1st Seed: Denver Broncos (12-4)
Superlative: Most Intriguing
Denver Broncos fans rode a roller coaster this season as the Broncos went up and down before snatching the top seed. Though the defense is the best in the NFL, the big story is the quarterback situation. Peyton Manning broke the all-time passing yardage record earlier in the season, but his poor play and injury pushed backup Brock Osweiler into the starting role. Manning returned to action in Week 17 and will be the starter in the playoffs. The key is the effectiveness of the rushing attack, which will determine Denver’s playoff fate
2nd Seed: New England Patriots (12-4)
Superlative: Most in Need of a Bye
The Patriots won their first ten games, but injuries have taken their toll as New England lost four of their last six contests. New England receives a much-needed bye to provide relief to quarterback Tom Brady, receiver Julian Edelman, and other key contributors, though losing home-field advantage could hurt. If New England takes advantage of the bye to heal the injuries, the Patriots, reigning Super Bowl champions, are the favorite to win the AFC.
3rd Seed: Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Superlative: Most to Prove
This should have been the year of the Bengals. Cincinnati established themselves as serious contenders for the NFL throne, riding a breakout year by quarterback Andy Dalton and dominant defense. A fluke injury sent Dalton to the bench and he won’t be able to return until the divisional round. Backup A.J. McCarron has fared well, but the Wild Card matchup against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers could hand the Bengals their fifth straight loss in the Wild Card round.
4th seed: Houston Texans (9-7)
Superlative: Best Defensive Player
The Texans come into January representing the worst division in football, the AFC South, but they won’t be an easy out. Defensive end J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in football and will be a factor in the game against the Chiefs, while wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is an elite playmaker. The starting quarterback, Brian Hoyer, isn’t playoff-caliber, but the real problem for Houston is the red-hot Chiefs, who have won their last 10.
5th seed: Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
Following a 1-5 start, Kansas City is on a rampage. The Chiefs finished out their season with 10 straight wins and nearly stole the AFC West crown. Can the Chiefs, who rolled through a relatively easy schedule, compete with the Patriots and Steelers in the later rounds? That will depend largely on the performance of quarterback Alex Smith and the offense.
6th seed: Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
Superlative: Most Boom or Bust
Pittsburgh strikes fear into every opponent and has the best passing game in recent memory. In the absence of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have dominated on offense, with Antonio Brown putting together a monster season and backup DeAngelo Williams producing on the ground. For the Steelers to make a Super Bowl run, Williams must be on the field and the defense needs to tighten up.