Week 12's slate of games only muddied an AFC playoff picture that -- behind four clear-cut division leaders -- offers a glut of bordering-on-mediocre clubs vying for wild-card spots. After taking a look at the NFC playoff portrait, it's time to examine an AFC race that promises to come down to the bitter end:
Wild-card race promises fireworks
Indianapolis Colts (7-4): The Colts are more than a feel-good story. Indianapolis has found a way to take care of business week after week. The Colts also hold the tie-breaker with Miami following their Week 9 win over the Dolphins, but we don't believe it will come down to that. We don't trust the Colts to do much in January -- and two remaining dates with the Houston Texans are ominous -- but Indy remains on course to grab the fifth seed.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5): Pull Ben Roethlisberger off this team, and the Steelers lose their bite. Charlie Batch and the offense were handled by the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Big Benhopes to battle back from his rib and shoulder injuries in time for Sunday's meeting with the Baltimore Ravens, but that's iffy. A loss to their AFC North rival would be near-lethal for a banged-up Steelers team heading in the wrong direction.
Cincinnati Bengals (6-5): The young Bengals have come on as of late with three straight convincing wins, including a victory over the New York Giants and Sunday's 34-10 slaughter of the Oakland Raiders. Quarterback Andy Dalton has never beaten the Steelers or Ravens, but faces both in the final two weeks of the season. That's when the Bengals will tell us who they really are.
Miami Dolphins (5-6): The good news: Coach Joe Philbin's pesky team just won't fade away. Left for dead when they stumbled to 4-6, the Dolphins are just a game out in the race for the sixth seed after Sunday's surprising, 24-21 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Here's the bad news: Their final five games include the New England Patriots twice and the San Francisco 49ers. The playoffs themselves -- if the Dolphins managed to sneak in -- might be less rocky.
Ravens face test for second seed
For the sake of argument, let's assume the 10-1 Houston Texans wrap up top spot in the conference. That leaves a crop of teams vying for No. 2.
Baltimore's 16-13 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday helped the 9-2 Ravens maintain control of the second seed, but Patriots and Denver Broncos are both 8-3 and surging.
The Ravens' schedule is problematic: Home games against the Steelers, Broncos and New York Giants are mixed with road dates against the Washington Redskins and Bengals. The Dec. 16 clash with the Broncos looms as a glowing planet on the playoff map. Nice work, Men Who Gather in Dark Rooms to Craft the NFL Schedule.
Patriots can win AFC East on Sunday
Don't get us wrong. We're not ignoring the Patriots in our little chat above on the Ravens. New England is playing its best football of the season. Tom Brady and friends can wrap the AFC East with a win over the Dolphins in South Beach this weekend. That feels certain, barring a freak show.
What concerns me about the Patriots is a rough-and-tumble schedule down the stretch that includes the Texans in Week 14 and the 49ers six days later.
Coach Bill Belichick's team is hyper-focused on positioning themselves for a bye. That will be tough. Their loss to the Ravens back in Week 3 created tie-breaker hell.
We refuse to fork the Jets (bear with us)
Ship your complaints directly to our fearless leader Gregg Rosenthal, who refuses to kill off the 4-7 New York Jets in our "Stick a Fork 'Em" series.
Rosenthal has a hunch that an 8-8 team might sneak its way into the party, and coach Rex Ryan's carnival has entranced him. If there's anything going for Gang Green (besides Mark Sanchez being kidnapped by a Fireman Ed-led separatist group), the Jets' final five games include a handful of creampuffs: The Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Chargers and Buffalo Bills. All look beatable, but they stare at the schedule and say the same about the Jets, so ...
Steelers @ Ravens: As critical for Ravens as it is for the Steelers, with Baltimore just hanging on to the No. 2 seed.
Patriots @ Dolphins: Wildly tall order for the feisty Dolphins, but a win could help them hit .500 and send a message to the NFL.
Bengals @ Chargers: The Bengals cannot afford a letdown with their rugged schedule ahead. The Chargers are no playoff squad, but they could be a spoiler.
Buccaneers @ Broncos: Quietly holds game-of-the-week potential. A Broncos' win keeps Denver's second-seed dreams alive.
Colts @ Lions: The playoff picture gains significant clarity if the Colts can take care of business on the road.