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AFC Playoff Picture: Who takes the North?

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The Cincinnati Bengals had a chance Sunday to make the AFC North race boring. That's just not how things go in the AFC in 2014.

Twelve teams will enter Week 15 with a winning record, which is the most any conference has ever had this late in the season. And the events of Week 14, especially in Cincinnati, ensure that we'll have a tight finish to the season.

Pittsburgh put itself in a great spot with the road win. The Steelers could sweep Cincinnati with a Week 17 win and possibly take the division. Then again: Pittsburgh hasn't handled success well all year. Baltimore has the easiest schedule left of the trio: vs. Jacksonville, at Houston and in a home season finale against the Browns.

Add it all up, and the AFC North winner should not be decided until the final week. And it wouldn't surprise us if the division winds up sending three teams to the playoffs. When we play out the rest of the season using the NFL.com playoff predictor, the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all get in in many of the scenarios.

Dan Hanzus had a jaunty look at the NFC this week. What else did we learn about the AFC playoff picture after Week 14?


Browns suffer biggest loss


A raft of AFC contenders lost in Week 14: Kansas City, Miami, San Diego and Buffalo. Cleveland's home loss to Indianapolis was the most damaging because of the Browns' blown lead -- and because it dropped the team into last place in the division. The Browns' tiebreakers are generally not helpful; they are 4-6 in the conference, with head-to-head losses to Buffalo and Houston.

Miami had the next-roughest loss because it happened at home to Baltimore, another wild-card contender. The Dolphins have usually looked better than a 7-6 team this season, but their defense is no longer playing well and they lost too many tight games to quality teams. Their margin of error is down to nil with a trip to New England this week.

That reminds me ...

A sixth loss is not a killer


We keep hearing exasperated fans say that the "season is over" after every loss. Any AFC team that has yet to reach seven losses is not only alive but has a good chance to make the playoffs if it can get to 10 wins.

Go through the remaining schedules for most of the contenders. There are few easy slates and a lot of matchups against one another. There's a reason why all of these teams are 8-5 and 7-6. They haven't been consistent enough to put together long winning streaks. To put it another way: There will be a lot of losses down the stretch from the contenders, and we suspect that few of these teams even get to 10 wins. It wouldn't be that shocking if a nine-win team got into the playoffs, although we're a long way from that possibility.

In short, don't give up until that seventh loss!

The sneaky big games of the week


Houston has persistently hung around the playoff race while no one noticed. We don't particularly believe the Texans will win at Indianapolis on Sunday, but it would open up the AFC South race in the last two weeks. The Texans finish with home games against Baltimore and Tennessee.

San Diego-Denver is another division matchup this Sunday that could potentially re-open a race most observers considered dead. The Chargers have looked better in recent weeks, and their Week 16 trip to San Francisco no longer looks as challenging. In short: a win over the Broncos could be the key to pushing the Chargers into the playoffs.

Patriots survive toughest test left


New England survived a double-digit deficit in San Diego and now just needs to take care of business in three division games to clinch the No. 1 seed. Miami and Buffalo are frisky enough to pull off an upset, but they both are traveling to Foxborough. The Broncos look more likely to trip up in the final three weeks with games in San Diego and Cincinnati. The Colts, meanwhile, still have a chance at a playoff bye.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Sunday game from Week 14 and discusses the Seahawks' return to Super Bowl form. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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