AFC Playoff Picture: Who's In, Who's out
During the final six weeks of the NFL season, 12 AFC teams will be battling over six available playoff spots. Only two games currently separate the top of the conference from the bottom of the playoff pack. No one team on the list has separated itself as a postseason lock, and with crucial games still to be played, there is opportunity for some exciting playoff runs that will go right down to the wire.
Now, a month and a half is quite a lot of time, and a lot can happen in six games. But what's the harm in taking a look at the playoff picture a little early?
When it's all said and done, and all 16 games have been played, who's in, and who's out?
The Baltimore Ravens hold impressive wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans and New York Jets this season. However, losses to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks as well as a near loss to the Arizona Cardinals leave big questions in terms of the team’s consistency. Despite their ups and downs, the Ravens are 6-3 and have shown flashes of dominance.
The Ravens have had frequent offensive issues that have potential to lead to untimely losses if they are not resolved. Their biggest test for the remainder of the season comes in the following two weeks when they play Bengals and then San Francisco 49rs on a short week.
If they are able to win at least one of their next two games, their road to the playoffs becomes much more comfortable with two games against the Cleveland Browns and one game against the Indianapolis Colts in their final five games of the season.
Prediction: 10-6, wild card
After starting the season 5-2, the Buffalo Bills have lost their past two games in a rather convincing fashion. The rest of the league has appeared to discovered the formula for derailing the Bills offensive attack, as their offense has been shut down the past two games.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been held to under 200 yards in his past two games. Running back Fred Jackson, who had not fumbled during the first seven games of the season, has fumbled twice in his past two outings. After shutting the Washington Redskins out in Week 8, the Bills defense has given up 71 points in the past two games.
Despite their recent losses, the Bills are only one game behind in the AFC East and AFC wild card. With five of their remaining seven games against AFC playoff hopefuls and four of seven against divisional foes, the Bills still have opportunity to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999. However, given the difficulty of their schedule and recent fall from grace, the task may be too great for the team to handle.
Prediction: 7-9, miss playoffs
Five weeks ago, no one would have had the Denver Broncos in their playoff picture. Then came the beginning of the Tim Tebow Experiment, and now the Broncos find themselves winners of four of their last five games and right in the thick of the AFC West divisional race.
Thanks to a stingy defense and a powerful run game, the Broncos continue to defy the odds and be victorious with a quarterback whose lack of conventional ability is overcome by his sheer will to win.
Sadly, the good feelings in Denver may soon come to an end, with games against the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots looming in the weeks to come. Games against the Minnesota Vikings run defense and the Buffalo Bills may provide challenging match ups in weeks to come. Lucky for them, an 8-8 record may be good enough to win the AFC West.
Prediction: 7-9, miss playoffs
The Houston Texans are entering the remainder of their season hoping that backup quarterback Matt Leinart can pick up where Matt Schaub left off and lead their team to a division title and playoff berth. The Texans have already overcome injuries to star players Mario Williams and Andre Johnson, and thanks to a powerful running game and vastly improved defense, they find themselves at 7-3 on the season.
While Matt Leinart may not be as effective as Matt Schaub, he will prove adequate enough to get the job done. If he plays smart and does not turn the ball over, their running game will continue to dominate and carry the team the rest of the way. An uncharacteristically weak division and a difficult schedule for the Tennessee Titans for the remainder of the year will assist them obtaining their first divisional title.
Prediction: 12-4, AFC South divisional title
San Diego Chargers
No team has underperformed more than the San Diego Chargers this season. And yet, despite their 4-5 record, a strong push at the end of the season could grant them a division title. This team is notorious for finishing the season strong, having gone 26-5 during the second half of the regular season since Norv Turner joined the team in 2007. However, Philip Rivers has never struggled as mightily as he is now. It will pose an issue for any playoff push if he cannot turn things around.
A difficult schedule, including games against the Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, and Detroit Lions, will make it very difficult for the Chargers to build upon their history of strong finishes. However, given the lack of talent throughout their division, they won’t need as strong a finish as previous years. Look for the Chargers to do just enough to end the season with a .500 record.
Prediction: 8-8, miss playoffs
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now, having won five of their past six games. They hold the lead in the tight AFC North despite having been swept in the season series by the Baltimore Ravens. However, they are only 3-3 this season against teams with a winning record. Games against Cincinnati Bengals at home and the San Francisco 49rs away will help provide a better gauge on where this team stands against the better half of the league.
With four of their remaining six games being against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, and St. Louis Rams, the Steelers should find themselves in the playoffs once again without any major difficulty.
Prediction: 12-4, AFC North divisional title
The Tennessee Titans currently sit at 5-4, coming off of a 30-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers where Chris Johnson finally began to look like the Chris Johnson that threatened to break Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record.
They are currently one game behind the Houston Texans in the loss column, putting them right in the middle of both their divisional race and the wild card race.
Games against the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, and Houston Texans will provide one of the more difficult schedules for any remaining playoff contender. Given their inconsistency, particularly at the running back position, this team may struggle to remain at .500 on the year.
Prediction: 8-8, miss playoffs
The Oakland Raiders currently top the haphazard AFC West with a 5-4 record. Wins over the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, and the New York Jets give them help in terms of playoff tiebreakers.
Despite holding only a 1-2 record in his first three starts, quarterback Carson Palmer looked very good in his most recent outing, throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He will need to continue to improve if the Raiders are to have any playoff hopes.
While the return of Darren McFadden to the starting lineup will greatly improve their offense, games against the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions will be great challenges for this team. Their final game at home against the San Diego Chargers has a strong likelihood of being the game that determines the AFC West division winner.
Prediction: 9-7, AFC West division title
New York Jets
Things have not looked worse for the Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl promises this season.
After being 5-3 and looking to take the AFC East divisional lead just six days ago, the New York Jets now find themselves at 5-5 and on the tail end of an embarrassing Thursday night loss to the Denver Broncos. With an offense that cannot score and a special teams unit that cannot hold on to the football, things look bleak for the Jets’ playoff hopes.
The Jets have found themselves in this very same position the past two seasons, and in both instances they overcame their shortcomings and found themselves in the playoffs. With some help, the Jets could very well find themselves sneaking into the postseason once again, though they will need quite a bit of help to do so. A win against Buffalo next week is crucial if they are to even consider making the playoffs at this point.
Prediction: 9-7, miss playoffs
Kansas City Chiefs
The only reason Kansas City is on this list is because their current 4-5 record puts them one game back of the AFC West division leading Oakland Raiders. In the next five weeks, the Chiefs play the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets, and Green Bay Packers. It is highly likely that the Chiefs lose every single one of these games, along with at least one additional game at the end of the season against the Oakland Raiders or Denver Broncos, if not both.
Prediction: 4-12, miss playoffs
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots are coming off of a 37-16 win over their rivals, the New York Jets. They currently top the AFC East with a 6-3 record and a have one game lead over the Buffalo Bills. While their defense ranks last in the league in terms of yards per game allowed and yards allowed through the air, their offense, which ranks second in yards per game and third in points per game, has compensated for any defensive issues the team has encountered.
With only two of their remaining six games being against teams with a .500 record or better (Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills), the Patriots should be able to close out their division once again. The question will then be if New England can win a playoff game for the first time since 2007.
Prediction: 12-4, AFC East division title
While the Cincinnati Bengals have started off surprisingly strong, three of their final seven games are against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. These will be incredibly difficult matchups for the young Bengals to face and it is highly unlikely that they will win all three. However, games against the Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams, and Arizona Cardinals cushion their otherwise difficult schedule.
Regardless of the season’s outcome, this team has proven itself to be a contender once again. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton is playing solid and their defense is ranked in the top 10 or better for all major categories. If they can improve upon their run game and steal a game from the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals could very well find themselves in the playoffs after a 4-12 season in 2010.
Prediction: 10-6, wild card