By Christian S. Kohl
With the NFL playoffs just around the corner, teams have begun to distance themselves from the pack and secure playoff spots. The Colts and Broncos have already secured a playoff spot, with others offered the chance this weekend if all breaks right. The question is, which team will win the AFC Championship this year?
The answer to this question is a simple and slightly depressing one. The NFL has found itself dealing with a variety of difficult issues this year, most notably concussions and consistently horrific calls made by referees seemingly arbitrarily enforcing rules in a book nobody seems to understand anymore. The playoff run is a long and punishing one whose signature is a limited sample size where fortunes turn on a dime. Nobody can afford any mistakes or poor fortune or their season ends.
Very simply, the team that avoids the land mines—either the rampant, crippling injuries to key players which are decimating the league, or horrific calls from the referees which are determining the outcomes of games seemingly every week now - will make the playoffs.
Nobody can predict which teams will be victimized by suspect refereeing. As far as player injuries, of the current postseason contenders, Denver is built the best to withstand a key loss or two and still be in the hunt. The season ending ACL tear of Gronkowski will likely ruin the hopes of the Patriots for another Super Bowl bid. But the slew of weapons Denver features, including Decker, Thomases Julius and Demaryus, Welker (despite a current concussion) and Moreno, they have the best chance to keep fighting if a key weapon falls. This of course excludes Manning, as it does for any of these contenders. Dalton, Luck, Brady, Manning, and anyone still in the hunt needs their starting QB at the helm or all is lost.
Kansas City would present a more fearsome challenge if they were in line for home field advantage throughout, or if their fearsome defense had not seen so many key injuries. Flacco demonstrated last year that a top 5 quarterback need not man the helm of a Super Bowl winner. It is about mistake mitigation and execution along with a smothering defense. It always helps to have a quarterback capable of making big time plays, but it's not a necessity.
Brady and Manning have the best combination of those two attributes. They keep turnovers to a minimum and also have the ability to step up in the pocket and make obscenely difficult throws under pressure. Brady lacks the weapons this year, and has no defense to support his ability to make household names out of mediocre talents.
It's Denver. Denver has every advantage compared to all other AFC teams. Say what you will about Manning's playoff record, but he has the defense, the home field, the offensive line protection, and the cache of weapons. Another team can definitely get hot and put on a run, but the best chance at an AFC title this year is the Broncos, and if they're not on the road at Arrowhead, it's not very close.
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Christian S. Kohl is a sports contributor for CBS Local Digital Media.
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