Why Home-Field Advantage Could Decide the AFC
With only two weeks remaining in the NFL’s regular season, teams are jockeying for playoff position. Some are hoping they can sneak into the playoffs as a wild card, and others are looking to make sure they play as many home games as possible. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots currently hold first-round byes in the AFC despite division rivals upsetting both teams last week; The Broncos lost to the San Diego Chargers on Dec. 12, and the Patriots lost to Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins on Sunday. Although both teams are both coming off defeats, most people believe they are the favorites to square off in the AFC title game. It would be hard to complain about another classic Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
The Kansas City Chiefs could still technically gain home-field advantage as well, but as it stands right now, the Broncos are the one seed and leader in the AFC West. Kansas City has been on a major roll lately, and I still believe they have a legitimate shot to make it to the Super Bowl. I honestly believe that with his play this season, Alex Smith has proved that he is a big-time player and a legitimate franchise quarterback. Of all the teams currently in the AFC playoff picture, I believe the Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens pose the biggest threat to the Broncos and Patriots. I would be very confident in saying one of those four teams will be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Bengals seem to be losing some momentum at the worst possible time after the Pittsburgh Steelers beat them badly on Sunday night. And oddly enough, the one team that has clinched a division title in the AFC, the Indianapolis Colts, are playing worse than any other team currently in a playoff position. Andrew Luck and company look lost on offense, and their defense ranks 24th in the NFL against the run.
For argument’s sake, let’s take a look at the two teams that are currently atop the AFC with first-round bye scenarios: The Broncos and the Patriots. Manning is arguably the greatest regular-season quarterback of all time, but throughout most of his career, he has failed to live up to that top-flight billing come playoff time. If you can believe it, Peyton has won only two road playoff games and sports a 2-5 postseason record. The “Manning can’t handle cold weather” talk is all a bit overblown, but when it comes to Manning’s home-road splits in the playoffs, there is no denying the fact that Peyton has fared much better as a member of the home team. Both Denver and New England are cold this time of year, so there is no escaping the frigid temperatures. Of all the teams that will be playing home games in the AFC, the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium is the only place that is safe from the winter elements. If history is any indicator, I think it will be very tough for Manning to travel to New England and beat Brady.
Brady will go down as one of the greatest ever largely in part to his ability to win the big games. His career playoff record is a stellar 17-7. He won the first eight home playoff games of his career, and beating the Pats at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs is never easy. It is no secret that the Patriots’ offense is a bit undermanned, and the loss of Gronkowski is most definitely a significant one. Obviously his ability to make highlight reel grabs and catch TD passes is sorely missed, but imore than his pass-catching ability will be missed. The loss of Gronkowski has an undeniable ripple effect on this entire offense. When Gronkowski is on the field, you have to make sure he is accounted for. Many coaches across the league try to double him whenever possible. When you are double-teaming a player who normally runs routes down the seam, you are leaving a lot of the field open. This allows the Patriots to run successful draw plays, find Julius Edelman and Danny Amendola in single coverage, and hit Shane Vereen on the wheel route out of the backfield. Even without Gronk, the Pats still have a solid offense and a legitimate shot at making it to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos are currently one game ahead of the Patriots in the AFC standings, but they might as well be tied. The Patriots would win the tiebreaker thanks to that infamous botched punt return by Wes Welker. The Patriots beat the Broncos in overtime earlier this season, and due to a head-to-head victory, they would secure home-field advantage over Denver if the two were to finish the season with identical records. It is well-documented that Brady has had the upper hand on Manning throughout their careers. Manning is having the better season, and has the advantage in terms of offensive weapons. Even though the Patriots and Broncos have both clinched playoff spots, capturing the home-field edge over the next two weeks could play a huge role in deciding the king of the AFC.
The Patriots go on the road to do battle with the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens this week. The Broncos have a bit of a softer (and warmer) matchup against the Texans in Houston. Playoff hopefuls are hoping to give themselves a little extra holiday cheer in the form of a Week 16 win, and an extended lease on the life of their 2013 season.