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Sorting Out the AFC Playoff Picture

With only two weeks left in the 2015 NFL season, there are two tales regarding the upcoming playoffs. Over at the NFC, there are four teams that have already secured a playoff spot (Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, and Seattle), with the Vikings being all but certain of taking the second Wild Card, and only the slow drag to “crown” an NFC East champion between the Giants, Redskins, and Eagles resembling a true playoff race. Even positioning is not a big deal, as the Panthers have secured the 1-spot, the Cards are taking the second bye, and Green Bay will be #3.

On the flip side, the AFC is ready to give us a ton of drama to close out the year, with only two secure playoff spots (Patriots and Bengals), and up to seven teams being within reach of the final four berths. It includes a legitimately good division race, and the possibility of yet another mediocre division champion, along with several players ready to rewrite their legacies as they approach another playoff run.

With this in mind, today we take a look at the games that will define the AFC playoffs, and make a final prediction regarding the teams that are bound to fight through January.

The Sad AFC South

The South has always earned a reputation for being mediocre, especially considering that only the Colts and Texans have been mildly competitive in recent seasons. In 2015, the script was flipped just a bit to create a three-team race that has been more frustrating than exciting. While it would have been easy to envision yet another easy division title for the Colts, the injury to Andrew Luck has given the rest of the division a chance to make a run.

At 5-9, the Jaguars have the faintest hope of making it, but they need a lot of help to claim their first playoff trip since 2007. After dropping a very winnable game to the Falcons at home, the Jags were left almost out of the race, needing the Texans to lose both remaining games and also winning out to have a shot at winning the South at 7-9. With road games in New Orleans and Houston, the Jaguars are long shots to make it, even as we could consider 2015 as a nice building block towards their future.

The real race will wind up being between the Colts and Texans, especially after Houston seized control following the first-ever win for the franchise in Indianapolis. At 7-7 and with manageable games to come (at Tennessee and hosting the Jaguars), the Texans have everything to return to the postseason despite being down to their 4th-string quarterback. While this provides a scenario in which they could potentially start Brandon Weeden as massive home underdogs in the Wild Card round, it certainly sounds better than just going home.

Meanwhile, the 6-8 Colts could also win out easily (at Dolphins, hosting the Titans), they need the Texans to collapse. If the Texans go 2-0 to finish, they would finish 5-1 in the South, holding the tiebreaker as both teams split their head-to-head meetings. While the Matt Hasselbeck experience did well for a while, the veteran just couldn´t hold on for long at age 40. The hope of a healthy Luck has to be the motivation for the Colts thinking of 2016 and beyond.

Can the Chiefs catch the Broncos?

Through 7 games, the Broncos were undefeated and all but assured to win the AFC West for the fifth straight season. After all, the preseason expectations said that only the Chiefs looked like a viable threat for Denver, who used a scary defense to mask Peyton Manning´s deficiencies. At that point, the Chiefs had barely improved to 2-5 after a horrid start, and their playoff hopes were still dire. But as the Chiefs have gone 7-0 and the Broncos only 3-4 since, things have gotten really interesting.

Losing Peyton Manning and replacing him with Brock Osweiler appeared to be an improvement, but Osweiler has tailed off after a hot start, and now the Broncos have to stave off the hottest team in the AFC to claim the West. Home games versus the undermanned Bengals and the lowly Chargers look favorable for Denver, who knows it has to go 2-0 to avoid losing a tiebreaker versus the Chiefs. The biggest intrigue comes with Manning´s status, as he could be playing the final games of his career.

The Chiefs are now the first team in history to follow a 1-5 start with an 8-game winning streak, which looks certain to be a 10-game winning streak as the Chiefs prepare to finish with two home dates versus the Browns and Raiders. Kansas City´s run has seen them win each of their games by at least 7 points, and they are bound to be a dangerous team once the playoffs come around. While their cold start could prevent them from earning a higher seed, Denver´s shaky status could still allow them to win the West.

The Wild Cards

While the loser of the Broncos-Chiefs battle will certainly pick up one of the available wild card berths, we are left with a battle of two 9-5 teams with the potential of being playoff protagonists in January. As of today, the Jets are holding on to the #6 spot by virtue of a strength-of-schedule tiebreaker versus the Steelers. While both teams could still get in, that would require a Kansas City collapse that just doesn´t seem realistic at this point.

Despite having the third-best point differential in the AFC at +91, the Steelers have to be regretting their bad losses (Week 4 vs. Baltimore) and lost leads (Week 12 vs. Seattle), as they no longer control their outcome. However, they have to like their chances of going 2-0 and expecting some help, as Pittsburgh has two friendly road dates in Baltimore and Cleveland to finish the season. The Steelers will be favored by more than a touchdown in both games, and with an offense that is clicking on all cylinders, even the fierce rivalries within the AFC North shouldn´t play a role in stopping Ben Roethlisberger and his cohorts.

Meanwhile, the Jets have won four straight and looked increasingly dominant, but their remaining schedule looks challenging, to say the least. Also staying inside their division, they get to host the Patriots and then pay a visit to Rex Ryan´s Bills. While the Jets would certainly prefer that the sequencing be reversed, they need to go all-out in these contests to secure their first playoff trip since Mark Sanchez´s heyday. While New York always plays the Patriots hard and has the talent to run the table, a 1-1 finish looks much more realistic.

Final Seeding Predictions

#1 – Patriots
#2 – Bengals
#3 – Chiefs
#4 – Texans
#5 – Broncos
#6 – Steelers


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