At this point in the season, teams are gearing up for the playoffs and contenders are rising while pretenders have faded away.
As we peer into the future of the remaining fourth quarter of the 2011 NFL season, check out my predictions for who will win the AFC playoff spots and the unlikely winner of the entire AFC division.
The Oakland Raiders will sneak into the playoffs this season.
However, the jury is still out as to whether the Raiders made a wise move by trading essentially two first round picks to acquire Carson Palmer right before the trade deadline in mid-October.
The Raiders, however, will face the Houston Texans in the first round and have a shot at moving on toward the divisional round. But the Texans have been impressive since losing their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub in Week 10 against Tampa Bay.
The Raiders have floundered under Palmer and despite making the playoffs, the Raiders will not go far.
If they do (by some miracle) advance to the second round, they'll face the New England Patriots, who will pass them out of the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have already wrapped up a Wild Card spot (and possibly a divisional title if the Ravens trip up in the season’s fourth quarter).
The Steelers will likely face the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow in the first round of the playoffs.
This game will be very close, with the Broncos' outstanding pass rush and the fact that nearly every Steelers game is close.
This might not bode well for the Steelers, as Tim Tebow is a fourth quarter magician who has pulled out unlikely victories in nearly every game during the second half of the season.
I think the Tebow mystique will continue, and a last-second play will propel the Broncos past a stunned Steelers team.
The New England Patriots will be in the AFC Championship this season.
Even though their pass defense has been suspect all season, the multitude of weapons that the precise Tom Brady has on his side will carve up any team they face in the second round of the playoffs.
If the Patriots somehow draw the Broncos, Tim Tebow won’t win a shootout with Brady.
My prediction—the Patriots advance to the AFC Championship for a shot at the Super Bowl. The Patriots will likely face a strong defense in the Houston Texans in the AFC Championship.
The Baltimore Ravens, barring a Joe Flacco meltdown, should win the AFC North.
The Ravens face a powder puff end of the 2011 season. Besides the Cincinnati Bengals (who are falling apart), the Ravens face three below-.500 teams.
The Ravens will coast into the playoffs with a first-round bye.
They will face either the Broncos or the Texans in the second round, but I am not promising anything for advancing to the AFC Championship.
I think the Ravens are overrated, and relying on Joe Flacco to win games will be a mistake. This won't be the year they advance to the Super Bowl.
The Houston Texans have been winning games on defense this season.
Even after losing Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, the Texans have found a way to win with T.J. Yates, a rookie fifth-round draft choice out of North Carolina.
Yates, surrounded by Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, has a relatively easy road to the playoffs with the Tennessee Titans on the brink of the playoffs as the only test to close out 2011.
The Texans will make the playoffs, but losing their starting quarterback late in the season could spell disaster for Houston's playoff run.
However, I think the under-the-radar defense of Wade Phillips has given the Texans the chance to go far this season, maybe even to the Super Bowl.
In a division marked by flawed teams without defenses, the Texans will be the one team to stand out on defense with great results.
The enigma that is Tim Tebow will bring the Denver Broncos to the playoffs, as the team clinches their first AFC West title since 2005.
That's when the Broncos went 13-3 in the regular season under Mike Shanahan and Jake Plummer.
Tebow is the talk of the NFL, but it is the amazing pass rush and stingy defense of the Broncos that has kept the Broncos around long enough to put Tebow in a position at the end of games to steal wins.
The Broncos are on a hot streak just at the right time. They have won five straight games and will likely beat a Cutler-less and Forte-less Bears team this week led by Caleb Hanie.
But the Broncos will likely hit a brick wall against the New England Patriots, who will blow them out.
Tebow, though, will still secure the AFC West title with the Raiders after facing the Green Bay Packers this week. The Broncos have a chance in a close game against the Steelers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs but face a much stiffer challenge if the Broncos face the Patriots in a playoff rematch.
The Broncos may make the playoffs, but I am not looking past the divisional round this year.
How the Texans have gotten this far without Matt Schaub is a testimony of the amazing job Wade Phillips has done with the Houston's defense this season.
The Texans are ranked third against the pass on defense and fourth against the run. This outstanding group will give the New England Patriots fits, as the pressure and cornerback play will be the toughest the Patriots have faced all season.
My mind thinks the battle-tested Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will prevail against a Texans team which finds itself in the AFC Championship for the first time in their brief history. But my heart believes the Texans will pull off a miracle over the Patriots and find themselves in the Super Bowl against a very difficult NFC team.