There wasn't supposed to be much late-season suspense in regard to this year's AFC playoff picture. Except for deciding the sixth seed in the postseason race -- a spot the San Diego Chargers ultimately secured -- we had a fairly good idea of who would be involved in the run to Super Bowl XLVIII. The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts ran away with their respective divisions. The Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals clinched their own titles two weeks ago. The Kansas City Chiefs , the fifth seed, also had been assured of their postseason spot since a win over Oakland on Dec. 15.
It all seemed like a potentially anticlimactic conclusion until the games actually kicked off Sunday. Then Baltimore and Miami blew their shots at earning a wild-card spot. Pittsburgh watched the Chiefs, who rested most of their starters, nearly beat the Chargers before San Diego won in overtime. The Bengals also made a strong bid for a first-round bye with a 34-17 win over Baltimore, then watched as New England beat Buffalo to keep its hold on that prime advantage.
So what did all this action tell us? Basically that this year's AFC playoff race will be as wide-open as ever. Here are 10 questions that need to be asked before all the fun begins:
1. Can Denver's defense survive without Von Miller? Yes. It's called the Peyton Manning effect. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has helped this team overcome plenty of setbacks already -- including the early-season losses of left tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen -- and he'll make up for a defense that has been less than impressive lately. The best-kept secret in the league thus far is that the Broncos D has been middling at best. It survived when Miller was serving a six-game suspension earlier this season because Manning had the Broncos scoring at a record-setting clip. But Denver also had some moments when it was apparent that its defense had major flaws. The Broncos gave up 48 points in an early-season win over Dallas, and four opponents scored at least 27 against them in the past six weeks. With Miller lost for the season with a torn ACL, it's difficult to see how the Broncos can improve on that side of the ball at this stage. The key is that Manning continues playing out of his mind while giving Denver the huge leads it has held for most of the season.