For those fans that prefer the AFC to the NFC, take solace in the fact that things are quite simpler when it comes to the playoff picture.
Well, until we talk about the free-for-all that is the battle for the No. 6 seed.
Five teams have secured trips to the playoffs, but the exact seeding is up for grabs, meaning byes and home-field advantage are, too. Four teams remain in play for the final wild-card spot, and not one fully controls its own destiny.
|AFC Playoff Standings|
|2||z-New England Patriots||11||4|
|5||x-Kansas City Chiefs||11||4|
|8||San Diego Chargers||8||7|
|z=Clinched Division, x=Clinched Playoff Berth|
But we should start with the simple stuff. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are once again intertwined, this time as the two fight for the top seed in the conference.
Should Manning and the Denver Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders in Week 17, they claim the No. 1 seed. The road is tougher for Brady, who needs his New England Patriots to defeat the Buffalo Bills and have Denver get upset by Oakland to take the top spot.
But just as Brady is not guaranteed a first-round bye, he is not safe from losing one, either. The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts can steal the No. 2 seed. Cincinnati simply needs a New England loss paired with a win over the Baltimore Ravens (more on them later) to get home-field advantage.
The Colts have a tougher road despite a simple matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis must win at home and have both New England and Cincinnati lose to take the No. 2 spot.
Ready for the easiest part? Kansas City owns the No. 5 seed.
Now things get complicated for No. 6. CBS Sports' Will Brinson captures the chaos perfectly in picture form:
Let's break that down into digestible pieces.
The Miami Dolphins hold the final spot despite a 19-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 16. Miami will not be as lucky in the final week—a win alone does not give the Dolphins the playoff berth.
No, the Dolphins need help. It must come in the form of a win or tie plus either a loss by the Baltimore Ravens or a win by the San Diego Chargers.
The defending champs, Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers (oh my!) have other plans. The sub-.500 Steelers arguably have the longest shot, needing all other contenders for the berth to lose while defeating the Cleveland Browns.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport provides a glimmer of hope for Terrible Towel lovers:
Running back Jonathan Dwyer told the media that the Steelers are focused on their Week 17 contest against Cleveland, not the fact that so many other things must align for them to enter the postseason, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Now, we can enjoy Christmas. We're cooking right now. All we can worry about is winning our game and letting the chips fall where they may. If they give us a chance to get into this tournament, I think we can do something very special.
Across the AFC North, last year's Super Bowl champions must upset Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals are 7-0 this year and have scored 40 or more in four straight games at home.
Certainly not an easy task, but that is not all—the Ravens also need the Dolphins or Chargers to lose. That, or a loss by all in contention so Baltimore gets the nod via tiebreakers.
Finally, San Diego must upset Kansas City for the second time this season to complete the sweep. Pair that with losses by the Ravens and Dolphins, and the Chargers get the final berth.
Regardless of the outcome, the rule in recent years holds true in the AFC—any team, even the wild-card teams, can get hot and win it all. This makes the race for the coveted final spot as frantic as ever.
Note: All playoffs scenarios courtesy of the league's official website.