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AFC Fear Factor: Chargers, not Colts, are scariest team

Having lost their final two games of the regular season, the Indianapolis Colts aren't exactly roaring into the playoffs.

Considering that their last game was a 30-7 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Colts would seemingly be panicked about the way they are going into the postseason.

But they aren't. With the No. 1 seed in the AFC wrapped up and the team's decision-makers more concerned with keeping Peyton Manning and other starters healthy than winning meaningless games, the Colts hardly showed their true form in losing to the New York Jets and Bills. They have little doubt about their ability to win a second Super Bowl since 2006.

"We're ready," defensive end Raheem Brock said. "We're ready to get the playoffs started and get back to that goal of getting another (Super Bowl) ring on our fingers."

Still, they're going to have some strong competition. The strongest should come from the second-seeded San Diego Chargers, who finished the season with an 11-game winning streak. The argument could be made that, even though the Colts have homefield advantage, the Chargers are really the scariest team in the postseason.

The following is one man's list of how the AFC's playoff teams would be ranked in order of how much fear they generate entering the postseason:


1. San Diego Chargers (13-3, No. 2 seed)

There might not be a hotter team in the league.

The Chargers have an offense that is every bit as explosive as the Colts'. Philip Rivers has played spectacularly, and is taking advantage of all of his highly talented weapons. They put pressure on every opponent by getting off to quick leads and making the other team one-dimensional.

If the Chargers have a weakness, it is the middle of their defense, which hasn't been the same since losing tackle Jamal Williams at the beginning of the year to a season-ending torn triceps. Power running games can have success, but power running isn't going to win in the playoffs. It takes dynamic passing attacks, and the Chargers have a good enough pass rush to deal with any that come their way.

The Colts should certainly fear the fact that the Chargers have bounced them from the playoffs in each of the last two years.

Fear factor: 8.5


2. Indianapolis Colts (14-2, No. 1 seed)

How much do we need to say beyond one name: Peyton Manning?

He's playing the best football of his career. He has multiple game-breakers in Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. His offensive line has overcome injuries to remain mostly solid, although the Colts struggle to run the ball.

The defense is small, but coordinator Larry Coyer has this unit playing aggressively. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis form one of the better end duos in the league. Linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session are talented playmakers who usually can be found in the vicinity of the football. Safeties Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea also do a nice job in run support.

But the fact is the Colts had several wobbly games on the way to 14-0. They simply haven't looked as consistently dominant as the Chargers.

Fear factor: 8.0


3. New England Patriots (10-6, No. 3 seed)

The Patriots have plenty of concerns, not the least of which is the suspected severe knee injury that wide receiver Wes Welker suffered against Houston on Sunday.

Welker, the NFL's leading receiver, is the second-most important component of the Patriots' offense behind quarterback Tom Brady. And Brady is banged up as well, reportedly playing with three broken ribs and a broken index finger on his throwing hand.

Still, the Pats remain dangerous because they have a coach, Bill Belichick, and several key players who know their way around the postseason. That will count for something. So will the fact that Brady has so far demonstrated an ability to play through his injuries.

Welker's absence hurts, but the Pats still have Randy Moss, who is a big-play machine. Their running game is getting healthy at the right time, as is their defensive line. Still, they don't generate enough of a pass rush, which could be trouble if the offense can't hold its own in a shootout.

Fear factor: 7.5


4. Baltimore Ravens (9-7, No. 5 seed)

The Ravens can still play strong defense up front. Linebacker Ray Lewis, among the more savvied players in the postseason, leads a group that makes big stops and is capable of coming up with big plays.

Their weakness is a secondary that allows too many long plays, which could pose a serious problem in the postseason.

The Ravens relied heavily on their ground game to beat the Oakland Raiders and clinch a wild-card spot. Pro Bowler Ray Rice has emerged as one of the best all-purpose backs in the league. Willis McGahee ran with a vengeance, and that will come in handy.

Fear factor: 7.5


5. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, No. 4 seed)

Maybe the voting players, coaches, and fans knew something by not sending a single Bengals player to the Pro Bowl.

The Bengals have been one of the surprise teams of the 2009 season. They stunningly won the AFC North by sweeping the entire division. That might say more about the fact the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens aren't the teams they were a year ago than it does about the Bengals' prowess.

The Bengals have been impressive in dealing with multiple tragedies. Cedric Benson's career revival has given them a strong rushing attack. But their offense has been inconsistent. And now Chad Ochocinco is dealing with a knee injury suffered against the Jets on Sunday, an ailment that wasn't thought to be serious but bears monitoring.

Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph are good cornerbacks, but their defense suffered a huge blow with the season-ending ankle injury to rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga. That makes the Bengals vulnerable against the run.

Fear factor: 7.0


6. New York Jets (9-7, No. 6 seed)

The Jets really don't belong in the playoffs. They had performed poorly enough to miss the postseason, but benefitted from the Colts' decision to preserve their starters and received other mathematical help along the way.

They also took advantage of the fact that the Cincinnati Bengals, with almost nothing at stake, were less than inspired in the game that allowed the Jets to grab a wild-card spot.

The Jets have the NFL's top-ranked defense, which is a legitimate postseason credential. They rush the passer well. They have the league's top-ranked rushing attack.

But their rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez, figures to have a hard time dealing with postseason pressure. Rex Ryan, their rookie head coach, could very well encounter the same problem.

Fear factor: 6.5

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