AFC playoff picture: Texans, Titans, Steelers jockey for position

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Unlike its National counterpart, the American Football Conference still has a handful of legitimate playoff hopefuls.

That's good, of course, because this is the Playoff Picture. We'll break down all of those chances, from the unrealistic to the most likely.

First things first, though: Let's tackle who is atop each division and (likely) headed to the postseason.

DIVISION LEADERS

No. 1: Baltimore Ravens (11-2, AFC North, playoff berth clinched)
No. 2: New England Patriots (10-3, AFC East)
No. 3: Kansas City Chiefs (9-4, AFC West champions)
No. 4: Houston Texans (8-5, AFC South)

WILD-CARD CHASE

No. 5: Buffalo Bills (9-4, AFC East)
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5, AFC North)
No. 7: Tennessee Titans (8-5, AFC South)
No. 8: Cleveland Browns (6-7, AFC North)
No. 9: Oakland Raiders (6-7, AFC West)
No. 10: Indianapolis Colts (6-7, AFC South)
No. 11: Denver Broncos (5-8, AFC West)

OFFICIALLY ELIMINATED

Los Angeles Chargers (5-8, AFC West)
New York Jets (5-8, AFC East)
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9, AFC South)
Miami Dolphins (3-10, AFC East)
Cincinnati Bengals (1-12, AFC North)

There's plenty to explain here, most of which we'll tackle below. But one team we won't highlight, and for good reason, is the Buffalo Bills. Following New England's Week 14 loss to Kansas City, the 9-4 Bills are hot on the heels of the 10-3 Patriots for the AFC East crown, with one more meeting in Foxborough in Week 16. Even if the Bills don't surpass the Pats, Buffalo could have a chance to pull even with New England and create a head-to-head tie atop the division.

Then again, in order to get there, Buffalo will first have to beat the Steelers, who have won three straight, thanks to the efforts of quarterback Devlin "Duck" Hodges. To have a chance at taking the division outright, the Bills also need the Patriots to fall in what would be a massive upset to either Cincinnati or Miami, two teams that aren't likely to take down the AFC's No. 2 seed.

Regardless of what happens in their division, the Bills are well-positioned to make the playoffs. As long as they don't lose out -- a Week 17 meeting with the lowly Jets makes that less likely -- they should find themselves in the postseason, thanks to the strong start they put together.

As for the rest of the hopefuls, let's dive in below. Like I said above, these potential playoff teams are ranked from unrealistic to most likely:

7) Denver Broncos

Remaining schedule: at KC, vs. DET, vs. OAK.

This one is surprising -- considering the Chiefs have already secured the AFC West title by virtue of their win over New England and Oakland's loss to Tennessee -- but mathematically, the Broncos are still alive. They'll need an incredible amount of help, though -- basically, every team ahead of them needs to lose out -- and to finish the campaign on a five-game win streak to somehow complete a miraculous playoff push. It's basically over, but there's still reason to watch Denver's final three games, thanks to rookie quarterback Drew Lock.

6) Indianapolis Colts

Remaining schedule: at NO, vs. CAR, at JAX.

The Colts were in prime position to wrest the AFC South crown from the Texans just three weeks ago, but their 20-17 loss to Houston in Week 12 sent them plummeting into the depths of a three-game losing streak. Colts fans will likely also look back on two other second-half games that permanently shifted the tide against them: losses to Miami (in Week 10) and Tampa Bay (in Week 14). Had the Colts taken care of business in either of those contests, they'd be in a much better position to claim the second wild-card spot -- or even challenge for the AFC South, if they'd also beaten Houston and Tennessee in the last month. They didn't, though, and there are few signs the Colts will suddenly turn it around against one of the NFC's best in New Orleans this coming Monday, even taking into account the potential of a Saints letdown following their thrilling Week 14 game against the San Francisco 49ers. The Colts will need to upset New Orleans and win out to have any shot at saving their season.

5) Oakland Raiders

Remaining schedule: vs. JAX, at LAC, at DEN.

The Titans dealt the Raiders a significant blow, both in the standings and in terms of psyche, as they were dominated in the second half of what was once a close game. The loss illustrated how far the young Raiders still have to go to become a legitimate contender. But they're not dead yet. Their final three games are all winnable, should they avoid repeating the significant mistakes they made Sunday against lesser opponents. They could start their unlikely playoff push on the right foot by winning their final game in Oakland on Sunday against Jacksonville.

4) Cleveland Browns

Remaining schedule: at ARI, vs. BAL, at CIN.

The Browns will likely lament their Week 13 loss to the Steelers as the one that ultimately did them in. Had Cleveland won and everything else held true since then, they'd be tied with Pittsburgh right now at 7-6 instead of staring at a two-game gap between them and the final wild-card spot. Hope survives, though, in the weakness of their remaining opponents, including the 3-9-1 Cardinals and 1-12 Bengals, the latter of whom the Browns just squeaked past Sunday. They'll need to complete the unlikeliest of season sweeps of Baltimore in Week 16, though, and beat the other two teams to have a shot -- and Cleveland will still need help. The Browns should root for either Tennessee or Houston to sweep their two meetings in the final three weeks. A split between those two teams will likely leave the AFC South runner-up in strong position to secure a wild-card spot, spelling the end of Cleveland's chances.

3) Tennessee Titans

Remaining schedule: vs. HOU, vs. NO, at HOU.

Tennessee is on fire lately, thanks in large part to Ryan Tannehill's excellent play and Derrick Henry's season-ending flurry of end-zone rumbles. Everything -- the AFC South title or a wild-card berth -- is still on the table for these Titans, who are playing excellent football but must continue to do so in their toughest three-game stretch of the season. A sweep of Houston would do them wonders, but splitting and beating New Orleans would also likely put them in the postseason.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers

Remaining schedule: vs. BUF, at NYJ, at BAL.

Pittsburgh has somehow overcome a flurry of injuries and suspensions that would have doomed many other franchises to temporarily claim a wild-card spot with three games left to play. The problem: Those final three games will be tough. Buffalo is playing very good football and proved it is a worthy competitor with its close loss to the white-hot Ravens, and the Bills will not take a single play off when they arrive at Heinz Field in Week 15. The Jets are foundering yet again, making for an ideal Week 16 road opponent, but the final road trip of the regular season could down the Steelers. They'll have to take down their bitter AFC North rival in Baltimore in order to ensure their spot in the playoffs, which looks especially daunting, considering the softer schedules facing fellow wild-card contenders.

1) Houston Texans

Remaining schedule: at TEN, at TB, vs. TEN.

The Texans can make a massive stride if they can beat the Titans on the road this weekend, giving themselves a one-game lead on their rivals with two to play. Tampa Bay is no slouch, though, having won three straight and earning its latest triumph in impressive, come-from-behind fashion. A sweep of the Titans would lock up the AFC South for the Texans, which should be their first priority, but they'll have to take it a single game at a time, unless they want Tennessee to gain the division's top spot. A letdown -- like their most recent loss, to the Broncos -- must be avoided at all costs.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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