Each of the NFL teams still standing has reason to believe confetti, a nice parade and some really big rings are headed their way. Each also knows the locker room clean-out could come this month.
The AFC will get wild-card weekend started Saturday when the Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) ride a 10-game winning streak into Houston to face J.J. Watt and the Texans (9-7), who upended the injury-ravaged Indianapolis Colts to win the South.
Then, the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6), who slinked into the playoffs when the New York Jets stumbled against Buffalo last weekend, will visit longtime adversary Cincinnati, where the Bengals (12-4) seek their first playoff win in a quarter-century.
Denver (12-4), which is knee-deep in a quarterback quandary, and New England (12-4), with a hobbled quarterback, will get the weekend off.
Here’s a look at the biggest strength and weakness of each of the six AFC playoff teams:
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Dominant defense. The Broncos finished No. 1 in total defense for the first time in franchise history. They led the league in sacks and were tops against the pass, and they finished 33 yards shy of being the best against the run, too.
Why they won’t: Their O-line can’t protect the passer, whether it’s Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler. Tyler Polumbus replaced reeling right tackle Michael Schofield when Manning supplanted Osweiler on Sunday, then cracked that he thought the crowd was cheering for him. It should have been. He kept Manning upright, and now he keeps the job.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The four-time Super Bowl-winning coach and quarterback know what it takes to win it all. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski, nothing else matters. Plus, they’re still mad about that thing with the air in the footballs during last year’s playoffs.
Why they won’t: Well, something else matters. The offensive line has been shuffled through injuries, leaving Brady vulnerable. The receivers and running backs on the field come from the depths of their backups.
Why they’ll host the Lombardi: Defense wins championships, and the Bengals have one of their best ever. They yielded the fewest points in franchise history and led the AFC in fewest points allowed. Vontaze Burfict is all the way back from knee surgery, Carlos Dunlap had 13 1-2 sacks, and Geno Atkins added 11.
Why they won’t: Quarterback, whoever it is. Andy Dalton broke his right thumb Dec. 13, and it appears AJ McCarron will get the nod. Although the Alabama alum has had some big-game experience on Saturdays, the NFL is another animal. He was 2-1 as the starter but showed his inexperience at times.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Watt. With his NFL-best 17 1/2 sacks, he joined Reggie White as the only players with 15-sack seasons in three of their first five years. This defensive unit came on strong down the stretch, allowing just 12.7 points over the final nine games. Whitney Mercilus had a career-high 12 sacks, and Jadeveon Clowney is healthy and disruptive again.
Why they won’t: Lack of an elite quarterback. Houston has played musical chairs with the quarterbacks all season, starting – and winning – with four different players. Brian Hoyer is back in the starting role, but the 30-year-old has been a backup for most of his seven-year career. They haven’t really replaced Arian Foster since he got hurt, and they lost left tackle Duane Brown to a season-ending thigh injury Sunday.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Because they’ve already established themselves as miracle workers. After a 1-5 start, they won a franchise-record 10 consecutive games to reach the playoffs. They did it with a ferocious pass rush – All-Pro linebacker Justin Houston is expected back from a knee injury – and a balanced, versatile offense that rarely makes mistakes.
Why they won’t: Their luck has to run out eventually. They won a series of close games during their remarkable winning streak, taking advantage of a soft late schedule. But there are no soft opponents in the playoffs.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi for a seventh time: They have Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and you don’t. Brown caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns, numbers that could have been even better if Roethlisberger hadn’t missed a month with a sprained left knee. Forget that no receiver has won the honor – Denver coach Gary Kubiak said he’d vote for Brown as MVP.
Why they won’t: An all-or-nothing defense. The Steelers posted their most sacks (47) and interceptions (17) since 2010, when they won the AFC title. The problem? When they aren’t getting to the quarterback, they’re not doing much. Pittsburgh finished 30th against the pass.