AFC playoff picture: Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos rolling


The AFC West Invitational is set to start on Saturday, Jan. 7, unless the rest of the conference gets its act together.

This year feels different than 2013, when the division grabbed three playoff berths. Back then, the Chiefs and Chargers were supporting actors in a Broncos star turn. The 2016 versions of the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos all can make legitimate cases as Super Bowl contenders.

Through 10 weeks, only four AFC teams have won seven games: the Patriots and the aforementioned AFC West trio. Only two other wild-card hopefuls (Miami and Tennessee) even have five wins. That's a significant gap in the standings, with Thanksgiving nearly here.

At this stage, it would be a surprise if two AFC West teams didn't face each other on Wild Card Weekend, with a third sitting at home after winning the ...

Race for the Byes

The NFL has a way of making all predictions look asinine in retrospect, yet we continue to make them with ignorant confidence. Here's one more layup that will probably bounce off the rim: The two playoff byes will go to New England and the AFC West champion.

The Patriots have earned a bye every season since Rob Gronkowski entered the league in 2010, an NFL-record streak that should continue this season. Just check out their upcoming schedule, which includes games against the 49ers, Jets (twice) and Rams. Bill Belichick has wiggle room to lose a few of the team's tougher games (vs. Ravens, at Broncos, at Dolphins) and still get a top seed. Twelve wins should be plenty to secure a bye this season.

Each remaining AFC West division game will feel like a playoff contest, and the resulting carnage will only help the Patriots. Oakland has the advantage, with the ninth-easiest remaining schedule in football, according to Football Outsiders. That's partly because the Raiders next head to Mexico City on Monday night to play the paper lions atop the AFC South. Speaking of ...

Who will save us from Brock?

No one wants to revisit last season's depressing Texans shutout on Wild Card Saturday, a conceivable result with this Houston team. By some measures, this is the worst team of the last 25 years to have a winning record this late in the season. The passing game has been Brocked, which somehow represents a steep decline from the halcyon days of Hoyer and Mallett in Houston.

The Colts and, especially, the Titans have more firepower than the Texans. If the Fighting Mularkeys could just end their Indianapolis losing streak this weekend in a playoff-lite game, they would be set up well to pass the Texans down the stretch.

The AFC South should be a one-playoff-team division. That's surprisingly also true about the ...

Most disappointing division in football

The four AFC North teams have combined to go 7-19-1 against teams outside of the division, and you can't blame that all on the Browns. The Bengals' line play on both sides of the ball suddenly went soft. The Ravens' offense is just as bad with Joe Flacco this season as it was last season without him. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is now five seasons removed from his last above-average defense.

Combine Pittsburgh's offense with Baltimore's defense like some modern-era Steagles team and you'd have a Super Bowl contender. Since that's not happening, this division is searching for a complete squad.

Despite their 4-5 record, the Steelers have the best chance, because of their offensive firepower. Baltimore's schedule is brutal the rest of the way, while Pittsburgh has finished the toughest part of its slate. The Bengals need a victory Sunday against the Bills just to stay relevant. That is also fair to say about Rex Ryan's squad, as Buffalo tries to hang around.

So could any non-West team nab a wild-card spot?

The Dolphins, now 5-4 after a four-game winning streak, can make the strongest case to reach the tournament if one of the AFC West teams should falter. The defensive line is starting to play how Dolphins Football Czar Mike Tannenbaum envisioned, and the offense has an identity, with Jay Ajayi running through tackles. The Bills and the eventual runner-up in the AFC North have some hope, but the margins for error are slim.

Unlike the teams in the NFC, simply hanging around .500 won't be good enough for AFC teams to stay in the wild-card race. The AFC West is aiming to keep the riffraff out of the playoff mix this season.