3 reasons each AFC team can win the Super Bowl even though Denver has the top seed
FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez lists three reasons why each AFC playoff team has a chance at a trip to the Bay Area for Super Bowl 50.
HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7)
After leading the NFL in sacks with 17.5, Watt appears likely to join Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who is the only three-time winner of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) helped pace the Texans to a franchise-record 45 sacks this season. Houston will get another pass-rush boost if Jadeveon Clowney is able to return from a foot injury that sidelined him for the Week 17 finale against Jacksonville.
Despite all of the turmoil at quarterback (see below), one constant for Houston was Hopkins' production. The wide receiver helped Texans fans forget about Andre Johnson's offseason release with 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 23-year-old Hopkins didn't slump when matched against standout defensive backs either, like Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets and Indianapolis' Vontae Davis.
The Texans face long odds to reach the Super Bowl, but this squad already is used to overcoming adversity. Houston is the only NFL team since 1950 to reach the playoffs with four different quarterbacks winning games during the season (Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden). The Texans also rebounded from a 2-5 start to win seven of their final nine games, including the last three to secure their first AFC South title since 2012.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (11-5)
That's what not losing for 10 straight games after a 1-5 start will generate. The Chiefs ride into the playoffs with the NFL's longest current winning streak, which Chiefs head coach Andy Reid believes can make a difference during the postseason. "I think there's something to that," Reid said during his Monday news conference. "You come in with a certain confidence. That's important."
Few offensive mistakes
Kansas City's 15 turnovers this season ranked as the second-fewest in the NFL behind New England with 14. The Chiefs also ranked second in turnover differential at plus-14 behind Carolina (plus-20). The key to Kansas City's efficiency is QB Alex Smith. His seven interceptions are tied with New England's Tom Brady and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton for this season's lowest tally among quarterbacks with 250 or more attempts. As the cliché goes, the team that usually commits the fewest turnovers wins. Kansas City is a prime example.
Houston, we have a problem
The problem, though, belongs to the offensive lines trying to account for Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dee Ford in the pass rush. The Chiefs are hoping Houston can return from a knee injury starting with Saturday's game against the Texans. Hali is playing while recovering from a broken thumb, but Ford's emergence has helped compensate for the drop-off in production.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (12-4)
The numbers are well known to every Bengals fan. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season. The last appearance in a conference championship game was 27 years ago, marking the NFL's longest active streak. The Bengals also have lost four straight first-round games, which is the highest total in league history. But even with major question marks at quarterback (see below), Cincinnati has the tools to leave such failure in the past behind an extremely deep roster peppered with veteran players focused on ending the drought.
Even with quarterback Andy Dalton's status for the playoffs uncertain as he recovers from a broken thumb, replacement A.J. McCarron is surrounded by a great supporting cast. The wide receiver crew is led by A.J. Green, a great all-around talent and true difference-maker in the deep passing game. Tyler Eifert led all NFL tight ends with 13 touchdown catches despite missing three games with injuries. And an inconsistent rushing attack may be back on the upswing with two straight 100-yard games.
Outstanding scoring defense
The Bengals finished No. 11 in fewest yards allowed this season, but the unit can point to an even more impressive accomplishment. No defense in Bengals history has surrendered fewer points in a 16-game season than the 279 allowed by Cincinnati this season. That total was second-best in the league behind Seattle at 277 points.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-6)
As a two-time Super Bowl winner, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is well prepared to handle the pressure that comes with playoff football. Roethlisberger has a 10-5 all-time record in postseason contests while forging a career that should land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Opponents know Roethlisberger will be looking for his favorite wide receiver and still can't stop the two from connecting. Brown finished with 136 catches this season, becoming the first player in NFL history with consecutive seasons of at least 125 receptions. When defenses try to roll their coverage toward Brown, Roethlisberger can hurt them in other ways by finding tight end Heath Miller and wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Each of them caught at least 44 passes and they combined for 13 touchdowns.
An opportunistic defense
The 2015 Steelers are a far cry from the legendary Steel Curtain. But while not fielding a dominating unit, the Steelers have forced 12 turnovers in the final five regular-season contests. It's no coincidence that the club went 4-1 in that stretch to make the playoffs.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4)
He is the most successful quarterback in postseason history, having won 72.4 percent of his starts with a 21-8 overall record. He was the front-runner for NFL Most Valuable Player honors for much of this season until injuries decimated New England's offensive line and sidelined top targets tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman. The latter's expected return from a foot injury for New England's second-round playoff game would provide Brady with a huge boost.
Brady's success may not have come without Belichick and vice versa. Belichick's mastery at crafting opponent-specific game plans has helped New England win four Super Bowl titles and appear in two other title games. The Patriots are 8-1 in divisional-round playoff games under Belichick when enjoying a first-round bye like New England earned this year.
An overlooked defense
Brady and Gronkowski are worthy of the attention they receive, but the performance of New England's defense has flown under the radar in comparison. The Patriots recorded 49 sacks this season, which is the highest total since Belichick became head coach in 2000. Leading the way was end Chandler Jones with 12.5. Jabaal Sheard (8) and Rob Ninkovich (6.5) have brought the heat as well. The Patriots also field blue-chip linebacker talent in Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. The secondary isn't as smothering as last season, but Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has improved throughout the season since assuming the No. 1 cornerback role from the departed Darrelle Revis (New York Jets).
DENVER BRONCOS (12-4)
Orange Crush redux
The dominance of Denver's 2015 defense should make members of the vaunted 1970s Orange Crush units proud. In his first year back as coordinator, Wade Phillips helped the Broncos finish as the NFL's top-ranked group by allowing an average of just 283.1 yards a game. That marked the first time the franchise had ever achieved such heights. One key was Denver leading the NFL in sacks with 52. The beauty in that was the variety of personnel who affected the quarterback. Fourteen different defenders registered at least a half-sack, paced by outside linebacker Von Miller with 11.
A mile-high edge
Whether it's the 5,280-foot altitude, deafening crowd noise, weather conditions or a combination of all three, Denver historically enjoys a distinct home-field advantage despite opening playoff losses in two of the previous three seasons. The Broncos have a 15-5 all-time mark in home postseason games and went 6-2 this season.
The AFC's No. 1 seed
Besides giving Denver an extra week of rest, the bye is especially important as Broncos coaches try to formulate offensive game plans for potential opponents. While no announcement was made last Monday by head coach Gary Kubiak, it would be surprising if Peyton Manning wasn't given the first-string nod at quarterback now that he has sufficiently recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him for seven starts. Manning hasn't performed at his previous Hall of Fame level in 2015, which stems largely from a combination of injury, age (39) and a bumpy transition to Kubiak's West Coast-style offense. Manning, though, could have better support in the playoffs than earlier in the season. The Broncos bumped up their rushing attack in his absence, averaging 135.1 yards over the final seven games compared to 86.0 in the first nine.