The Debrief: AFC playoff picture offers four-team wild-card race

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Both wild-card spots remain open in the AFC heading into Week 17, with a potential playoff appearance meaning something different for each of the four teams fighting for two slots.

The Ravens have the clearest path and the most reason for confidence, with five wins in six games and a history under this coaching staff for peaking in the playoffs. The Chargers are trying to win fans in a new city and give Philip Rivers only his second playoff appearance this decade. The Bills are trying to end that streak, while the Titans are trying to end the type of late-season slide that often gets a coach fired.

Here's a look at how the AFC stacks up after Week 16 -- and a preview of what's ahead:

1) New England Patriots (12-3): Before Jimmy Garoppolo tortures greedy, second-guessing Patriots fans for the next decade, he delivered a Christmas Eve gift in the form of a playoff bye. Jacksonville's loss to Jimmy GQ's 49ers clinched the Patriots' eighth straight bye into the Divisional Round. Of all the insane Belichick-Brady era stats, this run of regular-season dominance stands out as the least likely to ever be matched.

A win over Bryce Petty's Jets this week or a Steelers loss would clinch home-field advantage for the Patriots, an edge that does not make this team look unbeatable. Sunday's performance against Buffalo was emblematic of a Patriots season where they never look as dominant as their record or the final score, where the defensive front seven lacks talent ... but where Tom Brady and Bill Belichick usually problem-solve their way out of trouble by the fourth quarter anyway.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3): Christmas came early for the Steelers when the Jaguars slipped up in Santa Clara. That allowed Pittsburgh to secure a bye in the playoffs with a blowout win over the Texans on Christmas, a performance that should help the organization move past its bitter loss to the Patriots.

The bye allows wide receiver Antonio Brown an extra week to get healthy, while his calf injury has allowed JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Vance McDonald to excel while taking on bigger roles. The unstoppable Steelers offense everyone expected to see early in the season has arrived down the stretch. If the Pittsburgh defense that played in the first half of the season ever shows up again, this team would be the class of the AFC.

Claiming the No. 1 seed remains possible, if unlikely. The Steelers and Patriots both play at 1 p.m. ET in Week 17, so the Steelers should be playing all-out against the winless Browns, just in case the Patriots stumble.

3) Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5): The upstart Jaguars were in no mood to celebrate their AFC South title after an embarrassing performance in Santa Clara. That speaks to the raised expectations for a team that started to see itself -- and talk about itself -- as a Super Bowl contender over the last month.

Pittsburgh's win over Houston on Christmas spiked the Jaguars' chances for a bye, so technically Jacksonville has little to play for in the finale at Tennessee. I'd still be stunned if coach Doug Marrone didn't go all out to avoid a season sweep to the Titans. Blake Bortles lost his mojo in Santa Clara, the defense lost its air of dominance and the entire team lost its composure. These Jags need to reset before the franchise's biggest game in a decade.

4) Kansas City Chiefs (9-6): The Chiefs won the AFC West on Sunday, which inspired two reactions. 1) That's not enough. 2) Can Mahomes play in Week 17?

That's the world coach Andy Reid has created, one in which he deserves credit for being one of only four NFL teams to make the playoffs the last two years. (Reid has made it four times in five years with Kansas City.)

The Chiefs are locked into the No. 4 seed, having outscored opponents 85-41 over the last three weeks. Their reward could be a difficult Wild Card Weekend opponent. ...

5) Baltimore Ravens (9-6): Don't underestimate what a playoff appearance means to a proud Ravens franchise and coach John Harbaugh's staff. One more win in Week 17 against the Bengals puts Baltimore back in the tournament for the first time since blowing a two-touchdown lead in Foxborough to the eventual champion Patriots three seasons ago. (The Ravens could also back into the playoffs if the Titans or Bills lose in Week 17.)

Saturday's closer-than-necessary win over the Colts raised further concerns about a defense that has not looked the same since cornerback Jimmy Smith was hurt in Week 13 against the Lions. Then again, Joe Flacco hasn't looked the same since then, either -- and that's a good thing. The Ravens QB has thrown seven touchdown passes against only one interception, posting a 7.0 YPA on an astounding 151 attempts over the last four weeks. The Ravens aren't explosive and running back Alex Collins' recent downturn needs to correct, but they are moving the ball far more consistently than earlier in the season. Leading the NFL in turnover margin (+17), dominating field position and relying on special teams is hardly a new formula for Baltimore. A lot of those wins during the franchise's salad days didn't look so pretty, either.

6) Tennessee Titans (8-7): The Titans weren't taken that seriously at 8-4. Now 8-7, they wish the season ended today because it would be the easiest way to save their playoff hopes.

The Titans will make the playoffs with a win over the Jaguars or with Week 17 defeats from the Chargers and Bills. It was Tennessee's blowout loss to Jacksonville late last season that took the Titans out of the playoff picture and helped convince the Jaguars to promote coach Doug Marrone to the full-time position. Another loss by Titans coach Mike Mularkey to Marrone could convince the team to look elsewhere for new leadership.

7) Los Angeles Chargers (8-7): This is where the scenarios get a little complicated. By virtue of their underwhelming win against the Jets, the Chargers are still very much alive in the playoff race, with a home game against Oakland coming on Sunday. But the Chargers need some help.

A win over the Raiders combined with a Titans loss to Jacksonville and a Ravens win over the Bengals would vault the Chargers to the No. 6 seed. The Bolts could also sneak in with a win if the Titans and Bills both lose. In short: A Titans win knocks the Chargers out of the playoffs and the Chargers are in good shape if Tennessee blows it.

After a season that started with wayward field goals and is ending with some poorly-timed injuries, what could go wrong?

8) Buffalo Bills (8-7): Of the four wild-card contenders, the Bills are the longest shot to make the playoffs. But just competing for a postseason nod in Week 17 qualifies as progress for an overachieving team with a first-year head coach.

After Buffalo's loss in Foxborough on Sunday, the Bills have two clear paths to the playoffs. Coach Sean McDermott's squad needs to win in Miami this week and hope the Ravens lose or the Bills need to combine a win with losses from the Titans and Chargers. Buffalo does not have the makeup of a team that could be dangerous in the playoffs, but just getting to the tournament would be massive in order to end those endless playoff-drought graphics.

As Bills fans know well, it's a lot less fun to be on the outside looking in at this time of year. After 16 weeks, we are down to 15 NFL teams that remain relevant. Three more get knocked out this Sunday, including two of the AFC wild-card hopefuls above.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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