Insider: AFC Teams Backing Into The Playoffs

When the single-elimination NFL playoffs begin on Saturday, December records won’t mean all that much. That’s a very good thing in the AFC as the Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos walked with a noticeable limp as all three teams backed their way into the postseason.

After racing out to a franchise best 10-3 start, the Houston Texans seemingly hit a wall as they dropped their final three games after clinching the AFC South title.

“Well, you’ve got to let it go,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak explained. “You could come in with a three game winning streak and you’ve got to let it go too.”

Houston’s injury woes have been evident this season as they’ve lost Pro Bowlers Mario Williams, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson for long stretches en route to playing four different quarterbacks. The healthy leftover players have very little postseason experience.

“You can talk about it all you want, but they have to go experience it,” Kubiak said. “They’ll see the energy; they’ll see the difference in the speed of play and the energy when they show up on Saturday. We’ve got a few guys that can talk to them about it. Antonio (Smith) got it started right after the game when he talked to the team yesterday but they’ll see the energy build this week. They’ll see what it’s all about and like I said it won’t take them long, probably two or three plays on Saturday, to see that the tempo just went up.”

The Texans will take on a Cincinnati Bengals team on Saturday who has rode an easy schedule to the postseason. The Bengals may have only had a 1-6 record against teams with a winning record but that one victory was good enough to win a tiebreak over the Tennessee Titans.

“I remember during the lockout people said we weren’t going to win any games this year; we were going to be 0-16,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said after the Bengals season ending loss at home against Baltimore. “Look at us now. We’re winners. It’s paying off, all the hard work. We were working out during the lockout and I think all that came into play. Now that we have made it into the playoffs, we have to really prove that we belong there.”

In a conference that’s been trademarked by great quarterback play over the past decade, it’s difficult to imagine that by Sunday morning either rookie T.J. Yates or Andy Dalton will have a playoff victory under their belt. Make no mistake neither quarterback has been terrible, but neither is a Top-20 signal caller at this point in their careers.

For a franchise which hasn’t won a playoff game since the city of Houston had a team called the Oilers, not Texans, a victory on Saturday would be a big deal for Cincinnati. But make no mistake, Saturday’s Bengals-Texans tilt is little more than a consolation game as the winner will have extended their season for just one more week before facing the inevitable dismissal by seasoned postseason powers such as the Patriots or Ravens.

The movie script known as the Denver Broncos 2011 season has seemingly taken a turn toward the inevitable as “America’s quarterback” Tim Tebow (we call him America’s quarterback because he throws like most people in America) who “just wins games,” is just losing games. The one-dimensional Broncos limped into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak thanks to the strong right arm of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who defeated the Oakland Raiders to allow Denver entry into the tournament.

“We’re AFC West champs. It doesn’t matter how you do it,” Broncos coach John Fox said following his team’s 7-3 loss to Kansas City. “Once you get into the dance, they can’t kick you out, so what we do with it we will be determined here next weekend.”

Fox is technically correct as “they” can’t kick you out of the playoffs but Sunday’s opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers are more than capable of doing so. Pittsburgh had one of the best Wild Card records of all time finishing 12-4 but losing out on a tiebreak to rival Baltimore for the AFC North title.

Pittsburgh owns the league’s top-ranked defense and the Broncos and weak-armed Tim Tebow don’t appear to be much of a match for the Steel Curtain.

“I just have to get better and learn from my great coaches and just come out next week and try to be a better quarterback, a better leader and be a better player,” Tebow said following his 6 for 22, 60-yard passing performance.

Clearly Tebow needs to improve, but he hasn’t shown that the vast improvement to beat a legitimate team is even possible. Denver’s gimmicky offense took many teams by surprise during an eight-week stretch in which they found ways to defeat some of the league’s worst teams that were playing without key stars. It now appears as if the “jig is up” and the NFL has caught up to Tebow.

“He’s not going to have a great game every week, so that’s our job to give him a pat on the back like, ‘Man don’t worry about it. That’s behind us. We’re in the playoffs. Start fresh come this week,’” running back Willis McGahee said.

With Tebow’s limitations there is simply too much pressure on the rest of the team to play a perfect game for Denver to win. Although the Broncos led the league in rushing, their offense struggled to score as the season came to a close. Denver averaged just over 13 points per game in their last four contests and it’s doubtful that the team can even get to that number without any semblance of a passing attack against the league’s top defense.

Usually there’s one or two teams that sneak into the playoffs due to an easy schedule or extremely weak division. This season there are three such teams, all residing in the AFC. As noted earlier, the top seeds in the AFC must be salivating as this could be the easiest road to the Super Bowl in many years.

Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie