» A look ahead to NFC divisional playoffs


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Maybe Rex Ryan had it right when he said the New York Jets, despite being the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs, should be viewed as Super Bowl favorites.

As it turns out, the Jets' coach could have just as easily been talking about the club for which he previously worked as defensive coordinator, the sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens.

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That's because the Jets and Ravens both advanced in the postseason with authority. The Jets pounded the Cincinnati Bengals, 24-14, while the Ravens crushed the New England Patriots, 33-14.

One could argue that the third-seeded Patriots, who won the AFC East, and the fourth-seeded Bengals, who won the AFC North, had shown enough vulnerability to not even belong in the playoffs. But nothing should be taken away from the Jets or Ravens. They have clearly earned the right to continue playing.

And with that right comes challenges that figure to be far greater than those they faced in playing the Bengals and the Patriots. The Jets must travel to San Diego to take on the second-seeded Chargers on Sunday, while the Ravens go to Indianapolis to face the top-seeded Colts on Saturday.

Here are 10 key questions concerning the AFC divisional round:

Which home team is the most vulnerable?

The Colts. They were pretty shaky in some wins at Lucas Oil Stadium, the most notable of which was a win against New England that easily could have gone the other way had the Pats not gambled and lost on a fourth-and-2 call late in the game. The Ravens have a strong enough defensive front to give the Colts problems because they aren't likely to allow Indianapolis' poor running game to suddenly get good. If Terrell Suggs is on his game, he could force Peyton Manning into some mistakes. The Colts also have been in shut-down mode since Week 15, so they could have some rust.

Why isn't rust a factor with the Chargers?

Because they are the hottest team in the league, having won their final 11 games. Even when they gave Philip Rivers and other starters some rest in the season-finale, they played full-throttle. And no quarterback is performing better than Rivers. He has been a playmaking machine, while being extremely efficient. With good protection, he is absolutely deadly. Giving Rivers time will allow his prolific receivers (Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, and Malcolm Floyd) to get open, even against the best of secondaries.

How will the Ravens' banged-up secondary hold up vs. Manning?

Not well. Baltimore's defensive backs did OK against Tom Brady because the Ravens were able to generate pressure on him, and Brady was not himself. Brady clearly was playing with one or more injuries, even though he refused to acknowledge as much. He also didn't have his best receiver, Wes Welker. Manning enters the game healthy and fresh, having been rested for parts of the final two games of the regular season and during a first-round bye. He has a highly dangerous group of pass-catchers in Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie.

Can the Jets' blitz-happy scheme succeed vs. Rivers?

No. The Jets will take their chances, but Rivers is too cool and too quick to get rid of the ball. By selling out to pressure Rivers, the Jets will leave themselves vulnerable to Gates, as well as to LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, to whom Rivers will often throw screens. No one will ever confuse Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, whose poor passing didn't allow the Bengals to take advantage of the many coverage openings the Jets created with their blitzing, with Rivers.

How will the Colts' D hold up vs. Ravens' run game?

Better than expected. Although the Colts -- who ranked 24th in the NFL against the rush this season -- don't have much bulk up front, they do have defenders who swarm to the ball and make plays. They have the right sort of defensive speed to handle the ultra-quick Ray Rice as a runner and receiver.

How is Flacco going to deal with the Colts' strong pass rush?

He'll have his problems. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have a great deal of quickness off the edge, and they'll be able to put their share of heat on Joe Flacco, who hasn't looked nearly as comfortable in the pocket as he was through the first half of the season. Flacco seems hesitant at times, which is a function of a receiving corps that does not excel at getting separation.

Is Mark Sanchez ready to step up to the challenge of facing the Chargers' defense on the road?

Not likely. Although he was highly impressive in his first NFL playoff game, his second will be dramatically different. The Chargers have a stronger pass rush than the Bengals. They can bring pressure off the edge, which is likely to limit Sanchez's ability to have the sort of success he enjoyed on roll-out throws in the Cincinnati game. Playing in the divisional round, against a much stronger opponent, will likely remind him that he is a rookie.

Who is the best coach?

Norv Turner. He has kept the Chargers performing at a high level. He has encouraged cohesiveness, which allowed them to overcome their early-season struggles and turn red hot. You could also make an argument for the Jets' Rex Ryan. His bold and brash persona isn't all that is worth noting about him. Ryan did a superb job of preparing his team to play its best in its last two games. Of course, both of those lopsided wins came game against the struggling Bengals. But Ryan deserves credit for guiding his team into the playoffs and for putting together a defensive plan that worked effectively against Palmer and the rest of the Bengals' offense.

Who is the most talented player?

Manning might be the NFL's MVP, but Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis looks to be the most talented player overall. He has freakish athletic ability, and tremendous instincts. He can take away an opponent's best receiver, which alters game plans.

Which team has the best chance of reaching the Super Bowl?

San Diego. Besides being the hottest, the Chargers also are the most complete team in the divisional round. They seem to match up well with all of the remaining teams in the playoffs. The only thing that seemingly could stop the Chargers is themselves.

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