Collins does just enough with that running game to pull this one out. After a late attempt by Manning to pull the Colts out, of course.

Final Divisional Prediction: Indianapolis 16, Tennessee 21


The AFC Championship game would then turn into a battle of defenses.

Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans

The Titans were expected to get this far, the Ravens are a different story. But seeing as there's always a surprise team, I'm siding with the better defense.

The Titans were easy picks to make the Super Bowl through the first 10 weeks after going unbeaten in that stretch. They are 2-2 since then and showing vulnerabilities. They are succumbing to injuries and defenses are finding ways to shut down Kerry Collins and make them one-dimensional offensively.

The Ravens, however, get better weekly.

Joe Flacco's maturation throughout the season has been marvelous to watch. Granted, the numbers aren't all that great at first glance, but this is an offense that could not put up points and continually left their defense out to dry. That has not been the case this season.

The offense is putting up points and even getting the defense out of tough situations by making teams play from behind and become one-dimensional.

And if the Titans have to play from behind and rely on the arm of Kerry Collins, they will lose. That was shown when he was victimized by this same defense in the Super Bowl of 2000 while playing quarterback for the New York Giants.

I think the Ravens will get up early by exposing a hurt defense and force the Titans to pass, which will not bode well for the chances of winning. Ed Reed has at least one defensive touchdown in this one on the way to leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl.

Final Championship Prediction: Baltimore Ravens 27, Tennessee Titans 19

It's been eight years, but you're finally back, Ravens' fans.

The Super Bowl.

Things seemed to dissolve for the Ravens after their Super Bowl win and with the hiring of a rookie head coach and drafting of a rookie quarterback, this looked like a throw-away season. But the defense has carried this team to another showing at the Big Dance.

They'll get another chance to win a Super Bowl this decade in Super Bowl XLIII when they face NFC representative ____________.

Check my NFC predictions for the answer!

Be on the lookout for my Super Bowl breakdown coming soon.