The stage is set for a wild final week in the AFC.
While not as messy as the situation that defies definition in the NFC, the race for the final spot in the AFC, otherwise known as the No. 6 seed, is a mind-boggling affair that CBS Sports' Will Brinson sums up aptly in picture form:
Got all that?
The race is sure to be the highlight for the conference, so let's take a moment to project how it all goes down.
|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
The main concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers at this point is not their Week 17 opponent, a Cleveland Browns team they beat back in Week 12, 27-11.
No, the main concern is what all other contenders for the final spot will do. As NFL Network's Ian Rapoport illustrates, the Steelers need a few things to happen to make the postseason:
Sure, that happened a year ago, but Rapoport later followed up with the grave reality of the situation:
The Steelers will not have an issue moving past the hapless Browns, but the stars simply will not align to give Pittsburgh a postseason berth. At this point, the Steelers are simply playing for pride, which corner Cortez Allen touched on earlier in the week, per the team's website:
You should always have pride in what you do, what you put your name on, what you represent. We represent the history of this organization, the foundation that has been put down before us. It’s something we pride ourselves in maintaining. It’s just a blessing to be a part of something like that.
San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers are one of the NFL's hottest teams at this point, winning four of their last five. In that span, San Diego has downed legitimate competition such as the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos.
San Diego must pull another trick out of its hat by completing the season sweep of Kansas City with a win to close the season.
The good news—the Chiefs have little to play for with the No. 5 seed a guarantee.
The bad news—the Chargers have been wildly inconsistent and have lost to similar teams that would struggle with Kansas City's second string, as NFL.com's Dave Dameshek notes:
Yes, the Chargers SHOULD beat KC's 2nd stringers… but they're 8-7 w/losses to Raiders, Titans, Texans & Skins. The '89 Niners they ain't.— Dave Dameshek (@Dameshek) December 28, 2013
While the Chargers have a good shot at pulling off the win, they also need losses by the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins. That simply will not happen.
But Baltimore is not the team set to notch a win and ruin the Chargers' playoff chances.
Which team wins the No. 6 seed?
No, the Ravens have a tall task in front of them with a trip to Paul Brown Stadium in Week 17 to meet the Cincinnati Bengals, where the AFC North champs are 7-0 on the year and have scored 40 or more in four straight at home.
Baltimore will not be as fortunate as Kansas City—Cincinnati will be playing its starters as the Bengals remain in the hunt for the No. 2 seed, which means home-field advantage, where they are undefeated.
The Bengals will remain undefeated entering the postseason. Baltimore hardly emerged with a 20-17 overtime win against Cincinnati in Week 10. After a putrid showing in a 41-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots in Week 16, the Ravens do not have enough in the tank to go to the Queen City and win.
All of the above equates to the Miami Dolphins holding on to the final playoff seed, a spot they clutch entering Week 17.
The process is as convoluted for the Dolphins as it is for the rest of the hopefuls. The Dolphins must defeat the 7-8 New York Jets, which is not the most difficult task considering Week 13 was a 23-3 win in New York.
But Miami also needs a Baltimore loss or San Diego win to clinch. As ESPN's James Walker points out, the Jets will be taking the game very seriously:
While that's great, the Jets' big win in Week 16 came over the four-win Cleveland Browns. The Dolphins are playoff bound as they will uphold their end of the bargain and other hopefuls will give them some help.
Note: All playoffs scenarios courtesy of the league's official website.