Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bengals, Texans and Broncos Back into AFC Playoffs

Last Sunday three of the six AFC playoff teams lost its matchup. Two of those hadn't even clinched a spot yet, meaning they received help from other teams to get in to the second season.

Houston and Cincinnati, throwing it down one-on-one this weekend (Saturday January 7, 2012 at 4:30 PM ET in Houston), are both currently being led by rookie signal callers. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton was one of two rookie QBs to throw for 3,000 or more yards this season–first time in history that has happened.

As for Houston, rookie T.J. Yates will be making his sixth career start this Saturday, and it's clear that Houston has relied heavily on the run. Yates has thrown for just 949 yards and three touchdowns on 134 pass attempts, but has protected the ball well (just three INTs). But after leaving last week's game against the Titans with an apparent shoulder injury, his status for Saturday is uncertain.

It's been said he's likely to play, but even if he does I have a feeling he wont be 100%. There's no doubt these two rookie quarterbacks will be under the microscope when they go head-to-head in Houston's first-ever playoff game. Cincinnati will be looking to win its first playoff game since 1990.

Both teams have struggled as of late. Cincinnati fell, 24-16, to division rival Baltimore in Week 17 and has gone 2-3 in the last five games. Houston is currently riding a three-game skid, finishing the season 10-6. There's no doubt that this matchup, however, may be one of the most intriguing of the weekend, with Cincy sporting a 5-3 road record and Houston boasting a 5-3 record at home. Houston plays great defense and has the second-best running game in the league.

Backing in or not, these teams have set the stage for a classic AFC playoff battle on Saturday afternoon.
Denver was the third AFC team to "back into the playoffs," clinching the AFC West division despite a 7-3 loss to Kansas City. With the help of San Diego (38-26 win over Oakland) Denver captured the title with an 8-8 record–Oakland and San Diego went 8-8 as well, but Denver holds the tiebreaker.

Tim Tebow, after starting his second professional season with a 7-1 record as starter and five 4th-qtr comebacks, has played three consecutive forgettable games as Denver nearly lost its playoff chances.

Over the three-game span, Tebow, who received much of the credit for Denver's win streak despite great support from the defense and running game, completed 41% of his passes for just one passing touchdown (three on ground) and four interceptions. His defense allowed 40 points on two different occasions (41 vs. NE, 40 vs. Buf), but at the same time he managed just 13.3 points on average in those games.

The truth of the matter in Denver is that it appears as though defenses have cracked the code in stopping the offense designed around Tebow, and losing three straight by such deficits is no way to enter the playoffs, especially against a team of Pittsburgh's caliber.

They do have a couple things going for them against Pittsburgh, however. Not only will they get to host the game at Mile High, but they also have the benefit of playing a banged up Steeler squad. Ben Roethlisberger is likely to start, but there's no way his ankle will be 100%, plus running back Rashard Mendenhall and safety Ryan Clark have both been ruled out of the game.
Denver's No. 1 rushing attack will need to show up to play in order to take the pressure off the struggling Tebow. Though he only got the ball in to the end zone five times in 2011 (four rushing, one receiving), running back Willis McGahee is finally healthy and ready to go. He reached the 1,000-yard mark this season for the first time since 2007, his first season in Baltimore.

Denver is only 4-3 this season in games that the one-time Pro Bowler rushes for over 100 yards, but they are 3-0 in games that he runs for a touchdown. Meaning one thing: get him the ball in red zone and goal-line situations. In Week's 15 and 16 McGahee ran the ball just 22 combined times. I find it rather silly to try and rely so much on Tebow when you have a guy of McGahee's caliber sitting in the backfield waiting to get his hands on the ball.

If Denver wants a shot to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers it would be smart of them to give McGahee the ball early and often. Other than that, Denver will be a one-and-done this postseason.

Photo credit
T.J. Yates: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
Willis McGahee: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

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