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AFC Playoff Picture: Will Bengals or Broncos lose leads?

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With three weeks remaining the season, the AFC Playoff Picture is shaping up to be a lot more interesting than the NFC. Sunday's action included a dramatic shakeup in the top three teams, a fallen team in the wild card race, and two more divisions suddenly in play.

You can see the official playoff picture and upcoming schedule right here. In the meantime, let's break down all the impact below.

Bengals in trouble


The Patriots were the big winners Sunday, zooming back to the No. 1 seed in the AFC while looking like the Patriots again in the process. Despite all their injuries, this is the best Patriots defense since 2004. They essentially get a bye this week with a home game against Tennessee, before a big game at the Jets in Week 16. The Patriots could now lose that Jets game and still get a bye. They could potentially even lose a third game and still get the No. 1 seed. It's hard to imagine the Patriots not earning a playoff bye for the sixth straight year, which is one of the more underrated achievements in sports. The previous record was four straight by the Bill Walsh 49ers.

Long term, Andy Dalton's broken thumb could still be the most devastating injury news in an NFL season full of them. The good news is Dalton won't need surgery, as NFL Media Ian Rapoport reported, and the hope is that he will be back for the playoffs. In his absence, we still can't count out the Bengals from earning a playoff bye. Backup AJ McCarron looked better than you think against Pittsburgh and he's surrounded by plenty of talent. The Bengals should still be favored to beat the 49ers (Week 15) and Ravens (Week 17) with McCarron.

Denver's loss to the Raiders was nearly as damaging as Cincinnati falling short to Pittsburgh. The Broncos will be underdogs on the road this week in Pittsburgh, and could be staring at a two-game losing streak. That would leave the Broncos with a "must win" in Week 16 on Monday night against the Bengals or they'd risk falling out of the division lead. Sure, the Bengals look weakened with McCarron. But do we really know that the Broncos have some huge quarterback advantage with Osweiler? And will they consider going back to Peyton Manning if they lose two straight games before facing the Bengals?

The Broncos and Bengals are fascinating because they still have a legitimate chance to win the No. 1 seed, and they could theoretically fall into the wild card race.

AFC North, West back up for grabs?


Dare to dream, Chiefs and Steelers fans. Both teams are two games back in their division with three games to play. The Chiefs are in the better spot to steal a division title because they would own the tiebreaks over Denver in the event of a tie at 11-5. The Bengals should win the AFC North even if they tie Pittsburgh at 11-5. One more conference win for the Bengals (including the Ravens in Week 17) clinches the division.

So if you are into doomsday scenarios, Broncos fans should be more worried. They have two tough games remaining and the Chiefs don't have any winning teams left on their schedule.

Of course, the Steelers and Chiefs are far from guaranteed to even make the playoffs ...

Three teams for two spots


Goodnight, Buffalo Bills. In some years, a Rex Ryan led team could lose a big December game and improbably rally to make the playoffs. (Think 2009 Jets.) This is not one of those years. The Bills are now two games back of the Jets, Chiefs, and Steelers with three weeks left. There's little reason to believe that nine wins could be enough to make the playoffs, and the 6-7 Bills haven't won three straight games all year anyhow. Why start now?

That leaves the Jets, Chiefs, and Steelers fighting for two spots. The Chiefs have the clearest path with three games against losing teams and a head-to-head win over Pittsburgh. They also have the best conference record by two games. In short: The Chiefs are very likely to make the playoffs. They could lose once, and still have a good chance to get in via tiebreak.

The Steelers and Jets have tougher schedules and a bigger need to win out. Pittsburgh hosts Denver this week, which is the Steelers' toughest game left. The Jets have two very tricky games against the Patriots and in Buffalo Week 17. The Jets also would lose a tiebreak with Pittsburgh at 10-6 unless the Jets' remaining loss was to the Cowboys. Got all that?

Add it all up, and the Jets have the toughest path to the playoffs of the three teams.

About that AFC South


The race for the top wild card spot in the AFC matters because the winner gets a big reward: A game at the AFC South champion. The winner of Sunday's Texans-Colts game will be at 7-7, up one game with two to play. If the Colts win, the race will almost be over. They will have the season sweep and essentially lead by a game and a half. The game could feature T.J. Yates versus Charlie Whitehurst or Brian Hoyer versus Andrew Luck. We're losing our appetite for caring about this division.

The Jaguars have climbed back into the race Sunday despite their 5-8 record. Their remaining schedule is quite manageable with a home game against Atlanta before road tilts in New Orleans and Houston. Then again, the Jaguars probably need to win out for a legitimate chance to make it. Do we really think this up and down team can end the season on a four-game winning streak?

Tune in next week, when all of the words above prove irrelevant after Week 15 upsets.

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