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AFC Playoff Picture: Patriots control No. 2 seed

With five weeks to go in the NFL season, the AFC playoff picture is far from a lock.

Especially after the Denver Broncos, nursing a titanic lead over the Patriots, crumbled to pieces in a 34-31 overtime loss that thrust New England into sole possession of the conference's second playoff seed.

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Sunday night's classic opened the door for deep intrigue in Week 13, especially in the AFC West, where Denver and the Chiefs -- both notched at 9-2 -- will square off for the second time in three weeks. The Chiefs must take care of business at Arrowhead to avoid a three-game skid; the Broncos hope to dodge two consecutive losses for the first time since early last season.

Back to New England: The Patriots are in a great position to secure a bye. Tom Brady's offense is fully operational, and the team's upcoming games -- against the Texans, Browns, Dolphins, Ravens and Bills -- offer nothing the equal of the Panthers' and Broncos' 1-2 punch New England just emerged from.

Here's what else we learned:

Sixth-seed scramble


It's possible an 8-8 team -- even a 7-9 wreck -- sneaks into the postseason in the AFC.

A horde of mediocre clubs are vying for the conference's No. 6 seed. The Dolphins, Ravens, Jets, Steelers, Titans and Chargers all sit at 5-6. A flock of lost 4-7 squads -- the Bills, Browns and Raiders -- still are mathematically alive.

We recently debated which of these flawed teams will emerge from the haze, and the Chargers deserve mention. Their remaining schedule is brutal, but San Diego has a revived franchise passer in Philip Rivers and just knocked off the Chiefs.

Sifting through the litter, it's hard to take the Jets seriously with a Turnover Droid under center, and the Dolphins remain an unrewarding enigma. Still, the winner of Sunday's New York-Miami tilt will get back to .500 with four games to go.

Logic tells us the top option for the sixth spot will emerge from the ...

Rough-and-tumble AFC North


But not from Cleveland.

Thursday's meeting between the Steelers and Ravens looked like a stinker two weeks ago, but the Turkey Day victor will jump to 6-6 and take center stage for the AFC's final wild-card spot.

Gut feeling: I see Pittsburgh taking care of business on the road for its fourth consecutive win. Looking long-term, with the Bengals (7-4) playing the Steelers in Week 15 and the Ravens in the season finale, Cincy's grasp on the North is far from a lock.

Assuming (for now) the Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Colts and Chiefs make it into January play, here's how I rank the sixth-seed hopefuls:

a. Steelers
b. Chargers
c. Ravens
d. Dolphins
e. Jets
f. Titans

Colts in peril?


That depends on your expectations.

Indy remains a strong bet to win the AFC South, but only because -- per above -- we see Tennessee as the "f" team in a flock of half-baked outfits.

The Colts rode into Week 12 with a three-game lead in the division, but that shrunk to two after Sunday's ugly loss to the Cardinals. Next up: the Titans at Lucas Oil.

With the Bengals, Texans, Chiefs and Jaguars on the slate after Tennessee, Indy (7-4) likely can win the South with a 2-3 mark down the stretch. Come January, the fun will end.

Looking ahead to Week 13


Pittsburgh Steelers (5-6) at Baltimore Ravens (5-6): NFL Media's Dave Dameshek calls this one a coin flip: "Look it up," he told me. "Every game these teams have ever played has been 13-10." Not accurate, but point made.

Miami Dolphins (5-6) at New York Jets (5-6): The Jets looked like sixth-seed darlings 14 days ago, but the GenoCoaster® has been flung off the rails into night.

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Tennessee Titans (5-6) at Indianapolis Colts (7-4): It feels like eons ago when we spoke of the Colts as the NFL's toughest team.

New England Patriots (8-3) at Houston Texans (2-9): The beginning of a soft tail-end to the schedule for the Pats.

Denver Broncos (9-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-2): Will be hard to take K.C. seriously if it drops three in a row.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) at San Diego Chargers (5-6): Hypothetical flight of fancy: Add this year's Philip Rivers to this year's Bengals and Cincy would be MetLife-bound.

The latest "Around the League Podcast" broke down Patriots-Broncos and every Week 12 game.

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