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AFC wild-card race: Bills, Titans inspire confidence; Jags cooked

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Each week between now and Super Bowl LIV, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious, filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.

Here's this week's briefing:

The circus has rolled into town. Plenty of clowns, a few magicians and a fat lady prepping for one execution song after the next.

The AFC wild-card race is a cluster of tangible hopefuls and half-baked entries. Sorting through this mess is a chore, one that boils down to feeling confidence in a cadre of fifth- and sixth-seed applicants yet to earn that brand of respect.

Especially after watching the Ravens separate the Rams into 10,000 pieces on national television. Our hope for playoff fun in the AFC boils down to New England and/or Kansas City matching wits with "Big Trust" Baltimore. For the sake of clarity, I'm penciling in -- for now -- the high-ceiling Texans as winners of the AFC South.

From there, it's nothing short of a fool's guessing game as to how the next month-plus will shake out. (Isn't football grand?) Willing to play that fool, I'm slapping my wholly combustible CONFIDENCE READING on each of these remaining AFC wannabees.

Let's dig right into this meal-before-the-real-meal -- and, dear friends, a happy Thanksgiving to all of you from all of us over at ON MY RADAR PRODUCTIONS:

Buffalo Bills (8-3)

Imagine waltzing up to a run-of-the-mill Bills fanatic in August and announcing that Buffalo would be 8-3 heading into a Thanksgiving Day clash with Dallas. This well-coached roster has exceeded expectations under star-in-the-making head man Sean McDermott, whose reputation for forging nasty secondaries has only grown, with phenomenal cornerback Tre'Davious White leading a cast that currently ranks third in pass coverage, via Pro Football Focus. Bullseye free-agent addition John Brown quietly leads the AFC in receiving yards, while second-year passer Josh Allen -- deep-ball accuracy aside -- has just one interception since Week 5 and plenty of juicy yardage on the ground. Barring a nuclear-level meltdown in Buffalo, this is your fifth seed in the AFC, but the schedule concerns are real: After tangling with the 'Boys, the Bills face the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots before closing it out with the suddenly saucy Jets. Two more wins along the way should do the trick. CONFIDENCE READING: 88.2/100

Tennessee Titans (6-5)

It was impressive to watch the Titans author an R-rated smackdown of the Jaguars on Sunday. Tennessee's under-the-radar defense made life unenjoyable for Jacksonville passer Nick Foles, who gained most of his real estate in one of the year's more pungent swaths of garbage time. We all knew the Titans would again lean on Derrick Henry against a fading Jaguars defense, and Tennessee unleashed the ground-bot for 159 yards and two scores at 8.4 yards per volt. While the Jaguars sneaked into this column below, I viewed the beatdown as a season-ender for Jacksonville -- and a reminder that Tennessee, behind surging signal-caller Ryan Tannehill, is destined to go 9-7 all over again. Few teams can help themselves more than the Titans, who have a pair of games left against Houston and a showdown each against the Colts and Raiders. Quiet winners in four of their last five, Mike Vrabel's team can be a load to deal with when they feel like it. CONFIDENCE READING: 72.2/100

Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

The Colts are survivors. Lesser outfits would have pointed to the shocking retirement of their franchise quarterback as a built-in excuse to float through autumn Sundays. Instead, Indy has toiled away under creative, no-nonsense coach Frank Reich, rolling out a run-doused attack that minimizes mistakes with Andrew Luck replacement Jacoby Brissett tossing 15 scores against just four picks on the year. Savvy pass rusher Justin Houston has been the ideal free-agent addition, while second-year do-everything linebacker Darius Leonard has doubled as a roaming monster over the past month. The current loss of workhorse Marlon Mack to hand surgery is messy, but it's just like the Colts to have from-the-wilderness runner Jonathan Williams hit the scene for 100-plus yards last Thursday night against the Texans. Losing that tilt was a killer -- preventing an invaluable sweep of Houston -- but Sunday's showdown with Tennessee will go a long way toward settling this AFC hodgepodge. CONFIDENCE READING: 67.9/100

Cleveland Browns (5-6)

Winners of three straight, the Browns (just maybe) are rounding into shape. Lost in the Myles Garrett fiasco was a game that saw Cleveland stamp out the Steelers with authority. On Sunday against the low-wattage Dolphins, the offense bloomed into the weapons-rich attack we were sold during a hype-filled offseason that melted into a visually ghastly 2-6 start. The faucet of turnovers and headache-inducing penalties has given way to cleaner play by quarterback Baker Mayfield, along with weekly beauty and power from star runner Nick Chubb. The backfield addition of Kareem Hunt as he came off of suspension has transformed that side of the ball, but making up for the loss of Garrett is impossible. The season boils down to a high-octane divisional clash with Pittsburgh this weekend. If the Browns survive, they move to 3-0 inside the AFC North, with a pair of Bengals tilts sandwiched around a hyper-tall-order rematch with the Ravens. One of the most disappointing teams league-wide has the chance to etch a happy ending. CONFIDENCE READING: 47.7/100

Oakland Raiders (6-5)

Let's say the Raiders get whacked this Sunday in Kansas City. Sitting at 6-6, Oakland would own the tie-breaker with Indy -- whom they sideswiped in Week 4 -- with contests left against the Titans, Jaguars, Chargers and Broncos. The road to 10-6 is manageable, but I'm buzzing with a separate intuition: The Raiders are nothing more than a mediocre side dish. A wonderful story, yes, but their feel-good win streak came against the Lions, Chargers and Bengals. Oakland was manhandled by the Chiefs, Vikings and Packers before the Jets -- THE JETS -- dropped a stunning 34-3 dirty bomb on the Silver and Black. The Raiders are built to hang around games engineered off the furious groundwork of rookie Josh Jacobs, but stellar play by the offensive line has tailed off in recent weeks. Jon Gruden is Coach of the Year material from a certain point of view, but another Jets-esque stinker would turn this pleasant narrative into a tale of darkness. CONFIDENCE READING: 43.9/100

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)

Want another Coach of the Year candidate? How about Mike Tomlin, down to his third quarterback in Devlin "Duck" Hodges after Mason Rudolph was shipped into absentia during an ice-cold outing against Cincy. Ol' Duck hit the field and spun instant magic with a 79-yard touchdown strike to James Washington in Sunday's 16-10 beating of the blindfolded Bengals. Tomlin deserves credit for coaching his club through an intense rash of injuries on offense. The defense is special, with T.J. Watt soaring as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and trade acquisition Minkah Fitzpatrick flipping the switch on a unit that could end Cleveland's playoff hopes in Week 13. Steelers fans want to sit higher on this list, but the pathway is perilous with road tilts ahead against the Cardinals, Jets and Ravens alongside a home date with the Bills. Can this offense survive? CONFIDENCE READING: 37.7/100

New York Jets (4-7)

We've hit dubious territory, but dreamers never die. The Jets have rifled off 34 points in the three straight games to complement a Jamal Adams-led defense allowing fewer than 70 yards on the ground four weeks in a row. A classic surging berzerker squad with the Bengals and Dolphins up next, 6-7 sits in range. Another loss would equal the end, and that decisively feels like Week 15 in dreaded Baltimore. CONFIDENCE READING: 15.8/100

Los Angeles Chargers (4-7)

Like the Jets, the Chargers are deep history with one more false move. They are certain to engineer such a blunder in a season littered with multiple tappings of the self-destruct button. CONFIDENCE READING: 13.3/100

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7)

I don't trust clubs that surrender nearly 700 yards on the ground over a three-game stretch while benching a magical passer named Gardner Flint Minshew II. Instead of looking poised to reel off a five-game win streak, the Jaguars give off the stink of a team veering toward massive offseason flux. CONFIDENCE READING: 9.9/100

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.

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