Not that the NFC is boring, but the AFC side of the NFL playoff bracket is certainly making journalists’ jobs easier, as the storylines write themselves. From Peyton Manning’s remarkable comeback (and the Broncos’ subsequent resurgence) to Cincinnati’s bid to end a 22 year playoff drought for playoff wins (Cincy is relevant again!), there’s nothing short of pure drama, even for the casual fan.
Heck, even the “oh, you again New England Patriots” are making a bid for a little history of their own: coach Bill Belichick is within reach of tying Tom Landry for most playoff wins in history this post season.
Below, a best case/worst case scenario look at the teams vying for the Lamar Hunt—and ultimately, Lombardi—trophy, in no particular order.
Record: 13-3, AFC West Champions
Opponent: winner of Houston/Cincinnati
Best Case Scenario: The Broncos and Manning do what most are expecting them to do, steamrolling their way all the way to the Super Bowl title. The opponent in the big game? The Washington Redskins, coached by John Elway’s old boss, Mike Shannahan.
As is commonly known, Elway—now the top football guy for the Broncos—was the mastermind behind bringing Manning to the team and thus turning them into a contender. The final score is 35-10, as the franchise and longtime owner Pat Bowlen get poetic revenge for Super Bowl XXII. Manning announces he will play four more years, the entire city of Denver gets free Papa John’s pizza for a month.
Worst Case Scenario: Denver suffers an epic collapse against the Patriots in the AFC title game, further fueling speculation that Manning is second banana to Tom Brady. Manning decides he has had enough, and calls it a career, leaving the Broncos searching for a QB yet again. In a desperate effort to keep fans in the seats, Denver usurps Jacksonville, bringing Tim Tebow back to the Mile High City. Coach John Fox goes catatonic, doing nothing but staring at the walls of his office, muttering “why, why?” for 16 hours a day.
Record: 12-4, AFC South Champions
Best Case Scenario: Coach Gary Kubiak fixes the late season problems, and the Texans make the Super Bowl, losing to the equally-as-uninspiring Atlanta Falcons. For such a young franchise, it’s progress.
Defensive standout JJ Watt earns Defensive Player of the Year honors, and QB Matt Schaub establishes himself as an elite signal caller. Injured reserve resident Brian Cushing trains with the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson in the offseason, swiping some of that recovery mojo, and joins Watt next year as co-defensive player MVP’s, making history. The NFL realigns, placing the Texans in the NFC, ridding themselves of the Andrew Luck problem for years to come.
Worst Case Scenario: One would think losing in the first round, but no, the Texans take the misery to the next (two) level(s). They make it all the way to the AFC championship game, but play a footnote to history, getting blown out again by Luck and the Colts. The division was in their control for less than a year, as the Colts will take over once again. Andre Johnson, long in the tooth as is, decides to retire, paving the way for a Schaub regression. Former Texan Mario Williams is let go by Buffalo, joining the Colts for ’13, registering 21 sacks (10 on Schaub).
Record: 10-6, AFC North Champions
Best Case Scenario: The Ravens send out Ray Lewis in style, winning another Super Bowl for the franchise (and Lewis).
Coach Jon Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco finally make the leap from “pretty good” to “real deal.” ESPN producers—Lewis’ soon-to-be-employer—have to tell him to only wear one ring on “Monday Night Countdown,” no doubt a good problem to have. Hated rival Pittsburgh, vexed by their uncharacteristic playoff absence, fires coach Mike Tomlin, and releases every veteran over 30, making them the new Cleveland Browns of the division. Lewis also wins the Baltimore mayoral election.
Worst Case Scenario: Baltimore loses to Cincinnati in the AFC championship, further proof that this is no longer a two team division. Ray Lewis isn’t around to see this, however, as he reinjures his tricep in the opening round, during his pregame dance routine, thus unceremoniously ending his career. Marvin Lewis, the Bengals coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator, steals Coach of the Year honors.
Record: 10-6, 2nd Place, AFC North
Best Case Scenario: The Bengals shake off years of playoff futility, making it all the way to the Super Bowl. They’d almost be considered this year’s New York Giants, but they ultimately fall to the 49ers for the third time in the big game.
All is well in the Queen City, however, as Andy Dalton and AJ Green continue their assault on the old guard of the AFC North. Multiple division titles await, as does a Super Bowl victory within the decade. Baltimore, despondent after their own playoff exit in the first round, joins Pittsburgh in cleaning house, ensuring the Bengals’ dominance for years to come. Andy Dalton’s new line of SPF 9000 sun block becomes the hottest item in sports merchandise.
Worst Case Scenario: Cincinnati loses, again. To the Texans, again. In the first round, again. Marvin Lewis essentially becomes the new Andy Reid: he’ll get you 9-11 wins, but never any real post-season glory. Eccentric owner Mike Brown, never the shrewdest shot-caller in the league, decides to cut costs, axing the newly-expanded scouting department, citing that his recent sane moves (actually investing in football) didn’t procure any results. Cincinnati goes back to winning two games a year indefinitely, while ESPN assigns its star new hire—a smirking Ray Lewis—to cover it.
Record: 11-5, 2nd Place, AFC South
Opponent: Baltimore Ravens
Best Case Scenario: The Colts ride their made-for-Hollywood season all the way into the sunset, winning the Super Bowl. There’s no beating a team of destiny, and Indianapolis is perhaps the biggest, most inspiring such team ever.
In the process, they defeat Baltimore in the franchise’s old city, thrash New England to get revenge for an earlier drubbing, and defeat their old QB Manning in the AFC title game. The Super Bowl is almost gravy, as QB Andrew Luck outplays fellow rookie phenom Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, a surefire head coach candidate who guided the Colts to a 9-3 record in Pagano’s absence, sticks around to develop Luck. In an unprecedented move, Luck is admitted to the Hall of Fame early.
Worst Case Scenario: Indy, while certainly better than most thought they’d be this year, learns that their stellar play was pure emotion, and they simply run out of it. New England defeats them again in the divisional round, although the score is much closer. Tennessee owner Bud Adams, never having bestowed a ringing endorsement for beleaguered coach Mike Munchak, fires him and nabs Arians as his replacement. Peyton Manning wins the Super Bowl, but sends Reggie Wayne coupons for any Denver-area Papa John’s.
New England Patriots
Record: 12-4, AFC East Champions
Opponent: winner of Baltimore/Indianapolis
Best Case Scenario: Brady and Belichick quit messing around and get back to winning Super Bowls. Superlatives are heaped on these two every year, proclaiming their greatness, so it’s surprising to think that they’ve come up empty every year since 2004. Not this year. It’s a boring run, however, if you’re a fan of the proverbial ‘something new.’ In this regard, the Pats are like the AFC’s Green Bay Packers.
“Oh, great…<<yawns>>, another title for them. Is Family Guy on tonight?”
Brady dispenses any doubt or debate that he’s the best ever, as an enamored, googly-eyed Joe Montana abandons his Skechers endorsement, and begins pitching Uggs with Brady in one of the more creepy ad campaigns ever. Belichick uses his Super Bowl bonus check to add a spacious kitchen and breakfast nook to his evil underground lair.
Worst Case Scenario: Brady & Co. yet again make the big game, but lose to the Seattle Seahawks in what proves to be pretty flat in terms of compelling rubber matches.
In fact, Brady is intercepted four times by ‘Hawks CB Richard Sherman, his new nemesis. Sherman finds Brady at the end of the game, to “talk” more about it. At the urging of his wife, Brady nixes his plans to play until age 40, and becomes a stay-at-home dad. A disillusioned Belichick jumps ship to the Bills to fill their coaching vacancy.