To the surprise of few, it is the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots as the top two seeds in the AFC, but neither team is inspiring much confidence going into the NFL play-offs. Luckily for them, they will each get a week off to shape up.
Denver are in an especially weird place for a No 1 seed. The Broncos have a championship-calibre defence to be sure, but questions remain at the position that used to be their biggest strength – quarterback.
Brock Osweiller had been doing a decent job starting for an ineffective, broken-down Peyton Manning since November. But on Sunday, with Osweiller struggling and the Broncos down to the lowly San Diego Chargers, coach Gary Kubiak turned to Manning in hopes of sparking a comeback.
It worked, though Manning did little more than hand the ball off and call audibles.
So who starts when the Broncos take the field next?
Probably Manning, but he nor Osweiller have the look of a Super Bowl winner right now, even though the narrative is already how Manning came to the rescue from the bench.
Rare is the NFL team with a quarterback controversy sitting atop a conference’s play-off seeding, but that is the situation Kubiak has put his team in.
While the gamble worked Sunday, he has only opened his team up for more questions should they falter.
As for the Patriots, they have picked a bad time to start playing their worst football of the season.
The once-powerful offence has scored only 30 combined points in two straight losses to end the season, and they have had so many injuries that they had to turn to the mummified remains of Steven Jackson at running back. And there is no Derrelle Revis this season to save them on defence.
Even though the names at the top are familiar, the AFC looks like a wide-open race.
Beware of the Chiefs
The Broncos needed the win, because a loss would have instead given the AFC West title to the hottest team in the league.
The Kansas City Chiefs have won 10 straight after a 1-5 start to become the team no one wants to face in the AFC. Drawing that short straw is a team that barely deserves to be here, the Houston Texans.
Kansas City have not won a play-off game since 1993, but there is some magic in the air in KC these days, with the cross-town Royals having won the World Series a few months ago. Maybe some of that luck will rub off on the Chiefs.
Remember when the Seattle Seahawks looked doomed to miss the play-offs? Me neither.
The two-time NFC champions have looked down-right dominant in winning six of their last seven, including a Week 17 beat-down of NFC West champion Arizona. All of a sudden, Russell Westbrook and the Seahawks look like a solid shout to make a third straight Super Bowl.
Along with the mid-season firings by the Dolphins, Titans and Eagles, the Browns and 49ers wasted little time adding their teams to the list of those looking for a new coach following disappointing seasons.
And there are sure to be even more openings soon, as the Colts, Giants and Chargers are among other teams rumoured or likely to make changes.
Feeling the draft
And finally, a hearty congratulations to the Tennessee Titans, who at 3-13 were bad enough to clinch the No 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. At least they will not be looking for a quarterback, as rookie Marcus Mariota showed some promise in an otherwise dreadful season in Nashville.
NFL play-off seeds and schedule (in UAE time)
1. Denver Broncos (12-4, West champs) Next Bye; Jan 18 v low seed
2. New England Patriots (12-4 East champs) Next Bye; Jan 17 v high seed
3. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4 North champs) Next v Pitt, Jan 10, 4.15am
4. Houston Texans (9-7 South champs) Next v KC, Jan 10, 1.35am
5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5 Wild card) Next at Houston, Jan 10, 1.35am
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6 Wild card) Next at Cincinnati, Jan 10, 4.15am
1. Carolina Panthers (15-1, South champs) Next Bye; Jan 17 v low seed
2. Arizona Cardinals (13-3, West champs) Next Bye; Jan 17 v high seed
3. Minnesota Vikings (11-5, North champs) Next v Seattle, Jan 10, 10.5 pm
4. Washington (9-7, East champs) Next v GB, Jan 11, 1.40 am
5. Green Bay Packers (11-5, Wild card) Next at Washington, Jan 11, 1.40 am
6. Seattle Seahawks (10-5, Wild card) Next at Minnesota, Jan 10 10.05 pm
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