There’s a reason that teams are automatically reseeded in the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. No team would ever want to be responsible for choosing its own shocking demise. Fans and columnists have often wondered if this wrinkle would spice things up and allow a top-seeded team the luxury of picking an opponent based on matchups instead of records. Perhaps a squad could approach this from another angle and strategically choose the opponent for the second-seeded team to try to force an early exit. Fellow PredominantlyOrange.com writer, Chris Krier, tweeted that if he had to choose, he’d like to see the Ravens and the Bengals win, if for no other reason than he thinks Baltimore has the best chance to beat the Patriots in Foxborough next week.
It’s great fun to try to anticipate the best matchups and to root for those outcomes, but woe to those No. 1 seeds if this were actually how the playoffs worked. Dare I even bring it up in this space and with fans of the Denver Broncos, but go back to the 1996 playoffs. Let’s imagine that the Broncos had the option of selecting from the two winners of the Wild Card round. They could have chosen the 10-6 Central Division Champion Pittsburgh Steelers who had just pummeled the Colts or they could have faced a 9-7, upstart Jaguars team riding the hot hand of a scrambling, left-handed quarterback (oh boy…) that squeaked into the playoffs. Under no circumstance do I see the Broncos deviating from how the seeds played out in this instance, but can you imagine the fallout from feelings of, “we did this to ourselves?”
But we the fans, the opinion artists, and the prognosticators get to spend the better part of this upcoming weekend imagining the different scenarios and how they would most favorably give the Broncos the best shot at an AFC Championship. Let’s take a look:
Cincinnati Bengals: The No. 6 seed certainly isn’t what it used to be, and this team has been the biggest roadblock the Broncos have had to face since October. Last time they met in Cincy, the Bengals’ defense forced two Manning interceptions, held the Broncos to under 3 yards per carry, and allowed only two rushing first downs. They are the only team since the Broncos’ winning streak began that required a fourth quarter comeback to defeat and the game wasn’t really in the bag until Andy Dalton was picked off on his own comeback attempt.
Which brings us to that side of the ball. The Bengals’ offense requires balance. Dalton may be their franchise guy going forward, but the Bengals went 7-1 over the last half of the season and Dalton threw for 253 yards just once. To really indulge in a nerd-fest, over the last half of the season, the Bengals have a 59%-41% split in pass yards versus rush yards. No other team in the AFC has a lower than 64%-36% split on the season. The NFC has the 49ers, Redskins, Seahawks, and Vikings that have lower splits than the Bengals, but they also have dual-threat quarterbacks or, in the Vikings’ case, Adrian Peterson. The Bengals? Sure they have a decent workhorse in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he’s dinged up and there is simply no plan B. Take away the balance and you have taken away their offensive prowess. Give the Bengals credit for making adjustments in how Dalton manages the offense, but the dependence on the run isn’t exactly threatening. I like the Bengals as the second choice for next Saturday.
Indianapolis Colts: Is there anyone who doesn’t want to see this on a strictly theatrical basis? Jim Nantz must be salivating at the prospect of doing the voice-over for the broadcast introduction. “I SAID MORE TIMPANI, NOT LESS!!! Peyton Manning, excommunicated by…no…Peyton Manning jettisoned…no…Peyton Manning left to rot for new blood. Yes! MORE CYMBALS CRASHING RIGHT THERE!!!” Drama aside, I want a rookie quarterback (no matter how proficient) in front of a rabid Mile High crowd, a porous defense, and an offensive line that gives up plenty of sacks.
Over the past four games, Andrew Luck has been hovering right around 195 yards passing and the team has averaged less than 100 yards on the ground. Things change around playoff time, but the Broncos haven’t allowed a 300-yard passing game all season and have only had one team gain more than 100 yards rushing during their 11-game win streak. Luck provides some dynamic to their offense, but this offense has been statistically sputtering as of late especially when held up to what they accomplished early in the season when they were averaging 400 yards per game.
Now while the Colts defense has allowed a TON of yards to opposing offenses, their saving grace has been winning the turnover battle. The Colts have survived by the simplicity of positive turnover margin, positive outcome. Perhaps it has been somewhat of a mirage, in that it’s more a mechanism for stopping opposing offenses in contrast to providing opportunities for their own. On 15 takeaways, they are averaging just a bit over a field goal in points from turnovers. The Broncos’ defense, meanwhile, is rising to the challenge of a turnover and has allowed just 34 points off 12 turnovers since the second half of the game at San Diego. I’m taking this match-up for next Saturday for all the right reasons as well as the one on the periphery.
Baltimore Ravens: The problem with picking the Ravens is that they play so well against the Patriots. But if that’s the route you choose, you see them anyway for the AFC Championship game, so does it really matter? I like the fact that this is a totally different team on the road (6-2 in Baltimore versus 4-4 elsewhere), their defense isn’t the same crushing Ravens’ defense we’ve seen in previous years, and Joe Flacco is still their quarterback.
I have concerns that I’d rather see delayed at this point, however. Joe Flacco is still their quarterback, and despite his personally low standards for who should be considered an “elite quarterback,” he has still won at least a playoff game every year he’s been in the league and for the most part has gotten better during the postseason over the past two years. Then there is Ray Lewis. Call it frivolous to get hung up on this, but the best linebacker to ever play the game will be retired when the Ravens’ playoff run is complete. It’s not quite the same as a franchise quarterback’s swan song, but Lewis has been a Raven since the team moved from Cleveland. He is as synonymous with the franchise as Edgar Allen Poe. It will take Sunday’s game to really see if Lewis can still make an impact on the field after missing ten games, but if he’s back in full force I worry that he could give Baltimore that dreaded “bewitched factor” that could come from an emotional boost to a team that has muddled its way through the last six weeks of the season. I’d prefer the Colts to win and come to Denver, but perhaps sending the Ravens to Foxborough is a fine consolation prize.