Dec. 2, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener (80) catches a pass for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

AFC Super Bowl Windows: Opening or Closing?


Now that we’re a single week away from the last game of the season, I thought I’d take a look at the playoff teams that didn’t make the big dance this year to see where they may be heading in the immediate future, starting here with the AFC.

New England, Denver, Cincinnati, Houston, and Indianapolis fell by the wayside in the 2012 postseason. I’ll take ‘em in order I listed them.

New England Patriots: Closing Fast

Tom Brady is 35 years old and lost his first-ever home game after leading at halftime when they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. Brady’s accuracy, while still better than pretty much any other QB, is starting to slide. He had multi-year lows in a number of secondary statistical categories (YPA, TD%, completion percentage) in 2012. He even uncharacteristically managed the clock poorly in their playoff loss. Generally, a QB over age 35 hits the down-slope rather quickly. If you look at a number of HOF QBs and those numbers, you’ll see it. Sometimes it’s not until age 36 or 37 when it hits, but it will. And soon.

Wes Welker may not even be in New England as he was franchised in 2012. Brandon Lloyd is 31 (as is Welker). Deion Branch is what…about 90 now? While the Patriots do have the best pair of pass-catching young TEs of any NFL team – Indy included – and they added several good pieces on defense in the 2012 draft, the team appears headed for becoming a defensive-dominant type of club with the shape the rosters look right now. The defense is young, fairly talented but with some holes, and the offense is just flat getting old.

Add to this the fact that drafted WRs usually take 3 years to hit their full potential, and Tom Brady will be 38. They have no real star wideouts as the roster sits, and unless they can bring in a couple in the offseason I see their output starting to slide in 2013. Look for Bill Belichick to start leaning more on his running game and defense for victories next year in a division that has the Dolphins about to rise and a new coach in Buffalo trying to get more out of underachieving offensive and defensive units and things look a lot tougher for the Pats in 2013.

Denver Broncos: Closing

Yes, this is mostly about Peyton. He’s even older than Brady by a year and there’s no guarantee the nerve issues in his neck and shoulder won’t return to an extent with age and hits.

However, some relative youth at WR and in the pass rush should help keep a solid floor underneath the team. I’m just not sure Peyton won’t start his own “over 35″ slump in 2013. He certainly played uncharacteristically poorly in his double-overtime playoff loss that might even be called a “choke” by some. While Manning wasn’t the one that misplayed a deep pass with 30 seconds left, he was the one who threw a couple of picks and looked pretty bad in doing so. Certainly, he didn’t look like the ‘old’ Peyton. Was it age, the 8-degree weather, or both?

Probably a little of both. Next September, the temperatures in Denver will be higher. So will Manning’s age. Rookie QB Brock Osweiler could be the most important piece here. RB Willis McGahee is also at that 30 y/o RB wall now at age 31 and there is no back on their roster with his talents. With their best defensive back, Champ Bailey, well past his prime, the Broncos have some massive shoes to fill and soon.

Their saving grace? The AFC West…the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, and San Diego Chargers all are mediocre. Of the three, the Raiders have the best chance at challenging them in 2013.

Jan 5, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) attempts a pass during the third quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals: Opening Wide

The team formerly known as the Bungles is actually on the rise and has some dangerous young talent. A.J. Green was a top-ten WR from his first snap his rookie season and has already established a lot of rapport with fellow second-year player and QB Andy Dalton. Add in impressive young TE Germaine Gresham and rookie gems like guard Kevin Zeitler and undrafted free agent LB Vontaze Burfict, and they have a nice young group of guys that can get the job done.

While they certainly still have holes to fill – the interior offensive line still needs help and they need to get younger in the secondary despite drafting CB Dre Kirkpatrick last year for instance – they’ve got some serious young talent there on both sides of the football. They’re not a flash in the pan, folks, and watch out for them in ’13.

Houston Texans: Closing Slowly

Okay, let’s get the 900 pound gorilla out of the room: J.J. Watt. He’s young, he’s All-Pro, and he’s the reason the Texans’ defense missed nary a beat when they allowed Super Mario to hit the free agent market last year en route to irrelevance in Buffalo. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are as good a duo of young runners as there is on any team in the NFL and they’ve got a nice group of young linebackers.

The Texans’ issues are an aging Andre Johnson with little help on the horizon at the WR position. Johnson again led his team in I think every last statistical category….112 rec 1,598 yds, 4 TDs. Okay, so TE Owen Daniels had 6 TD catches but if you look at their receiving last season in descending order of yards, you’ve got a WR #1 (Johnson), a TE, TE, RB, FB, yet another TE, RB, and THEN a WR. Yes, their second-best WR was rookie Keshawn Martin with 10 rec, 85 yds, and 1 TD. Hardly a guy to draw any attention away from Johnson, which makes Johnson’s output even more astounding.

Andre Johnson turns 32 this summer, so he still has some productive years ahead of him but he’s the guy in their one-trick pony show at the position there. Either Houston drafts at least one WR that can break 100 yards in a season or they’ll be again limited in their passing game. They have no deep threat, as Johnson is more of a move-the-chains guy as evidenced by his 4 TDs. The 2013 WR draft class looks to be the thinnest its been in years, so that’s a difficult row to hoe.

Quarterback Matt Schaub is actually my biggest concern. The Texans have him signed for the next few years at least, and I just don’t see him as a top-ten QB. Can you name the teams that won the Super Bowl without a high-end QB? There are some, but very few and far between. The Ravens and Trent Dilfer. The Redskins and Mark Rypien and Doug Williams. Tampa Bay and Brad Johnson. There may be a couple of others, but that’s about it. The thing with those teams I named is that they generally had dominant defenses and/or stacked talent at every other position. The Texans have more holes overall than they do – again, the WR deficit for example and the lack of pass rushers besides Watt as they finished a mundane 17th in pass defense in 2012. Rookie Whitney Mercilus could break out next year and give them that consistent 2nd pass-rusher. Of 44 team sacks, Watt had 20.5 – or almost half – and nobody else on the team came close to double-digits.

Indianapolis Colts: Wide Open for the foreseeable future

This is the team that has the best long-term outlook of any in the NFL. Of course, there’s megastud Andrew Luck, but the Colts got SO much out of their offense-heavy 2012 draft. TEs Dwayne Allen and Luck’s favorite college target, Coby Fleener, give Luck a very New Englandesque double threat at the position and presents a matchup problem for most defenses. Add in rookie WR T.Y. Hilton who showed flashes of deep threat capability and the Colts have a highly talented VERY young group of guys that can and should threaten the field for years to come. Even rookie RB Vick Ballard had over 800 yards rushing – not bad considering he wasn’t used much in September.

The question mark on this team is their defense. The team as a whole saw more roster turnover than any other and when you include the cancer that struck the head coaching position, it throws another variable in the mix: How much of the run this young team had was on emotion? We won’t really ever know the answer to that question, but it adds an “x-factor” that no other playoff team had.

The upcoming issues on defense will have to do with how much longer will they have their DE-turned-OLB combo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis? Will CB Vontae Davis, a very highly talented guy but erratic in his play, ever become a consistent, complete corner? Can undersized (236 lbs) ILB Pat Angerer stay healthy and play like he did in 2011?

The Colts’ offense is what got them to the playoffs with just enough help from the defense to get it done, but it’s difficult to keep scoring 30+ points even in today’s NFL. The Colts’ bonanza on 2012 draft day needs to repeat on the defensive side if this team is going to make it much past the first round next season and WR Reggie Wayne will be 38 (!!) when September rolls around. The organization MUST have another very good draft or risk sliding backwards a little bit in 2013, but with the nucleus of young talent they have along with Andrew Luck’s potential had them exceeding expectations by miles. That young group will only get better and should lead them in the playoff hunt for years to come.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

Tags: AFC Playoff Contenders