Cover-Two: Biggest question marks for Saints, Seahawks and other division leaders
Burke: Will Andy Dalton ever earn our trust?
Inevitably, when talking about the Bengals’ chances in any given season, the discussion circles back to Dalton. His 2013 numbers almost identically match those from 2012 (27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions both seasons, a 61.5 completion percentage in ’13 compared to 62.3 last year). And ’12 ended with Dalton laying an egg in a playoff loss to Houston. There have been stretches — like a four-game win streak over the Patriots, Bills, Lions and Jets — where Dalton has found a groove. Cincinnati needs him to do so again in Weeks 16 and 17 and on into the playoffs.
Farrar: Can the defense put things back together without Geno Atkins?
It’s often said that great athletes leave their biggest impression in their absence, and that’s certainly true with Atkins, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle who was lost for the season to a torn ACL in early November. Since his injury, the Bengals’ quarterback pressures have decreased and their missed tackles have increased. Atkins dealt with double teams on nearly every play, and now, those freed-up offensive linemen are hitting other targets. Cincinnati’s defense has covered up Andy Dalton’s flaws at times in the past, but a deep playoff run will be on the offense now more than ever.
Burke: Is the offensive line good enough?
That Andrew Luck has been sacked only 30 times this season is more a tribute to his ability to feel pressure and escape the pocket than it is any indication of great Indianapolis blocking. The line has been shaky at best, with the Colts often fighting to establish a run-pass balance and Luck running for his life when they take to the air.
As things stand right now, the Colts would have to open the postseason against Kansas City’s ferocious pass rush. Such a matchup would be frightening on paper.
Farrar: Can this playoff team start looking like a playoff team?
The Colts have default playoff positioning due to their status as AFC South champions, but backing into a title atop a really bad division is one thing — taking on the best teams in the postseason is entirely another. And right now, Indianapolis doesn’t look like that type of team. The Colts established a positive point differential with last Sunday’s 25-3 thrashing of the Texans, but they’ve been alternating wins and losses since their three-game win streak ended on Oct. 6. The offense sputters most weeks, the running game is a consistent issue and if this team has to play catch-up on the road — which it would probably have to at some point in the playoffs — it’s not clear that it is equipped to do so. At least Andrew Luck is a bastion of stability no matter where he goes — he has a passer rating of 85.2 at home, and 85.3 on the road.
Burke: Will Wes Welker return?
The Broncos signed Welker this past offseason because they felt he was a missing piece on offense, and never have they been proven more correct than when he was out of the lineup last week. Without their reliable slot receiver, Denver’s offense sputtered against San Diego, particularly on third downs (2-of-9).
Peyton Manning’s offense may be without Welker (concussion) in Weeks 16 and 17. A loss either week could drop Denver out of the AFC (and AFC West) lead.
Farrar: Will a patchwork defensive line hold up through the postseason?
Denver doesn’t have a specific timeline on the return of Derek Wolfe, and Kevin Vickerson is out for the rest of the season with a hip injury. The Broncos signed end Jeremy Mincey to fill in, as Mincey had done well for Jack Del Rio when Denver’s current defensive coordinator was the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head coach. Denver will need Mincey to show that he still has something left in the tank. Denver is ranked 19th against the pass in Football Outsiders’ metrics, and outside of Shaun Phillips and Von Miller, there isn’t much consistent pass rush on the roster. That impacts a Denver secondary affected all season by Champ Bailey’s health issues. The underrated Malik Jackson must continue to be a factor up front.