Entering the regular season's final month, it looked like a foregone conclusion that the Houston Texans were going to earn a bye in the AFC. Two losses in three weeks later and suddenly the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots are right back in the mix.
Considering all six of the AFC's playoff berths have already been claimed, the battle for byes adds some intrigue to Week 17. All three teams still have a chance to claim the top spot and home-field advantage through the Super Bowl, so there's plenty on the line.
With that in mind, let's examine which teams will end up finishing in the top two spots, earning themselves a week off before beginning their playoff journey.
No. 1 Seed: Houston Texans
If the Indianapolis Colts were playing for something in Sunday's meeting of division rivals, I would expect Andrew Luck and Co. to beat the Texans at home. That's not the case, however. The Colts are already locked into the No. 5 seed.
Furthermore, as it stands now, the Colts are staring at a potential playoff matchup with the Texans if they survive their first-round game. So don't be surprised if Indianapolis scales things back for a week, especially since Houston already has one game tape to study.
While the Colts are thinking about avoiding injuries and preparing for the postseason, the Texans will have their sights set on getting the bye. That difference in outlook should be more than enough for Houston to clinch the top spot.
No. 2 Seed: Denver Broncos
The Broncos haven't lost a game since Oct. 7. It's a 10-game winning streak that includes victories over the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints. It would be a shock if the Kansas City Chiefs ended that run.
In the first meeting between the two teams, the Chiefs were actually able to keep it close, but the level of talent isn't comparable. Peyton Manning has the Broncos playing like a Super Bowl contender, especially over the past month.
Even though Manning hasn't shown any signs of wearing down over the final few weeks, getting a week to rest his arm before the postseason would do wonders for the veteran. Expect an inspired performance from the entire squad to ensure that happens.
No. 3 Seed: New England Patriots
If both of those two teams win as predicted, there's nothing the Patriots can do to earn a bye. A matchup with the Miami Dolphins, who New England has defeated five straight times, shouldn't pose much of a roadblock if a spot does open up, though.
The main reason the Patriots have owned the Dolphins as of late is Miami's lack of offensive weapons. A high-powered passing game can take advantage of the Pats' shaky secondary, but the Dolphins haven't had one in quite some time.
Not earning a bye wouldn't be the end of the world for New England. It's still one of the top Super Bowl contenders, and the Patriots should be able to cruise past the Cincinnati Bengals—their first playoff opponent if they get the No. 3 spot—anyway.