AFC Playoffs Q&A: Rested, or rusty?


We knew the AFC postseason race was going to be wide open. We just didn't think it would be this wide open. The Indianapolis Colts opened the wild-card weekend with a miraculous win over the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that led the Colts by 28 points in the third quarter. The San Diego Chargers went into Cincinnati -- where the Bengals hadn't lost all season -- and won by 17 points. On top of all that, Colts wide receiver  T.Y. Hilton morphed into Jerry Rice and the Chargers' defense continued to make us wonder why it looked so inept earlier this season.

If there's a theme that developed during the wild-card weekend, it was that you can be anything you want to be at this time of year. Everything that happened during the first 17 weeks of the season was mere prologue to what we are seeing now. Call it reinvention. Call it the new normal. Or, simply, call it life in the AFC playoffs before the big boys join the party.

That's where we're heading this weekend, with the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots -- the AFC's top two seeds -- preparing to show us what a week's worth of rest can do for a contender. From the looks of things, they better not show up rusty. Both Indianapolis and San Diego are riding emotional highs that are certain to carry over into next weekend. And they don't have the looks of teams that will be awed by the bright lights on this stage.

In fact, here are 10 questions worth asking now that we know the matchups for next week's divisional round:

1. Will Denver be upset again? Of all the potential opponents for the Broncos coming off their first-round bye, the Chargers were by far the most dangerous. The Chargers suffered a 28-20 defeat in San Diego on Nov. 10 and then beat the Broncos 27-20 in Denver on Dec. 12.

San Diego also has done something few other teams have consistently done against Denver this season: It has made life tough on Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning, who actually has lost four of the past five home games he's played against San Diego (including contests that occurred during his time in Indianapolis). It's really hard to see the Broncos blowing a second straight divisional playoff game -- they lost to Baltimore in this round last season -- but this game will not be easy. Manning and his record-setting offense will have to find a way to attack a mediocre defense that seems to play its best against Denver. The Broncos' defense also will have to frustrate Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers without the benefit of injured Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller.

It says here that the Denver will do both and advance. But don't be surprised if the Broncos walk away from that contest with more bumps and bruises than they already have.

2. Who is the most valuable Patriot after Tom Brady? Cornerback Aqib Talib has been well worth the gamble New England took since trading for him last season. He made his first Pro Bowl, received second-team All-Pro honors and became the best lockdown defender on a team that has endured considerable injuries on that side of the football.

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