The final week of the 2009 NFL season is upon us, and the AFC playoff picture is wide open.
For Colts' fans, step one is deciding who you would rather face in round two, assuming the home teams win. That's easy Cincinnati over New England (as we've discussed dozens of times before). That means we want the Bengals in the four slot and the Pats in the three slot because Indy CANNOT play the three seed until the AFC Championship game. Given the fact that Indy is extremely likely to play either the Pats or the Chargers in the AFC Championship game (should they get that far), there's not much point in rooting for bad scenarios for the Pats. I'd rather force the Pats and Chargers to play each other, hoping the winner expends too much energy in the process.
Having settled (again) that obvious bit of business, let's rank the remaining wild card teams in terms of most favorable to least favorable matchups for the Colts. There is obviously room for considerable debate on this topic, but I'm going with the following:
1. Jets-Awful QB. They were not going to beat the Colts first string. I'd play them again in a heartbeat. I want this team in the playoffs!
2. Broncos-Circling the drain fast. Indy put up 28 points on them, and controlled the beginning and end of the game. The Broncos 'success', such as it was, on offense stemmed from Indy losing Jerraud Powers to injury and having to cover Brandon Marshall with Tim Jennings. I don't think we're likely to see that repeat itself.
3. Miami-Without Ronnie Brown to run the Wildcat, I don't think they put up enough points to beat the Colts. Indy's D played them ok, except when they had the Wildcat working, and they don't run it the same way they did early in the season.
4. Ravens-I'm not a believer. They played Indy tough at home, but Santi's fumble made that game seem a lot closer than it was. It's never any fun playing Baltimore, but on the whole I feel good about this matchup.
5. Jacksonville-Are they any good? No, of course not. Are they a dangerous matchup for the Colts? Yes. There's no reason for it, but Jags Colts games in Indy have been close for the last six years. Indy wins almost all of them, but it would be a tough game.
6. Houston-They could match Indy score for score if they had to. Already played us to the wall twice. I want no part of a third game with them.
7. Pittsburgh-Roethlisberger and possibly Polamalu? Um, no thanks.
So lets take the easiest games on the board first:
New England at Houston-A Pats' win clinches the three seed, and guarantees that Indy won't have to see both NE and San Diego in the playoffs. It also serves to eliminate the Texans, who are near the bottom of the list of teams I want to play. There will be no half hearted hoping they choke on Sunday. It's go Pats all the way.
Cincinnati at New York Jets-This kills two birds with one stone. First, it puts the Jets in the playoffs as the #5 seed, and almost guarantees a rematch in Cincinnati the next weekend. While I don't think there are many teams the Jets could beat, the Bengals are one of them. Suddenly, Indy is looking a probable opening game against the Jets or Bengals. Either way is fine with me.
Now, should the Pats lose AND the Bengals lose, there is still one remote way the Bengals can wind up as the three seed. The Bengals could win the strength of victory tie breaker from the Pats if ALL (yes, all 8 of them) the following games end like this:
Colts beat the Bills
Browns beat the Jags
Saints beat the Panthers
Seahawks beat the Titans
Steelers beat the Dolphins
Packers beat the Cards
Chiefs beat the Broncos
Ravens beat the Raiders
So there's your check list for the three seed. If even one of those games goes against Cincy, they would be the four seed if they lose to the Jets, regardless of what the Patriots do.
Now for the other games:
Jags at Browns-The Sparkle kitties are trying to avoid limping home with a fourth straight loss. I'm thinking they go down.
Steelers at Dolphins-Who would you rather play? There's no question in my book.
Chiefs at Broncos-Some one HAS to qualify from the AFC. Might as well be Denver. Now Brandon Marshall is freaking out again, so I can't imagine them going anywhere in January. Should they make it to Indy, I think the colts stomp them.
Conveniently, all three of those games match up with what we need to happen in the event of a Patriots loss at Houston.
Baltimore at Oakland-too early to call, but I'm leaning in favor of Baltimore. If the Steelers win, it becomes easier to root for the Ravens to win, to crowd out Pittsburgh. If the Broncos win, it could help for the Ravens to lose. So who knows at this point?
In a perfect world, the playoffs would wind up looking like this:
That would guarantee the Colts a second round game against either the winner of the Bengals Jets game, or the Broncos if they upset New England.