AFC Playoff Picture: Steelers are a freaky dark horse


The Buffalo Bills on Monday night were handed an outstanding chance to make their move in the AFC playoff picture. Their only problem? The Patriots.

After watching a trio of NFC powerhouses -- the Panthers, Cardinals and Packers -- add to their gaudy records on Sunday, New England followed suit with a 20-13 win at Gillette Stadium. Injury-ravaged and hurt by an officiating meltdown, the Patriots reached peak vulnerability against Buffalo, but it didn't matter.

No team adjusts to setbacks, off-field controversy and on-field challenges better than New England. Sitting at 10-0, the Patriots aren't the team they were two weeks ago, not with Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman out of the lineup. Still, history tells us that Bill Belichick and his trusted gaggle of assistants will shift roles and responsibilities, iron out the wrinkles and cook up hand-crafted schemes to outduel the competition.

In a conference absent of a true challenger, it's not impossible to imagine the Patriots rolling into Super Bowl 50 without a fight. Still, I see two teams with a shot at unseating New England:

Northern Lights

Sunday evening's loss to the Cardinals actually gave me hope for the Bengals.

Instead of folding the tent on prime time -- as many expected -- Andy Dalton made a rash of big-boy throws and took Cincy to the brink against a legitimate Super Bowl contender on the road. At their best, the Bengals (8-2) possess the talent on offense to keep pace with New England in a shootout. Their remaining schedule offers a pristine chance to carve out the AFC's second-best record with a head-to-head showdown in Denver (8-2) and gimmes against the Rams, Browns, 49ers and Ravens.

The Bengals also play the Steelers (6-4), who blew up the Browns two Sundays ago with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. Piling up 379 yards through the air, Big Ben repeatedly gunned the ball downfield to his talented playmakers. The Steelers have battled injuries all year, but a healthy Pittsburgh offense has the power to give New England fits. 

After all, the NFL's best quarterbacks win in January. Outside of Brady, Roethlisberger is the lone AFC passer who can be trusted to take his team the distance. Currently notched as the No. 5 seed, Pittsburgh's schedule is no joke, with tilts against the Seahawks, Colts, Bengals and Broncos. If they make it to January, though, this freaky dark-horse could make serious noise.

Swarm of mediocrity

Is this the parity everyone wanted?

Beyond the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Steelers, it's tough to take the AFC seriously.

Someone has to win the South -- the NFL says so. The Colts (5-5) currently own the tie-breaker, but the Texans (5-5) and Jaguars (4-6) are hot on Indy's tail. All three play each other down the stretch, leaving this anti-drama very much up for grabs.

None of those teams look as good as the Chiefs (5-5), riding a four-game win streak and fielding one of the conference's nastiest defensive lineups. They're talented enough to grab the AFC's second wild-card spot behind Pittsburgh -- maybe even the first -- barring a major uprising from the Jets and Bills.

Which brings us to the New York Jets (5-5) and Buffalo (5-5), a pair of clubs that (A) can't touch the Patriots and (B) can't get out of their own way. The Jets roared out of the gate, but the secondary has stumbled and running back Chris Ivory has fizzled up on the ground. The Bills have a bunch of talent, but the AFC's most undisciplined team isn't built to play with the big boys. Not yet.

Pro Bowl ballot

The Raiders (4-6) were a fine story, but Oakland needs a Cinderella run against a tough remaining schedule. The Dolphins (4-6) are even more of a stretch.

Broncos in flux

Denver looms as a mystery team. Will Peyton Manning return to the lineup or will the Broncos hand over control to Brock Osweiler? Still in the race for a first-round bye, I can't take Denver seriously in January with Manning under center. He's one of the great quarterbacks of all time -- maybe the finest -- but not anymore. It's time to ride with Osweiler and hope he can pull off a Brady circa 2001.

Early clinchings

It's simple. The Patriots can seal their seventh straight AFC East title next week if they beat the Broncos and the Jets fall to the Dolphins. And if it doesn't happen Sunday, the scenario is bound to happen next week. The road to Super Bowl 50 rolls through Foxborough.