Let's be real about this.
Barring any catastrophic events, the Indianapolis Colts are going to win the AFC South. Their 6-0 record makes that hard to dispute, as does the fact Peyton Manning is in his MVP groove and everyone else on both sides of the ball is performing with a take-no-prisoners consistency.
That means the best playoff hope for the rest of the division is to land a wild-card spot. And by "rest of the division," we're talking mainly about the Houston Texans, who are 4-3 and have a pretty good quarterback of their own in Matt Schaub.
At 3-3, the Jacksonville Jaguars aren't out of the discussion by any means, but the case for them isn't quite as compelling as it is for the Texans, who are above .500 after seven games for the first time since 2004. At least, not at the moment.
The Texans finally are showing signs of consistency. After a pattern of lose-win-lose-win-lose, they put together back-to-back victories against the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers. With a win at Buffalo on Sunday, the Texans, at 5-3, would be off to the best start in their eight-year history.
For the first time in a while, they're feeling like a legitimate force.
"That's the difference in this team now," tackle Eric Winston said. "It's not that we're hoping to win or we're saying we might be able to win. I think the guys are going out there -- road, home -- expecting to win."
But having five victories at midseason is less important than what adding another conference triumph would mean to their pursuit of a much larger milestone -- their first playoff appearance.
The Bills might not be generating similar hopes for even their most loyal followers, but they're a team the Texans absolutely must beat if they're to finally break their postseason drought. They're also a team the Texans cannot afford to overlook while focusing on their Week 9 showdown at Indianapolis.
"That Indy game is only going to mean as much as we want it to mean if we win this week," said Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who ranks second among all tight ends this seeason in receptions (39) and tied for second in touchdowns (5). "We know that if we want to be division champs, we're going to have to knock (the Colts) off and play a lot better. But we're concerned with what we can control, and that's how well we're playing. Obviously, Indianapolis is playing good football right now, but we're worried about us winning games. When we play them, we'll worry about beating them."
That sense of focus is a good sign. So is the Texans' dissatisfaction with how they've played.
Despite the fact Schaub is the fourth-rated passer in the NFL and leads the league with 16 touchdown passes, and Andre Johnson is the NFL's leader in receiving yards, the Texans know their offense has plenty of room to improve. Their running game ranks near the bottom of the league in rushing (30th), and Steve Slaton has lost four fumbles in seven games. Their defense has done a better job against the run than it did earlier in the season, but remains a work in progress.
"We had the chance to really put them away, and we didn't," Winston said. "I think that's what great teams do. Obviously, we're probably not a great team yet. That's what we've got to understand -- that there's still a lot of room for improvement and even though we're winning, we can't get complacent."
Staring up at the unbeaten Colts would figure to make that a little easier.
The Texans aren't the only team that finds itself parked behind division leaders off to strong starts. Here's a closer look at the others, listed in alphabetical order, and what they need to do to make the playoffs:
Best hope to make the playoffs: Improve their running game. On the way to an 11-5 finish and wild-card berth last season, the Falcons ranked second in the NFL in rushing with an average of 152.7 yards per game. After six games, they rank 19th. One reason the Falcons have struggled with the run is that they've faced four teams that play a 3-4 base defense, which excels at stopping the run. They'll go against only one more, the New York Jets, through the balance of the season.
Situation: At 3-3, the Ravens are in third place in the AFC North behind Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, which share the top spot at 5-2.
Best hope to make the playoffs: Considering how well the Bengals and Steelers are performing and the fact the Ravens have lost three straight, they look like a longshot to reach the postseason. But the Ravens were 3-0 at one point. They have the NFL's fifth-ranked offense and are seventh against the run. It wouldn't be a reach to say their season pretty much hinges on the outcome of Sunday's game against unbeaten Denver, an opponent that would serve as a good gauge of whether the Ravens should be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
Situation: At 3-3, the Bears are in third place in the NFC North behind Minnesota (6-1) and Green Bay (4-2).
Best hope to make the playoffs: Shaking things up. After their 45-10 loss to the Bengals in Week 7, the Bears are making lineup changes on their offensive and defensive lines, and at linebacker. How much will it improve their hopes for a playoff run? It's hard to say, but something had to be done after such a humiliating performance. The Bears' brass certainly had to squirm after watching quarterback/savior Jay Cutler throw three interceptions against Cincinnati, but it could be argued he was pressing too hard. Although he ranks 21st in the NFL in passer rating, Cutler remains the Bears' best chance of reaching the postseason.
Situation: At 4-2, they trail the Vikings (6-1) in the NFC North.
Best hope to make the playoffs: The obvious next step is to beat the Vikings on Sunday. The Packers seem to have the makings of a playoff team. They have one of the NFL's best young quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers. Their running game is showing signs of life. And although the opponents were Detroit and Cleveland, the Packers still have to feel good about a defense that has allowed only three points in the last two weeks, something the team hasn't accomplished in back-to-back games since 1966.
Best hope to make the playoffs: It's hard to believe that the Chargers, a popular preseason pick to reach the Super Bowl, are in jeopardy of not making the postseason. But that's what happens when you perform as inconsistently as they have (and when the division leader is playing as well as any team in the league). The Chargers do have a highly talented quarterback in Philip Rivers and a quick-striking passing attack. However, the biggest areas of concern are their next-to-last-ranked running game and one of the league's worst run defenses (ranked 28th).