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AFC playoff picture: Ravens-Steelers in spotlight

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Eight AFC teams entered Week 15 in the mix for the conference's final three playoff spots. Seven of them won.

Denver's loss to New England was hardly a surprise, although it reduces the margin of error for the defending champions to nil. All of the wins last week helped to set up a dramatic final two weeks, so let's break down the permutations below. (Marc Sessler did a bang-up job with the NFC here.)

Win and in

One of the oddities of this tightly-packed race: Five of the eight teams trying to nab the final three spots control their playoff outcome. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Houston and Miami all make the playoffs if they win out. That only works because Baltimore faces off against Pittsburgh and Tennessee plays Houston in the next two weeks. The Broncos, Bills and Colts are the teams that need to win and get help.

The biggest AFC game left on the board

Sunday's Christmas special on NFL Network between the Ravens and Steelers is the biggest game remaining in this AFC season. The Steelers win the AFC North if their defense continues its excellent play at home. The Ravens take control of the division with a victory, although they would still need to win against the Bengals in Week 17 to finish the job.

It's the biggest game left because of the longstanding rivalry and because of the potential for both teams. Unlike in the AFC South, the winner of the AFC North is a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

If the Steelers lose on Sunday, they still have a shot to get into the playoffs. A home game against the Browns in Week 17 is nearly a guaranteed 10th win, which could be enough. (A head-to-head loss against Miami in Week 6 complicates matters.)

Savage Garden

Bill O'Brien's decision to bench Brock Osweiler and stick with Tom Savage makes the Texans more interesting. It probably will make this team better, too. Savage was far better than Osweiler throwing down the field against Jacksonville last week.

We believe the Titans are the best team in the AFC South, but Houston has more routes to the playoffs. A victory by the Texans in Tennessee in Week 17 will win the division for the Texans, regardless of what happens this week. That's because Houston is already 5-0 in the division.

It's also possible that the Texans (8-6) clinch the division this week if they beat Cincinnati on Saturday night and Tennessee loses to the Fighting Marrones in Jacksonville. Add it all up, and the division is likely coming down to Houston-Tennessee in Week 17.

The Colts are coming off their best performance of the season in Minnesota, yet they are further away from the playoffs than they were a week ago. Indianapolis (7-7) essentially needs to finish in a tie with Tennessee at 9-7 to win the division. (The Colts swept the season series over Tennessee.) That scenario requires Houston losing the next two weeks. Indianapolis' road to a wild card is even more far-fetched.

Speaking of which ...

Rex's last stand

Don't count out the Bills just yet! Football Outsiders gives the Bills a 3.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is low but not impossible. Wouldn't it be the most Rex Ryan story ever for his Bills to win two games, get a lot of luck, and then for him to chastise the media (and his front office?) for stories about his ouster?

To make it happen, here's what the Bills need to go down:

» They win their final two games against the Dolphins and Jets. (Reasonable.)

» The Dolphins lose in Week 17 against the Patriots. (Also reasonable.)

» The Ravens lose their final two games to the Steelers and Bengals. (Reasonable, albeit not likely in tandem.)

» The Broncos lose to the Raiders. (Call that a toss-up.)

» Either the Titans or Texans lose this week.

In a vacuum, all of those scenarios are plausible. Let's at least keep this alive heading into the final week, just for the Rex press conferences.

Battle for No. 1

The Patriots have already clinched a bye for the seventh straight season, one of the most remarkable streaks in sports. (The next-longest streak of byes since the NFL went to an eight-division format: four, by the 1990s Cowboys and 49ers.) The Patriots can clinch the top seed in the AFC this week with a victory over the Jets and a Raiders loss against the Colts. Otherwise, New England will head to Miami in Week 17 with a chance to make amends for blowing the No. 1 seed against the Dolphins a year ago in the same position.

Simple math in the West

The Raiders already have a playoff spot and can clinch the AFC West this week with a victory and a Chiefs loss against Denver. It's not hard to figure out the scenarios here. Oakland (11-3) needs to stay ahead of the 10-4 Chiefs to win the division. The Chiefs swept Oakland, so a tie atop the division results in Kansas City getting the AFC's No. 2 seed. (If Baltimore loses early on Christmas Day, the Chiefs will know they have clinched a playoff spot even before they play.)

The Broncos, 2-4 since the start of November, have only beaten two teams currently with winning records this season: Tampa Bay and Houston. Denver will have to win in Kansas City and take out the Raiders in successive weeks to have any real chance at the playoffs. It's more likely that the Broncos don't even make it to Week 17 alive. They would be eliminated with a loss and a win by the Dolphins or Ravens.

About those Dolphins

The Week 17 Dolphins-Patriots game could mean a great deal to both teams -- or it could mean nothing. In the latter scenario, the Patriots clinch the No. 1 seed this week, as explained above, and Miami clinches a playoff spot with a win in Buffalo coupled with a Broncos loss.

Dolphins coach Adam Gase would love to avoid a win-or-else scenario in the regular-season finale against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. And we'd love it if the AFC contenders kept winning as much as possible to keep Week 17 as spicy as possibly. Until then ...

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