A year ago it was the Green Bay Packers who went into Week 17 not even sure if they would be in the playoffs. We all know how it turned out. The long route to the Super Bowl has become more common in recent years--in 2005 Pittsburgh came out of the #6 seed. The next two years saw the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants each win it all without the benefit of a first-round bye. Arizona won the NFC crown in 2008 in a year where the NFL playoff bracket looked a lot like my March Madness bracket usually does--red lines drawn through it and riddled with upsets. A league that used to rank second only to the NBA when it came to seeing the chalk prevail in the postseason has become more wide-open. The reasons for that can be speculated on, but the reality of recent results is plain. Who are the best chances for a miracle run this January?
I believe we have to look at the AFC. The first criteria for a Cinderella story is a soft favorite at the top. The '05 Steelers were an exception in that they beat what was probably Tony Dungy's best team at Indianapolis, but most unexpected playoff runs in any sport come in a year where the favorite has obvious flaws. If Green Bay's vulnerabilities do them in, it will be New Orleans or San Francisco that picks up the pieces, and I'm not ready to call either one a Cinderella story (in the big picture of the regular season the Niners certainly are, but this post is focused strictly on teams that turn around an inconsistent regular season).
New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the legitimate contenders in the AFC, and Houston's a unique case altogether, in that a true contender is now tough to get a read on with T.J. Yates at quarterback. The Texans are more in the mold of the 1990 New York Giants, who had to replace Phil Simms with Jeff Hostetler going into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl in doing so. This post is looking for a different type of surprise.
There are five teams in the AFC who are still alive for two remaining playoff berths (AFC West champ and the last wild-card). None are assured of playing football beyond New Year's Day. Therefore it's Cincinnati, NY Jets, Tennessee, Oakland and Denver that draw the Notebook's focus with the question being this--if they survive Week 17 what are the reasons they could win three straight in the AFC playoffs and make it to Indy on February 5. Alongside each team is listed its current odds at making the Super Bowl...
Cincinnati (20-1): A playoff run for Cincinnati would have to be predicated on defense and that's never a bad place to start. The Bengals do a good job defending both the run and the pass, and their pass rush is sound. Their front four gets pressure up the middle from defensive tackle Geno Atkins and on the other side of the ball their offensive line protects Andy Dalton, something that's a tribute to tackles Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth. The big problem Marvin Lewis' team will face is that they don't run the ball consistently. Even with Cedric Benson having broken the 1,000-yard barrier the team as a whole ranks 13th among 16 AFC teams in yards-per-carry. It's easy to see Cincinnati playing well and keeping a favorite at bay, then being unable to salt away the game by picking up first downs on the ground.
NY Jets (40-1): There's nothing like being able to execute in the red zone for helping pull off an upset and the New York offense does that better than anyone in the NFL. In terms of raw yardage, their AFC rank is 15th in rushing and 13th in passing...yet they're third in points scored, trailing only the machines at New England and San Diego. Can you see the Jets being outplayed at, for example, Baltimore, yet holding a 21-19 lead in the fourth quarter? It's very possible and with their success in winning road playoff games (four over the last two seasons), they won't choke up when it's time to close. It's an unexpected problem rushing the passer that's put Rex Ryan's team in this spot to begin with and could undo them in the playoffs. The Jets do a poor job in getting to the quarterback. They really need linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace to step it up or having two solid cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie goes to waste.
Tennessee (35-1): The Titans are on defense what the Jets are on offense--it's not a great unit, but they make plays in the red zone. It's also been an unexpectedly strong year for the Tennessee secondary, which ranks 3rd in yards allowed per catch in spite of not having a great pass rush, a credit to corner Cortland Finnegan and his mates. Offensively, pass protection is excellent, as left tackle Michael Roos leads up a line that's consistently been one of the NFL's best. Tennessee's problem is an unlikely one--they can't run the ball with any consistency. Chris Johnson's ankle injury and I would guess the fallout from his late arrival into a late-starting training camp haven't helped. Without a real big-play threat down the field, the Titans need to be able to run if they're going to win playoff games.
Denver (12-1): It's all about the late-game mojo in Denver. The Broncos have great playmakers on defense, where Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller can wreak havoc with the quarterback, and the corner tandem of Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman is solid. The running game can keep them in it, with Willis McGahee producing conventionally and Tim Tebow running it himself. If this formula keeps it close in the fourth quarter, will Tebow-Mania be in anyone's head on the other sideline?
Oakland (15-1): Carson Palmer has done an excellent job in smoothly integrating into this offense since his midseason acquisition and the Raiders are well-balanced. Palmer can go down the field to Darius Heyward-Bey and find tight end Kevin Boss underneath. If Jacoby Ford is able to return from a foot injury that's another weapon to open up the field. Oakland's offensive front has paved the way for Michael Bush to have a good season running the ball and also protected Palmer well. Defensively, the Raiders can get pressure up the middle with tackles Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour, along with middle linebacker Rolando McClain. And maybe they'll get Darren McFadden back to give them a game-changer both running and catching the ball. Now the bad news--the Oakland defense is lousy against the run, making it harder to play from behind, and their give/take ratio is in the bottom half of the AFC and hoping for McFadden to come back seems like more wasted energy with each passing week.
None of the five possible darkhorses look strong, but they wouldn't be darkhorses if they did. And I think we also need to point out something important regarding Green Bay's run last season--the Packers were getting healthy and peaking as the playoffs hit. The team that actually took the field in January was much better than a #6 seed--really, the team that took the field for last year's playoffs is the one we watched all year this time around. The 2010 Packers didn't just get hot, they were coming together. I don't think we can say that about anyone in this group. Of the five, I give the Raiders the best shot at pulling off the 3-0 run through the AFC if they get a shot, but whether it's through the AFC West or the wild-card, they need to first beat San Diego and then wait on help.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com, a site offering daily commentary, analysis and historical perspective.