So, intrigued by the idea that you can't represent the AFC in the Super Bowl playing more than one of the Big Five (Colts, Patriots, Chargers, Steelers, Broncos), I decided to test out the theory using the past decade as my sample size.
In 2000, the Ravens played the Broncos. (WC)
In 2001, the Patriots played the Steelers (CHAMP)
In 2002, the Raiders played none of the Big Five.
In 2003, the Patriots played the Colts (CHAMP)
In 2004, the Patriots played the Steelers and the Colts (DIV, CHAMP)
In 2005, the Steelers played the Colts and the Broncos (DIV, CHAMP)
In 2006, the Colts played the Patriots (CHAMP)
In 2007, the Patriots played the Chargers (CHAMP)
In 2008, the Steelers played the Chargers (DIV)
Some other notable failed playoff runs:
2003: the Colts played the Broncos and the Patriots (WC, CHAMP)
2004: the Jets played the the Chargers and Steelers (WC, DIV); the Colts played the Broncos and Patriots (WC, DIV)
2006: the Patriots played the Chargers and Colts (DIV, CHAMP)
2007: the Chargers played the Colts and Patriots (DIV, CHAMP)
2008: the Chargers played the Colts and Steelers (WC, DIV)
7/9 AFC Championship winners played 1 or no Big Five teams. One of those played no Big Five teams.
2/9 AFC Championship winners played 2 Big Five teams, both in the Divisional and Championship rounds.
So, some observations:
- If you play a Big Five team outside of the AFC Championship, it is unlikely you will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
- You can play two Big Five teams and advance to the Super Bowl, under the condition that you only play them in the Divisional and Championship rounds, and the opposing team has already played a Big Five team.
- No team has played more than two of the Big Five in a playoff run.
- The less of the Big Five you play, the better off you are.
How does this relate to this year?
Assuming the following seeding: Colts, Chargers, Patriots, Bengals, Jets, Ravens, here's how the playoffs would shake out.
The Ravens are guaranteed at least two games against the Big Five: WC@Patriots, DIV@Colts. Historically speaking, this would eliminate them from Super Bowl contention.
The Jets, should they win a Wild Card game, are guaranteed at least one game against a Big Five opponent, and possibly another. Their best bet is hoping the Ravens knock off the Pats and Colts, while the Jets knock off the Bengals and Chargers, and meet in the AFC Championship. Considering that's never happened, to the best of my knowledge, I'd say stick a fork in them; they're done.
The Bengals will play at least one Big Five team in the Divisional round. If NE wins, it's Indy. If BAL wins, it's San Diego. Best bet: Bengals and Ravens win, Bengals knock off SD, BAL knocks off IND, BAL@CIN in the AFC Championship.
The Patriots are guaranteed a 2nd round game against the Chargers. Can see IND in the AFC Championship. Best bet: Bengals/Jets knock off Indy, CIN/NYJ@NE in the AFC Championship.
The Chargers can see NE and IND, depending on how the games shake out. Best bet: BAL beats NE, SD beats CIN/NYJ, BAL beats IND. BAL@SD in AFC Championship.
The Colts can only see NE OR SD. Not both. Best bet: BAL beats NE, NYJ beats CIN. IND beats BAL, NYJ beats SD. IND beats NYJ in AFC Championship.
Historically speaking, the Colts are the best positioned team in the AFC playoffs. With weak Wild Card and 3/4 Division Winner seeds, the only obstacle to the Colts making a return trip to Miami for the Super Bowl is, as always, San Diego or New England. Either way, the only game in which the Colts could meet either team is the AFC Championship, in Indianapolis.