AFC playoff picture: Impact of Rob Gronkowski's injury


Rob Gronkowski's back surgery irreparably damages the New England Patriots' offense. Just don't expect it to impact the AFC playoff picture that much.

The Pats (9-2) remain slight favorites for the No. 1 seed in the AFC in large part because of their schedule and the schedule of the Oakland Raiders (also 9-2). Bill Belichick simply doesn't lose to poor teams and he still has the Rams and Jets on the schedule. The ceiling for this Patriots offense is far lower now, something that's likely to show up in matchups against Baltimore and Denver. But it's not like the cupboard is bare, with Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, rookie Malcolm Mitchell, LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. If Belichick's Patriots have any "style," it's their ability to constantly evolve.

New England often has played its best over the years when facing the most daunting obstacles, and a 4-1 finish to the season should be enough to earn the top seed. At the very least, it would be difficult for the Patriots to lose their positioning for a bye.

Oakland's schedule is tougher, with five straight games to close the year against teams that currently have at least five wins, including three road division games. In so many ways, these wildly unpredictable Raiders are the perfect avatars for this strange, congested 2016 season ...

Expect the unexpected

The Raiders have a fancy record and an incredible story, but rarely have looked dominant.

We don't hold that trait against Oakland because it's happening everywhere. There have been 106 games decided by eight points or fewer through Week 12, easily the most in NFL history.

The Raiders are only 10th in the NFL in scoring differential this season, yet they are currently the No. 2 seed in the AFC, hot on the 9-2 Pats' heels for the top spot. There's no telling where Oakland will end up. Over on the NFC side, the Lions and Giants are similarly in position for the playoffs by winning almost only tight games. They are both roughly average in scoring differential, yet combine for a 15-7 record.

The lack of separation is what the NFL wants, keeping most teams relevant as we hit December. It's much easier to list the teams not in the AFC playoff picture. After 12 weeks, 12 teams still have a fighting chance to make the tournament. Only the Bengals, Jets and Jaguars lack realistic playoff hopes. (And the 0-12 Browns are the one team officially eliminated.)

Add this all up, and there will be an avalanche of meaningful games each week down the stretch.

With all the close contests and no dominant teams in the AFC, we expect things to get weird. Here's what we think we know:

That AFC West Invitational isn't looking as strong

Just a few weeks ago, we thought the AFC West was in line to send three teams to the playoffs. That could still happen, but the Broncos are now on the outside looking in at 7-4. Their 1-3 record in the AFC West will make it difficult to win the division. Gary Kubiak's squad is going to be in the middle of this mess to finish out the year with New England, Oakland and Kansas City as their final three opponents. Their offensive line might be too difficult to overcome, especially if underrated starting quarterback Trevor Siemian isn't healthy.

Kansas City is one of three teams left with a legitimate chance to nab the No. 1 overall seed -- and the Chiefs have advantages in the AFC West with a 3-0 division record and a road beatdown of the Raiders in pocket. But K.C.'s remaining schedule is brutal, starting with this week's game in Atlanta.

Oakland only needs to go 3-2 to finish with 12 wins, which should be plenty to earn a bye. Then again, Oakland's previous two games -- against Houston and Carolina -- prove that no win is going to come easily. These AFC West teams will beat up on each other too much in the meantime.

Houston's cushion could be gone by Sunday

We didn't trust the Texans when Brock Osweiler's gang was 6-3 atop a deeply flawed division. We definitely don't trust them now after two straight losses with two road games coming up next. Look for a three-way tie at 6-6 atop the division at the end of Monday night, when Andrew Luck finishes devouring the Jets' barely-beating heart. The Texans will have to win in Lambeau Field on Sunday against a revived Packers defense to prevent that from happening. This should be the second straight week Green Bay finds a passing attack even Dom Capers' mash unit can stop.

With the Titans on a bye, a three-way tie in this division at 6-6 is what everyone deserves. The Colts could be in the driver's seat because of their sweep of Tennessee this season. Next week's Colts bout against the Texans sets up as the biggest game remaining in the division.

Week 13's two biggest AFC tilts

The Dolphins-Ravens game Sunday in Baltimore has been described as a "playoff game," which isn't exactly fair. With this many teams still in the race, everyone aside from San Diego has some margin for error. Baltimore would hardly be out of the two-team AFC North race with Pittsburgh if the Ravens fall to 6-6, so the game sets up as more important for the Dolphins.

Buffalo is in an even tougher spot. The Bills are a game back of Miami in the wild-card race and have to go to Oakland on Sunday. The Bills quietly did a nice job the last two weeks overcoming injuries to take care of business against lackluster squads. But can Rex Ryan's team consistently win with a passing offense this limited? A loss in the Black Hole, which would put Buffalo at 3-5 in the conference, would nearly finish off the Bills.