Since 2004, the Fantastic Four have dominated the AFC.
The Patriots, Steelers, Colts and Chargers have won 19 of a possible 24 division titles (assuming the Pats win this year). They represent 8 of the last 10 AFC Conference finalists. They have won 4 of the past 5 Super Bowls between them.
They are a combined 276-99 (.736) and none of the four teams has posted a losing record in that stretch. They have posted seasons of 16-0, 14-0 (in progress), and 15-1. The four teams have been quarterbacked by Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Brees and Rivers, inarguably the five best quarterbacks in football over that same stretch.
They possess the key to winning the Super Bowl...
Avoiding one another.
These four represent such a gauntlet that it has become virtually impossible to navigate through the AFC to the Super Bowl unless you can avoid playing two of these four teams.
In 2004, the Patriots managed to beat Indianapolis and Pittsburgh on their way to the title. That's the first and last time anyone has beaten two of the Fantastic Four. All others who have tried, failed.
In 2005, the Steelers won the Super Bowl managing to beat Indianapolis in the process. They were saved from having to play at New England when the Broncos knocked them off. Instead of facing Brady in Foxborough, they got Jake Plummer. They won the AFC.
In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl dumping New England along the way. They caught a break as the Pats and Chargers played in the second round, ensuring that they only had to play one of the Fantastic Four. The Pats had to play two of them, and lost.
In 2007, the Patriots were aided as the Steelers dropped a first round game to the Jags. They then beat San Diego on their way to a
perfect very nice season. The Chargers beat the Colts, but then lost to New England. Beating two of the four was too much to ask.
In 2008, the Steelers beat the Chargers in the divisional round, and took home the Super Bowl title. San Diego beat Indy, but couldn't beat the second link in the chain.
Once again in 2009, the Chargers, Colts, and Patriots top the AFC, with Pittsburgh lurking at 7-7 trying to sneak in. It's entirely possible that the key to making the Super Bowl will have as much to do with the way the seeding works out as it does the play on the field. Whenever you face multiple elite teams with elite quarterbacks, it becomes more difficult to win all the games. The pattern of the AFC in recent years shows that the team with the easiest path through the Four is the team that will advance.
This is why we are rooting for the Patriots to finish in the third slot behind the Chargers. First, it would set up a brutal path for New England, especially if Pittsburgh does manage to sneak in the 6th spot. They could have to play the Steelers, Chargers, and Colts consecutively. Even if Pittsburgh doesn't make it, it still forces the Pats and Chargers to play in the second round in San Diego. Either team would be a tough foe to face in Indianapolis for a spot in the Super Bowl, and I have no particular fear of either team.
I just don't want to play both of them. It's fine to wax poetic about "wanting to play the best" and "beating teams that beat us". The odds are strong that should the Colts advance to the AFC Championship game they'll get either the Pats or the Chargers. In another couple of years no one will care if the Colts played both of them along the way; they'll only remember the result of the matchup. It comes down to simple math, and I want the easiest path possible.
As things stand now, the Pats would take the #3 seed if they win out, based on "Strength of Victory" over the Bengals. Both teams would finish with identical records, conference records, and records verses common opponents. The only way rooting for the Pats to finish third would backfire is if Pittsburgh qualifies at 6th and goes into New England and win. That would set up Indy/Pittsburgh in the second round with the Chargers taking the leftovers. I'd rather avoid the karmic drama of #1 Colts verses #6 Steelers if you don't mind.