The NFL year has made its way past Thanksgiving. As Bill Parcells used to say, this is when the season really begins.
For the American Football Conference, that statement has never been truer. The AFC, outside of the top-seeded Steelers and Patriots, is as wide open a conference at this time of year as anyone can remember. Just about everybody (sorry, Browns, Broncos and Colts) has a legitimate case to at least vie for a wild-card spot.
Of course, as is the case whenever there are only two seemingly top-shelf outfits in a conference this late in November, questions haunt every team attempting to be the conference's Super Bowl representative in February.
Some question marks obviously loom larger than others. So, for this edition of the AFC playoff picture, let's break the conference's contenders down into question-mark tiers, with the cream of the crop needing to answer a much simpler question than the bottom of the barrel.
Can they keep it going?
For the Pats, the answer seems easier. While their defense has shored up some very troubling early-season issues, the unit still seems shaky. But all Tom Brady needs to do is keep playing like he's 28 years old, and New England should cruise to the AFC Championship Game. For the Steelers, though, it's slightly cloudier. Their defensive backfield, battling some injuries, gave up several chunk plays last weekend to a QB who had previously struggled (Brett Hundley). A so-so secondary has cost the Steelers in previous years, especially when playing Brady. They'll need to hold it together just enough to let Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown continue feasting on defenses.
Is this the third-best team in the conference?
The Los Angeles Chargers are staring up at a few teams in the race for a wild-card bid, but suddenly, they're just a game back of the Chiefs for the AFC West lead. Philip Rivers is playing exceptionally well and the Bolts' secondary is forcing turnovers at a huge clip. They might be just 5-6 at the moment, but with games against the Browns, Redskins, Chiefs, Jets and Raiders left on the schedule, the Chargers have a shot to prove they are indeed the 3 seed in the AFC.
Will somebody's quarterback please step up?
The current seeding order of playoff hopefuls with QB issues: 3) Tennessee (Marcus Mariota), 4) Kansas City (Alex Smith), 5) Jacksonville (Blake Bortles), 6) Baltimore (Joe Flacco), 7) Buffalo (Tyrod Taylor) and 8) Cincinnati (Andy Dalton).
None of those teams' quarterbacks have played particularly well of late, which is a significant reason why they're all lumped together within just a game or two in the standings. If one of the signal callers can get hot (most have Mariota being that guy), a wild-card game -- or, if your name is Mariota, Smith or Bortles, a home wild-card game -- is well within reach.
Is this the week hope dies?
Technically, the Raiders, Jets, Dolphins and Texans are still in this thing. But three of the four are coming off disappointing losses (the Raiders barely survived a Trevor Siemian comeback attempt) and all four have such obvious issues that a battle for a top-10 draft pick seems more likely than a battle for an AFC playoff spot. A loss for any of these four teams this week should just about do it for their playoff hopes, putting them in the officially done category with Cleveland, Indianapolis and Denver.