For pretty much the entire NFL season, three AFC teams have been competing for two first-round byes: the Patriots, the Bengals and the Broncos.
The Patriots (11-2) are in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Bengals and Broncos are both 10-3, coming off a loss and have major issues at quarterback.
Even more interesting? The Broncos host the Bengals on Monday Night Football on Dec. 28. AJ McCarron, barring injury, will be starting for the Bengals in that game, but the quarterback for the Broncos, well, that’s to be determined.
Will Brock Osweiler get the start, or will Peyton Manning?
“I think what Gary Kubiak is thinking is exactly what he should be thinking: Which quarterback gives me the best chance to beat Pittsburgh this week?” SI and TheMMQB.com writer Peter King said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I think on the surface, everybody who would be listening to this would say, ‘Well, of course it’s Osweiler.’ And I think it almost certainly is Osweiler. But you also have to ask yourself this question: Brock Osweiler in the last two games has had the ball 26 times for 26 different drives. He’s led one touchdown drive. The Denver Broncos have scored zero points in the second half of the last two games. They lost to Oakland at home. They have not been, with the exception of the New England game, a very good team on offense since Brock Osweiler took over. They haven’t turned it over, so he’s not making the huge mistake – and look, they weren’t great with Manning, either. All I’m saying is that I believe Kubiak is just keeping his options open. And if he sees from Peyton Manning in the next week or so at practice that he’s throwing the ball either better or significantly better than he threw the ball against Kansas City a month ago, I think he’s going to let him play again. But again, that is a very big if.”
The Bengals, meanwhile, will need to stay afloat without Dalton, who was lost to a fractured thumb in Sunday’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh.
“I think the most important thing for McCarron is that the Bengals have the 49ers and the Ravens on their schedule in the last three weeks,” King said. “AJ McCarron has to win those two games. He has to. Nobody is expecting him to win against Denver. That’s probably unrealistic. But he’s got to win the other two games. He’s got to go out to Santa Clara this weekend and win that game. And I think Hue Jackson is going to tell his team and tell his offense and his message is going to be, ‘Hey, AJ McCarron won two national championships. He’s played on a gigantic stage. He’s won 36 football games at Alabama.’ And so I think the Bengals are going to approach this like, ‘We’re going to probably take some of the deep throws out of the offense (and some other throws as well).’
“But I do think they’re going to be able to do enough and their defense is good enough that they ought to be able to win at San Francisco, and they ought to be able to beat Baltimore in Week 17,” King continued. “And then it’s just a matter of hope. I think it’s realistic to expect that Dalton could return a month from tomorrow when the divisional playoff game would start. And hey, if they get home field, that’s the first game he’d have to play.”