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NFL Playoffs preview: Breaking down the AFC - Patriots, Broncos, Steelers, Colts, Bengals, and Ravens

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1. New England Patriots:

How they got here:

Riding the wave of their blockbuster signing of Darrelle Revis in March, the Patriots started the 2014 NFL season as co-favorites to win the AFC along with the Broncos according to most outlets. Despite some losses, the Pats still had Tom Terrific, a Rob Gronkowski on the mend, and an intriguing defensive backfield.

However, New England didn't get off to the start they wanted, losing to the Dolphins Week 1 then getting blown out on national television to the Chiefs in Week 4. This caused some among fans and the media to actually start questioning whether Brady would be benched. The future Hall of Famer was quick to silence those comments though as he bounced back, and New England would go on to rattle off wins in 11 of their final 12 games of the year, including blowouts of the Bengals, Broncos, Colts, and Lions.

With Revis doing his thing on the left side and free agent acquisition Brandon Browner taking over mid-season on the right, the Patriots' strong, physical defense also had a big part in helping them run away with the AFC's No. 1 seed.

Who are they:

The Patriots, at their core, are Tom Brady's team. They're an up-tempo pass-heavy team that scores a ton of points as an offensive matchup nightmare. They have versatile and dynamic receiving weapons in Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and Tim Wright, and Bill Belichick is the master of week-to-week gameplan changes. He uses his stable of running backs in a way that utitlizes their unique skillsets. Whether it's Shane Vereen's receiving skills, Jonas Grey's versatility, or LaGarrette Blount's raw power, Belichick seems to have a different plan or style in every game.

But don't be mistaken, the Patriots are strong on defense. Adding Revis and Browner into the mix has given New England a new look and the duo have done a very good job of locking down opponents' top two receiving threats. While the Pats have, in recent seasons, been average (or worse) against the pass, during the second half of 2014, they've shown an ability to lock down in the redzone.

Secret weapon:

Jamie Collins -- the Patriots explosively athletic outside linebacker is asked to do a variety of different things in the New England defense and executes each with aplomb. Whether it's stopping the run at the outside linebacker spot, rushing the passer off the edge, or dropping into coverage in space, Collins has shown he's a natural in only his second season, and he even took over play-calling duties for the defense in Week 14 against the Chargers when Dont'a Hightower went out with a shoulder injury. His understanding of everyone's roles and ability to get them all into place in that game demonstrated how far he's come along in his short career.

Collins led the Pats with 116 tackles, while adding four sacks, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles, and he's even been a factor on special teams, where he registered a blocked field goal. He's a freak athlete with great length and speed.

Why they'll win it all:

The Patriots are balanced in all three phases, with a strong offense, a turnover creating defense, and a field flipping, big play special teams group.

The defense has mastered the bend-but-don't break defense that tightens up in the redzone, and with Bill Belichick designing ever-changing gameplans on both sides of the ball for specific opponents, they're a difficult team to prepare for.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that New England has Tom Brady throwing passes, and Brady's been playing at a high level going all the way back to Week 4. He's shown an ability to spread the ball around based on matchups and game-flow, and they can score points in a hurry if they're behind, while still putting together extended drives when they're ahead.

Having a guarantee of homefield advantage all the way through is another enormous advantage.

Why they won't win it all:

The Patriots have had issues on the offensive line so protecting Tom Brady against some of the top defenses in the AFC Playoffs will be a challenge. With injuries affecting the depth on the line, the Pats have taken to rotating players in based on opponent and situation, so the problems they've been having on the line could rear their ugly head once the playoffs kick off.

With problems on the offensive line, the Pats' blisteringly effective offense slowed down significantly against the Jets and Bills to close out the year. The rush offense became anemic and the Brady passing attack looked hamstrung.

2. Denver Broncos:

How they got here:

The Broncos came into the season as favorites to again represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and sat near the top of nearly every Preseason Power Ranking. John Elway went on a shopping spree in the offseason, acquiring pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, defensive backs T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency to bolster an already talented club. Additionally, they got key players back from injury, including left tackle Ryan Clady and outside linebacker Von Miller, and despite letting Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker go in free agency, looked poised to again dominate in 2014.

Denver won six of their first seven, beating the Colts, Chiefs, Cardinals, Chargers, and Niners along the way. A Week 9 blowout loss to the Patriots followed by a Week 11 loss to the Rams brought Denver back to Earth, and the Broncos adopted a more balanced, run heavy approach. Rookie C.J. Anderson came to the fore and Denver ran away with the division, locking up the AFC West by Week 15. A loss to the Bengals in Week 16 meant the No. 1 seed was out of reach, but a Week 17 win over the Raiders secured them the No. 2 seed.

Who are they:

The Broncos remain Peyton Manning's team. They run a quicker tempo, no-huddle shotgun offense and still feature a few top weapons like Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders. Julius hurt his ankle in Week 11, causing him to miss much of the homestretch, and Denver turned to rookie C.J. Anderson to help carry the load.

Manning is the pre-snap master, making changes at the line of scrimmage based on how the defense is lined up, and he constantly has the option to throw it deep, throw a quick slant or out route, throw it up the seam, or go to the inside handoff run up the gut. The Broncos have a multitude of weapons on offense and use them effectively.

On defense, Von Miller (14 sacks) and Demarcus Ware (10 sacks) terrorize opposing quarterbacks off the edge, and Terrance "Pot-roast" Knighton plugs up the run in the middle. They're a balanced defense that can stop the run and defend the pass with equal efficiency.

Secret weapon:

Emmanuel Sanders was an under the radar free agent during the offseason after he spent four seasons in Pittsburgh behind a few big name receivers. The Broncos went after him hard, though, and it's turned out to be perhaps the best free agent acquisition the NFL saw this year. Sanders quickly acclimated to the very different timing base offense that Manning runs, and the two developed trust and chemistry from the jump.

Sanders is the Broncos' top first-down maker, finished fifth in the NFL in receiving yards, grabbed nine touchdowns, and his highlight reel of one-handed catches continues to get longer. Sanders has a diverse skillset and is used all over the field, deep, short, and in the redzone. Peyton Manning has admitted that he doesn't think he can overthrow Sanders, and that's not even a self-deprecatory jab at his arm strength, it just goes to Sanders' speed downfield.

Why they'll win it all:

The Broncos are a well-balanced team with talent on both sides of the ball. With Peyton Manning running the offensive show combined with the amount of weapons Denver can trot out onto the field, they can win in any given week running away. With a healthy Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and even Wes Welker and rookie Cody Latimer, it's a daunting proposition to defend this team for sixty minutes.

The Broncos' strong run defense can force opponents to become one dimensional, allowing Miller and Ware to pin their ears back, harass and affect the quarterback, and rush passes into the domain of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. This team can create turnovers in a hurry, and that's a big factor in the Playoffs.

Why they won't win it all:

Peyton Manning has struggled over the final eight games of the season, particularly relative to 2013 and the first half of this season. After throwing 22 touchdowns to three picks in Denver's first seven games, he's thrown 17 touchdowns to 12 picks in the last nine. While the Broncos' offense hasn't completely fallen apart, it hadn't seemed to be the same high-octane, well-oiled machine that got them to the show last season.

Even with a well-balanced offense, the Broncos will have trouble getting past the AFC's elite if they continue turning the ball over at a high rate.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers:

How they got here:

The Steelers got off to an inconsistent start to the 2014 season, looking very strong at times and downright bad at others on the way to a 3-3 record. That's when Ben Roethlisberger hit his stride, throwing 14 touchdowns to no picks over the next three games, all wins over the Texans, Colts and Ravens. With the Pittsburgh offense finally firing on all cylinders, Antonio Brown continued to stake his claim as one of the best receivers in the NFL while Le'Veon Bell emerged as an elite, three-down running back.

The Steelers hung tough in the unprecedented AFC North division battle that had four teams all three games over .500 even to Thanksgiving, and grabbed a few key wins, including over the Bengals in Week 14 and 17, to secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC.

Who are they:

The Steelers' identity on offense is centered around the triumvirate of Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown, and supported by key contributors in Heath Miller and newcomers Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.

Pittsburgh features a balanced offense based on an efficient run game and a vertical passing attack. Todd Haley calls a multiple run game that mixes several different schemes from zone blocking to Power-O, heavily utilizes Bell in the short passing game, and attacks downfield with Brown, Bryant, and Wheaton. Roethlisberger has weapons at every level and does a good job of distributing to each. They score points in bunches, and have the ability to close out games with an effective run game and ball control offense that can move the chains with highly talented skill players.

Secret weapon:

Martavis Bryant hit the ground running when he first emerged in Pittsburgh's offense in Week 7, catching five touchdowns in his first three appearances. What he brings to the Steelers' offense is a field stretching speed threat that presents an attractive target for Roethlisberger every time an opposing defense plays one-on-one on the outside. The 6'4, 211 pound rookie out of Clemson can run 4.3 and tracks the ball well over his head, and while he's still learning the nuances of the NFL game, he has mastered one narrow but valuable role.

He has seven touchdowns in ten games, and opposing defenses will have to have his positioning on the field in the back of their minds at all times because of that home-run hitting ability.

Why they'll win it all:

The Steelers' leaky pass defense leaves them somewhat vulnerable, but the fact is, their offense can score points in bunches. Big Ben's crew is equipped to jump out to big leads or make comebacks when needed with the explosive passing element, and can control when that's the goal. With a strong run game and efficient mid-range passing game, Pittsburgh uses their space players in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell to move the chains and control the ball.

Ben Roethlisberger has been very strong late in games this year and has previous Playoff and Super Bowl experience under his belt. A youth movement on defense has that group playing stronger in the redzone late in the year and could be a big factor in the postseason.

Why they won't win it all:

While the defense has come on stronger late in the year, it's hard to get past the season-long numbers on that side of the ball. Age has started to catch up with the main leaders of the Steel Curtain and while the run defense has been very strong, they're 27th in the NFL in opponent passing yards and 18th in points. The Playoffs tend to be a Quarterback-centric proposition, and an inability to keep passers like Brady, Manning, Luck, Flacco and Dalton in check will not come easily.

4. Indianapolis Colts

How they got here:

After a slow start with quick losses to the Broncos and Eagles, Andrew Luck and the Colts bounced back to rip off wins in six out of their next seven games, quickly grabbing control in the AFC South then not looking back.

Indy emerged as one of the NFL's most prolific passing offenses and Luck shot to the top of the leaderboard for yards and touchdowns on the way. The Colts' run game was another story, though, and that offensive effectiveness would wane as turnovers mounted and the team dealt with injuries to Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw, Gosder Cherilus, and others. The Indianapolis defense stepped in to help carry the load, and the Colts dominated the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars with a clean sweep of all three teams in their division, allowing them to run away with the AFC South with relative ease.

Who are they:

The Colts are without a doubt Andrew Luck's team. While the defense certainly had its peaks and valleys in 2014, finishing 19th in points allowed per game, 11th in yards per game, and 19th in rushing yards per carry, Indy goes as Andrew Luck goes. The third year pro finished 3rd in the NFL in attempts, 3rd passing yards, 1st in touchdowns, and when he's on, the Colts can dominate. T.Y. Hilton continues to be Luck's top weapon and the dangerous deep threat accumulated 82 catches, 1,345 yards, and 7 touchdowns as the focal point of the passing offense. Prior to losing Ahmad Bradshaw for the year, the wily veteran was a dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield, and has been replaced by Trent Richardson and Dan Herron in that regard.

Indy has a strong special teams unit led by Pro Bowl kicker Adam Vinatieri and Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfree.

Secret weapon:

Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis has been a star on the Indianapolis defense this year, and led the NFL with an opposing quarterback rating of just 38.8 (per PFF). The Colts' top DB did not allow a touchdown in coverage in 786 snaps this season while breaking up 7 passes and picking off 4 balls.

With Davis' Richard Shermanesque ability to change opposing teams' passing attacks to focus on the opposite side of the field, it allows the Colts to do a lot of things schematically that they otherwise could not do. Having a lockdown corner that can effectively take a #1 or #2 receiver out of the game can be a huge advantage once the Playoffs roll around.

Why they'll win it all:

When Andrew luck catches fire, he's tough to stop, and the same can be said for the Colts' offense. The connection between Luck and T.Y. Hilton creates a homerun threat on every snap, and Luck has a bevy of targets that have shown potential as big play threats in Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen give Luck intermediate targets up the seam and Reggie Wayne is a nice security blanket everywhere in between.

The defense, while inconsistent, showed they can play against some of the AFC's Playoff-caliber teams in Cincinnati and Baltimore. If this defense can recapture that toughness and killer instinct, the Colts could make some noise come the postseason.

Why they won't win it all:

The Colts are heavily dependent upon Andrew Luck to carry the load and at times this season the passing attack has been lackluster, and turnovers have been an issue. Part of that was missing key players in Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton to injury, but against defenses capable of taking away or limiting a number one target, depth will have to step up. While those weapons have shown up at times this year, consistency is the question: Donte Moncrief is still a rookie, Hakeem Nicks has been hit or miss, and Trent Richardson has been a huge disappointment in the run game.

Maybe more importantly, against a handful of the NFL's top echelon of opponents this season, after slow starts in each, the Colts lost big, including games where they gave up 51 points to the Steelers, 42 to the Patriots, and 42 to the Cowboys. Some of their defensive issues stem from a lack of a consistent pass rush at times, poor play from the secondary (apart from Davis), and an inability to create turnovers.

5. Cincinnati Bengals

How they got here:

The Bengals got off to a hot start and rolled to 3-0 behind a tough, smothering defense and balanced offensive approach, but inconsistency reared its ugly head after A.J. Green went out to injury. They faltered over the next three weeks and lost big to the Patriots, tied the Panthers, then were shut out by the Colts. It looked to be a season on the brink but the Bengals rallied and won five of their next six to keep pace in the increasingly competitive AFC North race. Big wins over the Browns and Broncos late in the season sealed their trip to the postseason.

With an injury to Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill took over the bell-cow duties and never looked back, emerging as an explosive home run hitter with the power to take the ball between the tackles. The talented rookie now leads the backfield and was one of two backs in the NFL this year (joining DeMarco Murray) to rush for 140+ yards in four games. Bernard remains still a great lightning element to Hugh Jackson's offensive attack, and the receiving talents of A.J. Green were only slowed by injury this year. He looks healthy going in to the Playoffs, which could provide a huge spark.

Who are they:

Andy Dalton remains an inconsistent proposition at the quarterback position but the Bengals have worked balance into their scheme so as to not ask him to do too much of him. Pairing the talented rookie Jeremy Hill with the explosive Gio Bernard, Cincy finished 6th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 10th in yards per carry on the year. Offensive Coordinator Hugh Jackson has brought some creative elements to the offense, mixing end-arounds, the read option, and an occasional wide receiver throw in to go with the deep passing attack to A.J. Green. With Tyler Eifert on the injured reserve, Jermaine Gresham has emerged as a top target for Dalton, collecting 62 receptions and 4 touchdowns this year.

The defense has had issues defending the run but is one of the NFL's top pass defenses, only giving up 18 touchdowns while collecting 20 interceptions. They finished 12th in the NFL in opponent points per game.

Secret weapon:

The Bengals were 32nd (last) in the NFL in sacks this year but pass rusher Carlos Dunlap has been a boon for the defense down the stretch, helping give Cincy the ability to move and harass the quarterback, something they'd been missing. In the Bengals' crucial win over the Broncos in Week 16, Dunlap was a force down the stretch as Peyton Manning tried to engineer a game-winning drive, constantly providing pressure, helping to cause the game-winning and game-sealing interceptions. The defensive end registered a sack and four quarterback hits on the night. He was almost unguardable, and if he can keep up that level of play in the postseason, Cincy's defense will be hard to deal with.

Why they'll win it all:

The Bengals have a ball control run-based offense that can control the clock with Jeremy HIll and Giovani Bernard. They can hit the home run with A.J. Green and Muhamed Sanu. They have a strong pass defense that creates turnovers. These elements give them a chance against anyone, and if they can continue to rush the passer on defense and avoid turnovers on offense, they have the change to give the AFC Playoff teams a run for their money.

Andy Dalton is the wildcard for Cincy, and has shown the ability to take control of the offense in the past. If he can play well, the sky's the limit.

Why they won't win it all:

It's hard to forget Andy Dalton's last three Playoff performances when factoring the Bengals' chances in the postseason this year. It's not all on the quarterback, obviously, but Dalton has a monkey to get off of his back this year. In 2011, Dalton went 27-for-42 for 257 yards and three picks in a losing effort to the Texans, a performance he encored in 2012 when he went 14-for-30 in passing for 127 yards and a pick - a 44.7 rating - in a losing cause (once again to the Texans). He followed that up last year with two pick, one lost fumble performance against the Chargers. Dalton completed just 29-of-51 passes at a 67 rating in that game, and Cincy lost 27-10 at home. The pressure is on, and a lot depends on how he reacts. I'm not big on "quarterback wins," but the Bengals will need Dalton to play well if they want to win on the road.

6. Baltimore Ravens:

How they got here:

The Ray Rice scandal rocked the franchise to the core to start the season, but the Ravens were able to put that behind them and race out to a 3-1 start. The road would be a long one for Baltimore though, and the AFC North division battle would shape up to be one of the best in recent memory as all four teams remained over .500 until very late in the season. The Ravens would get big wins over the Bucs, Falcons, Titans, Saints, Jags, and Dolphins while sustaining setbacks to the Colts, Bengals, Steelers, and Chargers before a loss to the Texans in Week 16 looked to spell the end of Baltimore's run at the Playoffs in 2014.

It's not over 'til the fat lady sings, as they say, and a Ravens win combined with a Chargers loss in Week 17 meant Baltimore punched their ticket to the postseason, where anything can happen.

Who are they:

The Ravens are a very balanced team and are strong in all three phases -- offense, defense, and special teams. Baltimore finished the year 8th in the NFL in scoring and gained 5.7 yards per play (9th) and 364.9 yards per game (12th), with 126 rushing yards per game (8th) and 238.7 yards per game through the air (13th). Meanwhile, their defense finished 6th in the NFL in opponent scoring after they gave up just 18.9 points per game.

At their core, Baltimore remains a physically punishing defense led by Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, C.J. Mosley, and Elvis Dumervil. They run balanced, zone running offense under Gary Kubiak and Justin Forsett busted onto the scene to lead the way. Free agent acquisition Steve Smith fit right in and quickly became Joe Flacco's favorite target in the passing game, and Torrey Smith is again the Ravens' top deep threat.

Secret weapon:

Justin Forsett isn't a secret anymore after rushing for 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns this year, but the "out of nowhere" player of the year that took over in the backfield after Ray Rice was released should be a key player in the Ravens' playoff run. The wily seventh-year pro provided the Ravens with a spark all season while rushing for a clean 5.4 yards per carry, and the respected veteran transitioned seamlessly into Gary Kubiak's zone blocking scheme. Forsett has played in the zone blocking scheme whole career with stops in Seattle, Houston, and Jacksonville, and his experience and knowledge of nuances needed to succeed in it should pay dividends in the postseason.

Forsett's also a force in the passing game and he caught a career-high 44 passes for 263 yards this year, and that versatility makes him a three-down threat for Baltimore.

Why they'll win it all:

This team still has a good amount of Playoffs experience among them and the shared memory of taking a 10-6 regular season and turning it into a Super Bowl victory should be fresh enough in their minds. This team knows that the 2012 Super Bowl champs got hot at the right time and rode that streak to a Lombardi Trophy -- and the 2014 Ravens certainly hold that potential once again.

Balance is the main key to Baltimore's postseason potential. They can run, pass deep, play defense, and have strong special teams units. If Joe Flacco can get into a rhythm with his receivers, make a few big plays down the field, and continue to feed Justin Forsett in the ground game, this Ravens team has proven they can put points on the board. Meanwhile, the defense has shown they can suffocate opposing offenses, and getting Haloti Ngata back for the postseason is a huge boon.

Why they won't win it all:

Baltimore has struggled starting games of late and in the postseason, where the margins for error are razor thin, slow starts to games can spell disaster. In the Ravens' crucial Week 17 win over the Browns, for instance, they went into the fourth quarter down 10-3 before rallying to score two touchdowns and a field goal in the final frame. If they can't manage to get things jumpstarted a little earlier in the postseason, they may make a quick exit.

Of course, it also doesn't help matters that Baltimore's depth has been decimated with an assortment of injuries this year, and they've had to place 18 players on the injured reserve. NFL seasons tend to become a battle of attrition and the healthiest teams can have huge advantages as the postseason rolls around. The Ravens will miss Dennis Pitta, Jimmy Smith, Asa Jackson, Ricky Wagner, and a host of others in the Playoffs.


Editor's Note: FanDuel is hosting a $1,000 fantasy football league for SBNation for the Wildcard round. It's $5 to join and first place wins $100. League starts Saturday 4:30 PM ET. Here's the link.