AFC playoff picture: Which teams do you trust most?


It's no longer just the Patriots and everyone else in the AFC.

New England has company in the form of Oakland, a magical, offensive whirlwind of a team now doubling as the conference's No. 1 seed.

With identical 10-2 marks, the Patriots and Raiders sit atop a rowdy heap of playoff hopefuls positioning themselves for single-elimination play.

Not all those clubs, though, have the horsepower to go the distance. Current seedings aside, which AFC teams have the proven experience, roster talent and coaching prowess to make a difference in the postseason?

With that question in mind, it's time for another round of ...

Who do you trust?

1) New England Patriots (10-2) | Playoff standing: 2nd seed. It would be edgy to bury the Patriots behind Oakland, but we're talking about a coach-and-quarterback combination that hasn't missed the playoffs since 2002 (not counting the Matt Cassel season of '08). New England has notched 10-plus wins in 14 straight seasons, the second-longest streak in NFL history. The loss of game-changing tight end Rob Gronkowski is concerning -- it's proven fatal in the past -- but nobody catches Bill Belichick and Tom Brady by surprise. Can they be beaten? Yes. Will it be for lack of preparation and experience? Never.

Remaining games: vs. Ravens (7-5), at Broncos (8-4), vs. Jets (3-9), at Dolphins (7-5).

2) Oakland Raiders (10-2) | Playoff standing: 1st seed. Trailing Buffalo 24-9 on Sunday, it was impressive to see the Raiders gather themselves midgame and scatter the Bills down the stretch. Quarterback Derek Carr looms as a bona fide MVP contender heading an offense that can't be suppressed over four quarters. The defense is vulnerable, but also led by a raging star in Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack. The Raiders have our respect and attention.

Remaining games: at Chiefs (9-3), at Chargers (5-7), vs. Colts (6-6), at Broncos (8-4).

3) Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) | Playoff standing: 8th seed. Coach Mike Tomlin authors too many stinkers against lesser competition, but Pittsburgh still has the requisite firepower to match the Raiders and Patriots in a shootout. After Brady, Ben Roethlisberger is the AFC quarterback I want in any situation. If All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown and the phenomenal Le'Veon Bell stay healthy, the Steelers have enough core talent to turn the AFC upside down.

Remaining games: at Bills (6-6), at Bengals (4-7-1), vs. Ravens (7-5), vs. Browns (0-12).

4) Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) | Playoff standing: 5th seed. The resilient Chiefs are 19-3 in their last 22 regular-season games. Over that span, they boast the NFL's top winning percentage (.864), point differential (+189) and turnover differential (+30). With Andy Reid at the helm, Kansas City has proven it can win with Alex Smith and best a scoring machine like the Falcons. This is an opinion piece, so here's mine: For all the fine regular-season production, I simply don't trust Kansas City to take out clubs like Pittsburgh, Oakland and New England in January. Do you?

Remaining games: vs. Raiders (10-2), vs. Titans (6-6), vs. Broncos (8-4), at Chargers (5-7).

5) Denver Broncos (8-4) | Playoff standing: 6th seed. Is Gary Kubiak the most overlooked coach in football? He won a Super Bowl last season with a mostly-broken-down Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler. One year later, he has Trevor Siemian -- a human who 99.9 percent of the planet had never heard of last season -- playing well enough to earn a party invite. The ground game is a concern, but Denver's defense remains the most disruptive in the NFL. The Broncos always find a way into the light. In Elway we trust.

Remaining games: at Titans (6-6), vs. Patriots (10-2), at Chiefs (9-3), vs. Raiders (10-2).

6) Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | Playoff standing: 3rd seed. Eight teams on this list have failed to do what the Ravens have done: win a Super Bowl with their current quarterback. If you want to argue that Joe Flacco's sensational title run in January 2013 was aided by Baltimore's defense, what's changed? The Ravens own the NFL's second-best scoring defense and sit on pace to outshine their historically dominant Y2K unit in a handful of statistical categories. The Ravens have the talent on defense to cause problems for high-powered offenses. They're down at No. 6 because the offense looms as a touchdown-averse operation led by team MVP Justin Tucker -- their kicker.

Remaining games: at Patriots (10-2), vs. Eagles (5-7), at Steelers (7-5), at Bengals (4-7-1).

7) Indianapolis Colts (6-6) | Playoff standing: 9th seed. A flawed team with a sensational quarterback. The Colts can win the AFC South -- and maybe more -- if Andrew Luck can somehow make up for a wanting defense, low-wattage ground game and still-porous offensive line.

Remaining games: vs. Texans (6-6), at Vikings (6-6), at Raiders (10-2), vs. Jaguars (2-10).

8) Tennessee Titans (6-6) | Playoff standing: 11th seed. Someone has to win the South. The Titans will be a load to deal with if they catch a January opponent susceptible to Tennessee's power-run scheme. The defense is far from pristine, but Marcus Mariota is quietly enjoying a sensational campaign. This roster has the early makings of an AFC beast.

Remaining games: vs. Broncos (8-4), at Chiefs (9-3), at Jaguars (2-10), vs. Texans (6-6).

9) Miami Dolphins (7-5) | Playoff standing: 7th seed. Trust? Not for a team that just suffered a 38-6 beat down in Baltimore. Still, Adam Gase is a quality coach who coaxed a six-game win streak out of a club nobody believed in. It's a strong building block for next season, but the roster isn't built to upset the apple cart in 2016.

Remaining games: vs. Cardinals (5-6-1), at Jets (3-9), at Bills (6-6), vs. Patriots (10-2).

10) Buffalo Bills (6-6) | Playoff standing: 10th seed. The Bills are fun to watch. Rex Ryan's team spent two-plus quarters pounding the Raiders into the dirt on Sunday before Buffalo's defense fell to pieces. The Bills will need to win out for a playoff spot and that isn't going to happen.

Remaining games: vs. Steelers (7-5), vs. Browns (0-12), vs. Dolphins (7-5), at Jets (3-9).

11) Houston Texans (6-6) | Playoff standing: 4th seed. Fourth seed? Give me a break. Houston's defense has some wonderful pieces and Bill O'Brien looks like a long-term answer at coach. Still, it's impossible to trust this offense with Brock Osweiler flat-lining as the worst deep passer in the NFL. The Texans seem to regress weekly on this side of the ball and their hold over the South is slipping quick.

Remaining games: at Colts (6-6), vs. Jaguars (2-10), vs. Bengals (4-7-1), at Titans (6-6).



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