Wed. Jun 17th, 2020

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Sorting out the 2019 AFC Playoff Picture

This week, let’s sort out the AFC playoff picture. Unlike the NFC, this conference is a bit more jumbled in the middle rather than the top. There are plenty of teams that have a chance to sneak into the wild card or even win the division (if they are in the AFC South or East). With that, here’s the current AFC arrangement:

Super Bowl or Bust

Baltimore Ravens (10-2)

Don’t look now, but the Ravens are the top seed in the AFC. It seems like a two-team race for this top seed between Baltimore and New England. However, the Ravens are the HOTTEST team in the NFL right now and making doubters eat crow. Their eight game winning streak has established Lamar Jackson as a bona fide stud, and their dominant and historic rushing attack continues to plow full steam ahead.

Just looking at the array of opponents Baltimore has beaten on its winning streak is enough to tell you the tenacity, strength, and character of this ball club. The list includes the resurgent Seahawks, defending champion Patriots, Deshaun’s Texans, the feel-good story of the year 49ers, and the defending NFC champion Rams. It’s simply stunning. Mention the fact that all those wins were by two scores (except the 49ers) and it’s enough to leave you speechless.

Nevertheless, Baltimore’s stiffest challenge to get to the Super Bowl will be New England. Getting the top seed should be a priority. The Ravens’ remaining schedule includes the Jets, Bills, Browns, and Steelers.

New England Patriots (10-2)

The Patriots are in this category every year, and the massive expectations for this squad is greater with their elite defense. Yet, the offense looks completely out of sync and anemic, an epidemic that has plagued this team since purging the WR talent from the roster. This includes Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, and Demaryius Thomas.

Many trust Belichick and Brady to steer the boat in the right direction come December, but the lack of offensive talent is a large hill to climb. It seems very likely that the Pats will at least get the second seed in the AFC, if not the first. History says never doubt Belichick and Brady, and this team remains formidable and even more dangerous if they are playing at home in January. Their remaining schedule consists of the explosive Chiefs, sturdy Bills, and the inept Bengals and Dolphins.

Serious Sleepers

Buffalo Bills (9-3)

The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs two seasons ago after a long drought. It was a feel-good moment for all NFL fans to see this franchise reach the postseason after much futility. Now in 2019, these Bills are all business. Though they have garnered many wins over inferior foes, Buffalo showed up on Thanksgiving afternoon and made a statement to all the pundits (while they were probably eating turkey) by defeating the Cowboys and showing they are legit.

The Bills will be no easy out and they are a virtual lock for the top wild card spot barring no meltdown. Reaching Tom Brady and company for the division will be challenging, but hey, the NFL goes by the mantra “any given Sunday.” Don’t doubt Buffalo, their Cinderella season may continue deep into January. Their remaining schedule includes some stiff tests such as the Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots, along with the hapless Jets.

Houston Texans (8-4)

The Texans made a statement win in Week 13 by finally defeating the New England Patriots for the first time in my memory, at least. The Texans are streaky, but their defense has cleaned up well after some issues with injuries this season. The offense is also a force to be reckoned with, and it goes where Deshaun Watson leads them. Now that the Texans have played the Chiefs, Ravens, and Patriots, it’s safe to say they belong among the top 5 teams in the conference.

Breathing down their necks is the Tennessee Titans though, who remain a game back in the division. This means the Texans still have business to take care of if they want to seal the AFC South once again. Key contests against the Titans remain in Weeks 15 and 17. Sandwiched between the two Tennessee matchups is a contest against the Buccaneers, and another game remains against the Broncos.

Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)

Though Patrick Mahomes hasn’t looked as dominant this season due to injury, the Chiefs took a huge step in clinching the division for the fourth straight year by blowing out their closest competition, the Oakland Raiders, in Week 13. KC should be worried about foes from other divisions in regards to stiff playoff competition.

The defense leaves much to be desired, but the maligned unit has shown up at times to provide a spark in games. Though the goal for the Chiefs is to reach the Super Bowl, home-field advantage will likely not be on their side this year unless New England or the Ravens stumble down the stretch. KC’s last quarter of their schedule features a crucial clash against the Patriots, along with contests against the Broncos, Chargers, and Bears.

Muddled in the Middle

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)

The Steelers are currently being led by a duck-calling champion at QB. They haven’t had Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner for games due to injury. Big Ben, AB, and Le’Veon Bell are not even in sight. Yet, these Steelers are currently the sixth seed in the AFC and control their own destiny to the playoffs. Pittsburgh is playing behind a game-managing offense and a sturdy, opportunistic defense.

The win over the Browns in Week 13 essentially ended Cleveland’s hopes of reaching the playoffs. Though grasping the division title is unrealistic, the Steelers certainly have a shot of getting the second wild card behind Buffalo if they can fend off the pesky Titans/Texans and several other teams. The race is far from over, but the Steelers need to keep on doing what they are doing. This means getting wins against the Cardinals, Jets, Ravens, and Bills.

Tennessee Titans (7-5)

Give the Titans props. They looked lifeless at times with Marcus Mariota at the helm this season, but Ryan Tannehill has woken them up and put them in solid position to contend. The defense has stepped up, Derrick Henry is a bulldozer, the special teams unit is blocking field goals with a purpose. The biggest competition the Titans have for the second wild card spot is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The two teams don’t play each other, so it remains important for Tennessee to win as many remaining games as possible.

Another hope is for the Titans to win the division, something they can completely control since they play the Texans in Weeks 15 and 17. Those matchups are huge for the Titans. Other than that, a game against Oakland remains, along with a tough contest against the Saints.

Outsider’s Chance

Oakland Raiders (6-6)

A few weeks ago, the Raiders were looking promising after a primetime win over Philip Rivers and the Chargers, which happened to put them at 6-4 on the season. Now, a few weeks later, the Raiders are in big trouble. After consecutive blowout losses to the on-and-off Jets and division rival Chiefs, the Raiders are on the outside looking in and are mired in a group of playoff hopeful teams seeking to get into the AFC playoffs.

Based on their inept play the past couple weeks, the Raiders don’t look like a team deserving of a playoff berth. Their remaining schedule features the Jaguars, Titans, Chargers, and Broncos.

Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

Remember when the Colts marched into KC and took down the undefeated Chiefs behind an opportunistic defense and confident Jacoby Brissett? It’s become a distant memory for me too, and I know that seems like so long ago, but in the NFL world, that might as well be forever ago.

The Colts were once 5-2 and in prime position to snatch the division, and now they are 6-6 and stuck in a jumbled AFC playoff picture that features more teams in the middle and bottom rather than the top.

I guess Adam Vinatieri is human after all. The ageless wonder has missed many kicks this season, costing the Colts a couple games. Not to pile the blame on him, as the offense has dealt with key injuries too.

Nevertheless, the Colts will need much luck to head to the playoffs again this year. For one, the Raiders are tied with them, and the Steelers, Bills and division rival Titans are ahead in the wild-card standings. The Colts will likely need to win out, and I hope for nothing but prosperity for a team that has dealt with Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement. BUT, that looks somewhat difficult considering Indy plays the streaky Buccaneers, juggernaut Saints, division foe Jaguars, and capable Panthers in the final four games.

Cleveland Browns (5-7)

The Browns will always be the Browns. They have beaten themselves this season with penalties, picks, fights, playcalling, coaching, you name it. After a modest three-game winning streak, the Browns reverted to their losing ways with a loss to Duck Hodges and the Steelers in Week 13.

It’s hard to gage which Pittsburgh game was costlier, the one with the unforgettable brawl or the drama-free one that essentially ended Cleveland’s hopes of finally returning to the playoffs after nearly two decades. The hype is in the rearview window, and the Browns must take a hard look in the mirror this offseason. Freddie Kitchens may not be the right guy for coach, Odell and Baker don’t have that chemistry, and the team looks discombobulated at times despite their overwhelming talent. It’s gonna be another long winter in Northeast Ohio.

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