The Playoffs – AFC Wildcards.

 

Ah, the AFC. Patriots, Colts or Steelers. Patriots, Colts or Steelers. That’s how it has been since the Raiders (albeit losing) Superbowl appearance of 2003, and we have to go back to 2001 to find the Ravens as the only team apart from the hallowed three above to win a Superbowl from the conference. With the Steelers and the Patriots already through to the divisional round of playoffs, we have to wonder what the point even is of the fabled ‘Wild Card Weekend’…

 
I’ll tell you why. Because the NFL is CRAZY this year. The Chiefs are in the playoffs! The Bears are in, and don’t even have to bother with a wildcard! The FALCONS are the NFC’s number one seed! We’ve gone absolutely bats**t mental this season in football, so anything can happen this weekend, and by golly it probably will. Therefore, this entire preview is probably going to be choc-a-bloc with absolute balderdash that won’t even take place, but roll with me, and ye shall discover what just could happen this weekend.

 
Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs.

 
Postseason experience takes on a wild, young and vocal side as the battle-hardened Ravens battle a Chiefs team who have dramatically turned their ball club around from last season to this. The Ravens have won three playoff games on the road in the past two seasons, and Joe Flacco has just got better and better since then, where as the Chiefs have the NFL’s best rushing attack, with a Jamaal Charles/Thomas Jones one-two combo that regularly pummels opposition defenses on the ground.

 
Whilst the Chiefs team is short of postseason experience, their coordinators are not, in Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. Weis’ guidance of quarterback Matt Cassel has been key throughout the season, and has led KC to an outstanding 7-1 home record, and one which they may revel in again at a noisy Arrowhead come Sunday afternoon.

 
The Ravens, however, are probably the most complete team in the NFL. They have a young quarterback in Joe Flacco who has become increasingly accustomed to the limelight, a fantastic rushing attack in Ray Rice (who stands at 1220 yards for the season) coupled with go-to receivers in Anquan Boldin and veteran Derrick Mason. What stands out, as always, is the Ravens physical tough offensive and defensive lines, coupled with a pick-happy secondary, led by ball-magnet Ed Reed.

 

Ones To Watch

 
Although Matt Cassel has been exceptionally efficient lately whilst also being able to rely on a simply awesome rushing attack, the Chiefs key player could be wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. On paper, Bowe’s season looks good enough, with fifteen touchdowns during the regular season. However, throw in the fact that fourteen of those touchdowns came in the first eleven games, and the Chiefs could have a problem. Considering Ed Reed is beaten up and Lardarius Webb is in poor form in the Ravens secondary, the Chiefs could be finding themselves in playoff wonderland should Bowe be able to turn it on again come Sunday. But that’s a big ‘if’ right now, and all eyes will be on Bowe’s connection with Cassel at Arrowhead Stadium, especially considering the Ravens will attempt to knock over the Chiefs’ running game with their extreme physicality.

 
Joe Flacco, once shaky rookie, now accustomed playoff-victor, is going to be the man to watch for the Ravens. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. At six foot nineteen, his height and bullet-esque arm have moulded Flacco into a all-conquering quarterback. But under pressure, he can waiver. The Bengals, surprisingly, have been the team to do so in weeks two and seventeen, and the Chiefs will look to learn from the Bengals at home against the Ravens.

 
Prediction

 
This game absolutely hinges on the Ravens bringing down the Chiefs running game. On the basis of them doing so, I’m going to plump for Baltimore by seven. However, if Cassel finally wakes up Dwayne Bowe after five long weeks of slumber, this could all change.

New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts

 
A game in which a team where everything rests on their quarterback plays a team where…everything rests on their quarterback. A re-match of the AFC Championship game from last year awaits us Brits on Saturday night at 1am, and one suspects that everything will not go quite as smoothly for the Colts this time around at Lucas Oil Stadium. But, then again, nothing really has for the Colts during this campaign…

 
The Colts are quite tremendously banged-up. Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, both tremendous targets to Peyton Manning, are out, whilst the list extends on and on from there. For a team so focused on their passing game, a lack of viable targets may harm Indianapolis significantly. However, the Jets aren’t coming into this game in such great shape either. LaDanian Tomlinson is running like a drunkard for a night bus, where as a defence that looked solid at the beginning of the season has become decidedly more shaky in recent weeks. The Jets will always try to bring the pressure against Manning on third down, and against such an accomplished quarterback in his home stadium, this could be risky.

 
Ones To Watch

 
Ahh. The easiest section of the entire season to complete. Who could we possibly watch for the Colts? Peyton God-Damn Manning has been portrayed as having some sort of bunk season for the Colts. Yet, a poor season for Peyton Manning happens to consist of 4700 passing yards, second only to yard-gobbler Drew Brees, and 66.3% completion rate, again only second to the Superbowl MVP. Manning is absolutely everything for the Colts. If he throws interceptions, the Colts go down. If he throws like he can, the Colts will breeze past the Jets like a breath of…fresh air that breezes past a Jet. Whether Manning can carry such a banged-up Colts side all the way to the championship is another matter, but against a Jets defense with severe question marks over it, if Manning performs, it’s a Colts victory.

 
Manning’s importance is mirrored in the Jets’ dependence on Mark Sanchez. Jets’ quarterback Sanchez has a severe habit of moving between the sublime and the ridiculous this season, from interception to eye-of-the-needle touchdown, and his exceptional significance this coming Saturday night should not be underestimated. He passed for two touchdowns in last season’s playoff match-up with the Colts, but with Indianapolis giving up practically an extra touchdown this season per game, Sanchez may see this as his moment to shine. However, if there’s a last-minute touchdown to be had, I would keep an eye out for last-minute touchdown-catcher-extraordinaire Santonio Holmes.

 
Prediction

 
On a personal level, I just can’t bring myself to bet against a Manning in the playoffs. The Jets have been impressive this season, but not impressive in recent weeks, and I believe Manning can just about carry the Colts past the Jets, if not past the rest of the AFC. However, it won’t be by much. I’ll take the Colts by three.

 
David Dickson.

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