Analysis

AFC a glorious mess as 2021 NFL season nears halfway point

Let's take a look at the state of the AFC as the halfway point of the season approaches: The two-win New York Jets have defeated the team that was the No. 1 seed when this week of games began, and they have defeated the team that will be the No. 1 seed when this week of games ends.

The AFC is a glorious mess, a paragon of parity that is possible largely because the Kansas City Chiefs' struggles have swung wide open the door to the conference they have mostly lorded over for the last three seasons. The Chiefs play at home Monday night against the Giants, and they are trying to -- it feels like this has to be a mistake -- get out of the AFC West basement. For now, the Titans, Ravens, Raiders and Bills are atop their divisions by themselves. Write that in pencil, though.

Titans widen division lead

The Tennessee Titans, who beat the Indianapolis Colts in overtime Sunday to go to 6-2, are virtually assured of winning the AFC South, with a three-game lead and a season sweep of their only functional division rival. They are the AFC's top seed, but a loss to the Jets earlier this season proves they are far from indominable, as does the fact that the Colts held Derrick Henry to just 68 rushing yards. After the game, Titans Coach Mike Vrabel said Henry, who has already carried the ball 219 times this season and who looked to lack his usual burst on Sunday, needs some rest and recovery. (UPDATE: The Titans fear Henry broke a bone in his foot, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday.) Unfortunately, the Titans still have four games -- including next week's against the Rams on Sunday Night Football -- until their bye. Still, this was an impressive victory on the road, with the Titans coming back from an early 14-point deficit with Ryan Tannehill connecting with A.J. Brown for 155 yards and the Titans' defense forcing two hideous interceptions of Carson Wentz, who entered the game having thrown just one this season.

"Just enjoy the victory and the heart of this football team," Vrabel said.

The loss puts the division even further out of reach for the Colts and their path to even a wild-card spot (they are currently the 12th seed) has to pass through the Bills, Bucs, Patriots, Cardinals and Raiders in the second half of the season. Coach Frank Reich was asked if the team's playoff hopes are slipping away, and he said he is not wired to think that way. The Colts play the Jets on Thursday night and that brings us to the AFC's current giant-killer.

Jets stun Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals were understandably flat after their emotional victory over the Ravens last week. But this? The fifth-ranked scoring defense, a unit that was the only one in the league to hold every opponent to 25 or fewer points, allowed the Jets -- who were humiliated by the Patriots last week -- to score 34 points in an offensive explosion helmed by backup quarterback Mike White, who became the first Jets quarterback to throw for 400 yards since Vinny Testaverde did it 21 years ago. The Bengals lost an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead in the stunning upset, and the 34-31 loss not only handed the Jets the possibility of a delightfully weird quarterback controversy but raised all kinds of questions about the Bengals' ability to build off their strong start to make a run to the postseason. The offense was shaky early, but it was the defense that was most concerning.

"Defensively, the tackling was as bad as it's been in a long time," Zac Taylor said.

He wasn't wrong. The Bengals had invested in rebuilding the defense to superb results until Sunday. This clunker dropped the Bengals from first in the AFC into the deep pool of teams competing for a wild-card spot. The more immediate issue, though, is righting their defense for an important division game against the Browns next weekend before the Bengals have a bye. Good teams have bad days, but a performance like this means the Bengals will have to prove all over again that they should be considered not just a good team, but a playoff team.

Steelers rising, Browns falling

Just behind the Bengals in the AFC North and in the AFC standings are the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers started the season 1-3, but, after beating the Browns 15-10, have now won three in a row, with Chicago and Detroit up next. And they won this one without a place kicker, but with a defense that held the Browns' top-flight running game to fewer than 100 yards rushing, and produced a late defensive stand that forced the Browns to turn the ball over on downs.

"Whew man, AFC North football," coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Steelers aren't pretty but they are resilient, and that has them in the wild-card mix. In fact, three of the four AFC North teams would be in the playoffs if they started right now. The odd team out? The Browns, who entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations, but have lost three of their last four games. The passing game is a mess, with Baker Mayfield battling a torn labrum in his left arm and Odell Beckham a complete non-factor, and the offense couldn't stay on the field (3 of 10 on third down, 0 of 2 on fourth down).

"It is always out of sync when you go three-and-out," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "That is just how it is. We have to get to the bottom of it."

Pats finally notch impressive win

No team is more inscrutable than the New England Patriots, who are 4-4, but finally got an impressive victory Sunday over the Los Angeles Chargers, who have now lost two in a row (they lost to the Ravens before their bye) and suddenly have to be worried about the offense, although coach Brandon Staley was pleased with the progress of the previously-porous run defense, a hopeful sign for the remainder of the season.

Until Sunday, the Patriots' three wins had come against the Jets (twice) and Texans. But their victory over the Chargers, punctuated by a pick-six of Justin Herbert, was further confirmation that the Patriots steadily improved throughout October and that Bill Belichick still knows how to tie young quarterbacks in knots. There are still big games to come for the Patriots -- two against Buffalo and one against Tennessee (in Foxborough) -- but those are the only games remaining against opponents with winning records. The Patriots are just outside the playoff bracket at the eighth seed right now, just behind the Chargers, who are in what would be the third wild-card slot, and just ahead of the Browns. It's too early to rule out a run at the division title for the Patriots. The Bills are 5-2 and lead the AFC East after an unexpectedly difficult victory over the Dolphins, but those December games against the Patriots loom large. In addition to games against the Saints and the Bucs, the Bills also have two games remaining against the team that has done more to scramble the AFC landscape than any other -- in Weeks 10 and 18, the Bills have to play the Jets.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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