NFL Playoff Picture: Breaking Down the AFC Playoff Contenders
As the NFL season enters the final stretch, the AFC playoff picture is starting to look a little bit clearer. The true colors of many teams are starting to show (Buffalo Bills) and certain teams are pulling away from the pack.
While there was more uncertainty earlier this season regarding the playoff picture, there is still nothing we can say for sure. With four games left, however, it is certainly going to be a wild ride to the finish.
Here is a look at the teams that are along for that wild ride to the playoffs.
New England Patriots (9-3)
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At the end of Week 9 there were a lot of doubters when it came to the New England Patriots. After a loss to the New York Giants at home, the Patriots were sitting at 5-3 with a depleted and sieve-like defense, and a relatively difficult schedule ahead of them.
Since that game the Patriots have reeled off four wins in a row, averaging 35 points per game (with remarkable ease) and limiting opposing teams to less than 16 points per game. With Rob Gronkowski putting up record numbers at tight end and Wes Welker approaching 100 receptions this year, the Patriots seem to be hitting their stride at the right time and are primed for another playoff run.
With a two-game lead in the division and no games left against a team with a winning record, it looks like the Patriots are once again going to win the AFC East. And they'll most likely lock up one of the top two spots and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
With Belichick and Brady in the playoffs with home-field advantage and a first-round bye, it's going to be hard to bet against the Patriots this year. These guys have had it before, and there is no reason to think they won't make another Super Bowl run.
Baltimore Ravens (9-3)
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The Baltimore Ravens have been like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season. While they have wins over the Steelers (two), 49ers and Jets, they also have losses to the Jaguars and Seahawks. It's hard to tell which team will show up each week, but lately the one on the field seems like the real deal.
Winners of five of their last six, the Ravens are looking more and more like one of the elite teams in the AFC. Running back Ray Rice has averaged over 110 yards from scrimmage the last five games, including a 204-yard performance this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
The defense, without Ray Lewis, doesn't seem to be missing a beat. During its current three-game winning streak, the defense has limited opposing offenses to roughly 13 points per game. While Ray Lewis sits on the bench nursing an injured toe, that defense seems to be gelling and looks better than it has all season. This was apparent after its nine-sack performance against the then one-loss San Francisco 49ers.
The AFC North leading Ravens hold the tiebreaker over the Pittsburgh Steelers, sweeping the season series. With games against winless Indianapolis, struggling San Diego, Cleveland and Cincinnati, the Ravens look to be the favorites to win the division and possibly a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have been on fire lately. Winners of their last three and seven of their last eight, the men of steel have put their early season woes behind them and are starting to come into their own.
The Steeler offense has evolved into a passing attack that can rival some of the top passing offenses in the league. Led by speed demons Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, the Steelers are spreading out opposing defenses and seem to be getting better with each game.
While the offense is playing at an extremely high level, the Steeler defense has looked even better lately. Finally healthy, the defense has only given up three touchdowns in its last three games and is holding opponents to a meager 11 points a game over that span.
With production like that from its defense, the Steeler offense doesn't have to do too much lately to win games. If the Steelers keep up their solid play, they will be hard to beat the rest of the season. With games remaining against the Browns (two), Rams and 49ers, Pittsburgh looks to be in very good shape to make the playoffs. If not for two losses to the Ravens this season and a questionable performance against the Texans, the Steelers would be on track to have the best record in the AFC.
Even if they end up being a wild-card team, which it looks like they will be, the Steelers will be a force to be reckoned with when the playoffs begin.
Houston Texans (9-3)
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It seems like there is some supernatural force that wants the Houston Texans to fail this season.
They began the season without Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster (hamstring). Then they lost former No. 1 pick Mario Williams for the season (torn pectoral muscle) in Week 6. Wide receiver Andre Johnson has been in and out with a right hamstring issue and injured his other hamstring this week against the Falcons.
If these injuries weren't enough, starting quarterback Matt Schaub will miss the rest of the season, and backup Matt Leinart was placed on injured reserve after breaking his collarbone.
Despite all these injuries, the Texans have been resilient. The leader of the AFC South, Houston has won its last six games doing it the old fashioned way: running the football and playing defense.
The Texans have the third-best rushing attack in the NFL. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are a one-two punch that has been virtually unstoppable this season. Combining for nearly 1,700 yards this season, both backs are capable of taking it to the house on any play. If that wasn't enough, Foster is second on the team with 510 receiving yards.
Quarterback T.J. Yates has surprised many people with his play in the absence of Schaub and Leinart. While only throwing for one touchdown, he has not thrown any interceptions and seems perfectly capable of managing a football game.
The defense has been the glue that holds this team together. During their six-game winning streak the Texans have allowed an average of less than 11 points per game. With games left against Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Carolina and a final home game against division rival Tennessee, the Texans have a good chance to run the table, sweep their division and make a run in the playoffs.
Denver Broncos (7-5)
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Don't look now, but the Denver Broncos are suddenly leading the AFC West.
After a 1-4 start, the Broncos looked like they had a better chance of winning the Andrew Luck sweepstakes than winning their division. Then Tim Tebow took over the starting job.
Since the Tebow era began in Denver, the Broncos have done a complete 180, going 6-1 in their last seven and winning five in a row. While it hasn't been pretty, it has been fun to watch.
Scrapping the passing game almost completely, Denver has been running the ball almost exclusively and finding incredible success doing it. With running back Knowshon Moreno out for the season with an ACL injury, Willis McGahee has rejuvenated his career and looks like the running back who was shredding defenses at the University of Miami. His 886 rushing yards rank 10th in the NFL—not bad for a guy who wasn't even the starting back when the season began.
Tebow has thrown for 10 touchdowns and only one interception since claiming the starting job while rushing for over 460 yards and three touchdowns. While the Broncos may be catering to Tebow and his limitations, there is no need to fix something that isn't broken. The Broncos are winning and don't show signs of slowing down.
The Broncos defense has been stepping it up as well. During Denver's 6-1 run the defense has given up an average of less than 17 points a game. While they still have to play the Patriots, the Broncos also have games coming up against a depleted and downtrodden Bears team and struggling Buffalo and Kansas City teams. The Broncos look to have a shot to win the division and get a home playoff game.
New York Jets (7-5)
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The New York Jets have been hard to figure out this season. Each week it seems like a different Jet team shows up.
After starting the season 2-3, it appeared that the Jets were not the same team that made it to back-to-back AFC Championship games. Since then the Jets have gone 5-2 and look to be back to the form that got them to those championship games.
While there is not one player directly responsible for the turnaround, the Jets seem to be playing a more team-oriented game lately. Whether it is a big play on defense, a crucial third-down conversion or a late-game touchdown, the Jets are finding a way to get it done.
While a division title is pretty much out of the picture, the Jets' schedule sets up well for them to run the table and earn a wild-card spot. With games left against Kansas City, Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Miami, the Jets could easily win out and slide into that last wild-card position.
We'll have to see how it plays out. If the early season Jets show up for even one of those games, however, the Jets could very likely miss the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
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The Bengals are probably the surprise team of the AFC this season.
After the offseason issues with former quarterback Carson Palmer and the loss of their top-two receivers (Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens), the Bengals were forced to rely on rookies to get the job done.
Andy Dalton has been a pleasant surprise this season. He has shown he is more than capable of playing the position and has handled himself like a seasoned veteran. Rookie receiver A.J. Green has put up quality numbers this season (832 yards and seven touchdowns). These two rookies have proven to be a deadly combination game in and game out.
While the Bengals started out hot, they have since faltered a bit. After starting 6-2, Cincinnati has been losing its edge lately. The Bengals have lost the division lead after losing three of their last four games and haven't looked like the same team that started the season.
The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Bengals. While they have games against the Rams and Cardinals, they also have to play division leaders Houston and Baltimore. While they hold the tiebreaker for the last playoff spot in the AFC, the Bengals will have to step it up the last four weeks if they want that spot.
Tennessee Titans (7-5)
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With the addition of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck the Tennessee Titans are rejuvenated and look to be ready for a playoff push.
It did not bode well for the Titans early this season. After starting 3-3 the Titans looked to be in trouble. Last year's leading rusher, Chris Johnson, was struggling and leading receiver Kenny Britt went down with a season-ending ACL injury. There seemed to be no fire on the Titan sideline, and there seemed to be more mediocrity in the future for Tennessee.
Suddenly the Titans have found some spunk. Going 4-2 in their last six games, the Titans are right in the hunt for the last playoff spot in the AFC. Chris Johnson has found his form that led him to over 2,000 yards rushing last season. He has rushed for more than 130 yards in three of his last four games while scoring three touchdowns in that span.
If Chris Johnson can keep up his quality play, the Titans have a good chance to make the playoffs. While they have two relatively pain-free games against the Colts and Jaguars, they still have to play the Saints and Texans. Luckily for the Titans, the Saints are only 3-3 on the road this season, losing to the Buccaneers and Rams.
While the schedule isn't the easiest remaining, it seems to be slightly easier than the Bengals' remaining schedule.
Oakland Raiders (7-5)
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The Oakland Raiders seem to have been bitten by the same bug as the Houston Texans this season.
Injuries have plagued the Raiders this season. Starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a broken collarbone earlier this season. Fortunately for Oakland, former Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer has stepped in to save the day.
Every week it seems there is a different receiver injured, while starting running back Darren McFadden has missed a few games now with a nagging foot injury, though Michael Bush has proven to be an adequate replacement.
The Raiders are one of those teams that doesn't always show up to play. While they have beaten the Jets, Texans and Bears this season, they have also lost to Kansas City and most recently Miami. They looked downright awful in those two performances, turning the ball over seven times in those two games.
With games left against Green Bay and Detroit, things don't get any easier for the Raiders.
While they finish the season with Kansas City and San Diego, Denver has an easier schedule and holds the tiebreaker for the division title. Tennessee has the tiebreaker over the Raiders for the last wild-card spot.
They will most likely have to win three of their last four games and get some help in order to find themselves in the playoffs.