AFC Playoffs Q&A: It's wide open

8. Which defensive player will be the X factor in this postseason? Cincinnati middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is creating quite a reputation in a short time. He's gone from being a highly regarded college prospect to being undrafted because of character questions. He moped his way through one pre-draft workout before writing a letter to Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and begging him for a second chance to impress the Cincinnati brass. Now Burfict is the NFL's leading tackler on a defense that has ranked among the league's best all year. He gives the Bengals a tenacity that defensive coaches such as Lewis cherish, and that nastiness will be even more vital as Cincinnati embarks on a postseason run without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins (who is sidelined with a torn ACL). Burfict already has proven to be a terrific underdog-makes-good story. The next step is for him to establish himself as a big-time player in the postseason.

9. Which injured star will be most missed by his team? Nearly every team in this AFC playoff race has been plagued by a major injury this season. Denver has lost two Pro Bowlers (Miller and Clady). New England has lost three (Gronkowski, Wilfork and Mayo). Cincinnati (Atkins) and Indianapolis (Wayne) have lost one apiece. That said, Gronkowski is the biggest difference-maker in this bunch. He gives Brady the confidence to make throws the star quarterback wouldn't normally attempt, and New England doesn't have another pass-catcher who comes close to matching the tight end's size and athleticism. Brady has made the most of smaller, quicker targets all season. He won't go much further if he has to rely on players such as  Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to consistently make game-changing plays.

10. Who will make it to the AFC Championship Game? The Broncos and the Bengals are the best bets right now. There's no way Denver can fall in the divisional round this season, not after that heartbreaking loss to Baltimore last year. The Broncos have had a year to think about how they blew that shot at a Super Bowl. That should be more than enough motivation this time around. As for the Bengals, they have the look of a team that is eager to get to the next level. They've been bounced from the wild-card round in each of the past two seasons, and they're scary at home. They also have a defense that is strong enough to give Brady problems in a divisional matchup on the road. Of all the AFC teams going into the postseason, these two are the strongest.

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