SEED: No. 1.
COACH: Bill Cowher (137-85-1 overall, 7-8 playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Bye.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Pittsburgh won four Super Bowl titles from 1974-79 with quarterback Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain defense. In the playoffs for the ninth time under Cowher, they went to Super Bowl XXX but have lost three AFC title games at home since the 1994 season.
BLUEPRINT: The Steelers, after missing the playoffs last season, returned to their blue-collar roots in 2004: a relentless running game and punishing defense. Yes, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got most of the attention, but he won all 13 of his starts because he did not have to carry the team. The Steelers, who had three offensive and three defensive players named to the Pro Bowl, had the league's second-ranked rushing attack at 154.0 yards per game and top-ranked defense in terms of yards (258.4) and points (15.7) allowed. That said, Roethlisberger's composure, accuracy and durability were awfully impressive.
TURNING POINT: After a Week 2 loss to Baltimore in which quarterback Tommy Maddox was injured, Roethlisberger made his first start in a rain-slogged 13-3 victory at Miami. The Steelers did not lose again, becoming the first team in AFC history to win 15 games.
BEST PLAYERS: "The Bus" is back. Jerome Bettis, who began the season as a short-yardage runner, had six 100-yard games in place of injured Duce Staley. Hines Ward caught 80 passes for 1,004 yards. Safety Troy Polamalu and linebackers James Farrior and Joey Porter lead the hard-hitting defense.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
SEED: No. 2.
COACH: Bill Belichick (96-72 overall, 7-1 playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Bye.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: The defending champion Patriots won two of the past three Super Bowls.
BLUEPRINT: The Patriots, under task-master Belichick, have set the standard the past two seasons in winning 28 of 32 games, including an NFL-record 21 straight. New England doesn't do anything flashy, it just wins. Quarterback Tom Brady makes terrific decisions. Offseason acquisition Corey Dillon gives the running game pop. The team ranked ninth in total defense and tied for second in scoring defense despite injuries that forced a receiver to play in the secondary. The Patriots even have the game's most accurate field-goal kicker in Adam Vinatieri. In a league that features down-to-the-wire games, New England made it look easy with an 11.1 average margin of victory.
TURNING POINT: On Sept. 23, 2001, quarterback Drew Bledsoe left a game against the Jets in the fourth quarter with a chest bruise. Brady has started every game since.
BEST PLAYERS: Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, threw 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Dillon shed his bad-boy image to rush for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi is the heart of the defense. Vinatieri was 31 of 33 and perfect inside 40 yards.
SEED: No. 3.
COACH: Tony Dungy (92-62 overall, 4-6 playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Broncos.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: The Colts, whose franchise history originates in Baltimore, have not been to the Super Bowl since beating Dallas in Super Bowl V. Indy lost the AFC Championship Game last year to eventual champion New England.
BLUEPRINT: Unlike the defense-oriented teams Dungy coached in Tampa, the Colts are all about offense. The hitch is a leaky defense. On offense, Indy became the 10th team in NFL history to score more than 500 and the third to score 40 or more in four consecutive games. On defense, 36 takeaways contributed to a league-best turnover margin of plus-19, but the Colts were among the worst in yardage. Indy ranked 29th out of 32 in total defense (370.6 ypg), 24th in rushing (127.3) and 29th (243.3) in passing. Such is the price for paying all those offensive superstars.
TURNING POINT: The Colts signed Manning to a seven-year, $98-million contract extension, including a record $34.5-million signing bonus, during the offseason.
BEST PLAYERS: Manning set NFL records for touchdown passes (49) and quarterback rating (121.1). Pro Bowl tailback Edgerrin James was the league's fourth-leading rusher (1,548 yards). Receiver Marvin Harrison led the league in touchdown receptions (15). End Dwight Freeney was the first Colt to lead the league in sacks (16).
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
SEED: No. 4.
COACH: Marty Schottenheimer (182-128-1 overall, 5-11 playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Jets.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: In the postseason for the first time since 1995, the Chargers lost Super Bowl XXIX to the 49ers after the 1994 season. San Diego made consecutive playoff appearances from 1979-83 with quarterback Dan Fouts.
BLUEPRINT: As might be expected from a team with an old-school coach, the Chargers win by running the ball and stopping the run. Tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, a shifty runner who changes direction quickly, tied for third in the AFC with 1,776 total yards from scrimmage. The offensive line, anchored by former Bucs left tackle Roman Oben, creates holes for the running game and gives Drew Brees time to throw. The defense ranked third in the NFL against the run at 81.7 yards per game.
TURNING POINT: Sometime during rookie quarterback Philip Rivers' preseason holdout, the light bulb flicked on over the head of embattled incumbent Brees.
BEST PLAYERS: Brees threw seven interceptions, fewest by a full-time starter. Tomlinson had more than 1,300 yards and led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. Antonio Gates set an NFL record for tight ends with 13 touchdown catches. Linebacker Donnie Edwards tied for the league lead at his position with five interceptions, four in the final four games.
NEW YORK JETS
SEED: No. 5.
COACH: Herm Edwards (36-31 overall, 1-2 playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Chargers.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: In their only Super Bowl appearance, the Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. They are in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under Edwards.
BLUEPRINT: The Jets started 5-0 and finished 5-6, though much of their slide can be attributed to a rotator cuff injury to quarterback Chad Pennington, who missed three games and has not thrown the ball well since. As a result, the offense centers around Curtis Martin, who at 31 was the oldest player to lead the NFL in rushing. A young, energetic defense that tied for sixth in takeaways at 33 is led by rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who calls the plays. All-star defensive end John Abraham might return to the lineup from a knee injury. The team's best pass rusher, Abraham had 9.5 sacks in 12 games.
TURNING POINT: Schedule makers did the Jets the favor of putting the Bengals, Chargers, Dolphins, Bills and 49ers at the top of the schedule. The Jets are in the playoffs because of their 5-0 start.
BEST PLAYERS: Inside opponents' 20, Pennington has thrown 37 touchdowns and no interceptions. Martin rushed for a league-high 1,697 yards. Receiver Santana Moss averages 18.6 yards per catch. Vilma was second on the team with 116 tackles and returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown in the season finale.
SEED: No. 6.
COACH: Mike Shanahan (116-74 overall, 7-3 playoffs).
FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Colts.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: The Broncos are in the playoffs for the sixth time under Shanahan but have not won a playoff game since quarterback John Elway led them to victory in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.
BLUEPRINT: The Broncos are perhaps the most balanced team in the NFL, the only club in the top 10 (actually, no lower than sixth) in the six main offensive and defensive yardage categories. Denver has long had one of the league's most potent running games, successfully plugging in back after back. The trick has been finding someone to fill Elway's legendary shoes. Jake Plummer makes mistakes, but Shanahan likes his pluck. To aid the effort, Denver beefed up its defense by adding stealthy cornerback Champ Bailey and hard-hitting former Bucs safety John Lynch.
TURNING POINT: Denver was 5-1 and sailing until Plummer grew what he calls a "Man Beard." From then on it was a struggle, but the Broncos won three of their last four to grab the final playoff spot.
BEST PLAYERS: Plummer passed for a team-record 4,089 yards and tied Elway's single-season touchdown record with 27. Receivers Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie had 1,000-yard seasons. Bailey and Lynch are Pro Bowl-bound. Linebacker D.J. Williams was the first rookie to lead the team in tackles (114) in more than 30 years.