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AFC Playoffs Will Be the Same Old Story, and No One Seems to Notice

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AFC Playoffs Will Be the Same Old Story, and No One Seems to Notice

A month ago, when the New York Jets ended the Tennessee Titans' bid to finish the season undefeated, "experts" from all the major sports networks suddenly saw the Jets as the team to beat in the AFC.

With a loss to the (3-11) Seahawks on Sunday, the Jets now find themselves on the outside looking in, needing some help to even make the playoffs—help that they most likely will not get.

After their November win over the Titans, Don Banks of ESPN.com started his "Five things we learned" piece with the statement, "The Jets are starting to look capable of going all the way."

The week before, most "experts" had predicted that the Titans would face the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Suddenly, after defeating them, it was the Jets who were supposed to represent the AFC.

It's nice to know that sports writers get paid six figures to predict that the two teams with the best record in each conference at that time will go on to play each other in the Super Bowl. It's that kind of gutsy, analytical thinking that makes me respect these "experts" so much.

Let me first say that I apologize for putting "experts" in quotes every time I use it. It's something I like to do to show my deep level of respect for them, but for the reader's sake I'll refrain from doing it for the rest of this piece.

What bothers me the most about these commentators is that they put absolutely no effort into really analyzing the teams in the National Football League. They change their opinions from week to week and will jump on the bandwagon of every hot team who comes along and jump off as soon as things seem to be heading south. To think that the Jets were going to win the AFC, let alone their own division, was ridiculous.

What made this season different from most was that teams who are usually a lock to get the top seeds in the playoffs—the Colts, the Patriots, and the Chargers—all started off slowly. The Colts struggled as Peyton recovered from his knee injury, the Patriots were forced to start a quarterback who had never started a game before, and the Chargers lost five of their first eight games by less than 10 points.

The media decided to forget about these teams and focus instead on the teams that had turned themselves around since last season. Most notably, these were the Titans, Jets, Dolphins, and to some extent the Broncos.

I will take the Titans out of this conversation. I consider them to be a very legitimate Super Bowl contender. I do think they're very beatable and have some weaknesses, but they are a well-coached team and have just as much of a chance as anyone.

But to think that the Jets or Dolphins could make a playoff run, let alone make the playoffs at all, was just poor judgment.

In fact, I would like to go on the record as saying that none of these teams will make the playoffs. The New England Patriots will be the third seed in the AFC, and the San Diego Chargers will be the fourth seed.

This is the kind of prediction I would love to be wrong about, honestly. I really hope to be completely off on this one. It may just be my inner pessimist coming out, but this is what I've been afraid of all season long.

After the Colts beat the Patriots and the Chargers, I thought maybe there really was a chance that neither of these teams would get in. Maybe we could breathe easy and play some of the teams that didn't deserve to be there.

But then they just kept creeping back in the picture, little by little—and the Jets and Broncos crept backwards, little by little. Now we find ourselves entering Week 17 with both the Patriots and Chargers with great chances to win their divisions.

I am aware, of course, of what scenarios would keep this from happening. A Dolphins win over the Jets would win them the division, no matter whether the Patriots win or lose. And if the Broncos beat the Chargers, then they're in.

But neither of these things will happen. The Dolphins will head to New York and let loose their little Wildcat formation that barely got them past the Chiefs and lose to the Jets. The Patriots will demolish the Bills, thus clinching the division. The Chargers will continue to roll and beat the struggling Broncos at home. And what will this leave us with?

Five of the six teams from last year's playoffs will be in it again this year. The seedings may be different but as the '05 Steelers, '06 Colts, and '07 Giants will tell you, seeding and home field advantage doesn't mean anything anymore.

The AFC playoff picture, which seemed so backwards and mixed up earlier in the year, will feature all of the teams it always does.

The extremely frustrating part about it as a Colts fan is that we will finish with the second-best record in the conference, yet we'll have to go on the road to play a team with a worse record than us. If the Chargers win, we'll have to go on the road to play them, despite being either three or four games ahead and beating them in our head-to-head matchup.

The way the playoffs are seeded is a whole different debate that I won't get into, but nonetheless, it is very unfortunate for the Colts.

What I am driving at with all this rhetoric is that I am bothered by how blind people have been to what is really going on in the AFC. I'm happy for the Dolphins' great turnaround, and I think Brett Favre was a great pickup for the Jets. But this conference is dominated by three or four teams, and despite the way it looked early in the season, all of these teams will be in it once again.

What separates these elite teams from the up-and-comers is experience and the ability to step up when it matters. Let me highlight some examples of this.

When the Colts were down 14 points to their biggest divisional rival who had nothing to lose, they came back and won, earning them a playoff berth.

When the Chargers needed to win to stay alive, they went on the road and nearly doubled the score of the Buccaneers.

When the Patriots needed to win to stay alive, they beat the playoff-bound Cardinals by 40 points.

The Ravens, who I have failed to mention thus far, went into Dallas and beat a hot Cowboys team who were playing their last ever game in a historic stadium. They now control their own destiny.

And their counterparts?

The Jets played a struggling Seattle team in the snow, a setting where Brett Favre is supposed to be the best ever, and failed to score a touchdown.

The Broncos needed to beat a (7-8) team to win their division, and they couldn't do it.

The Dolphins, while I have to give them credit for pulling it off, needed a last minute touchdown to beat a (2-13) Chiefs team.

I hope the Jets relished in the positive media attention they garnered for much of the season, because that's the extent of it. Now it will be all about second guessing Coach Mangini and reflecting on where their season went wrong.

I can't wait until this happens again next year. I can't wait for a couple teams like the Cleveland Browns or the Houston Texans to win some games early on and get all the media hype, that they are somehow now the teams to beat in the conference. Every sportswriter and every commentator and every fan will be going on and on about these fresh teams and how much they've improved.

But come January, the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots, the San Diego Chargers, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will all be in the playoffs.

And once again, one of them will be representing this conference in the Super Bowl.

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