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AFC playoff picture: Brady, Manning fight for the bye

Three teams -- the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots -- have clinched seats at the AFC playoff table, but Week 14 was a brutal exercise for the rest of the conference's postseason hopefuls.

Here's what we learned:

Who wants the No. 2 seed?

The situation is getting hot in the grand ol' AFC.

Let's start with Houston. Because nobody informed the Indianapolis Colts they weren't supposed to be 9-4 in mid-December, The Texans -- at an NFL-best 11-1 -- have yet to put a ribbon on the AFC South. They can do that Monday with a win over the Patriots. No simple task.

Let's assume, for the sake of this post, the Texans notch the No. 1 seed. That would leave a hornets' nest of candidates for the conference's second bye.

It all begins with Tom Brady and New England. A win over the Texans pushes the Patriots to 10-3 and into a favorable tiebreaker scenario with the 10-3 Broncos based on New England's win in Week 5. The Patriots face the San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins to close out their schedule. The Broncos land the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. We don't see either team going less than 2-1, but Peyton Manning is crossing his fingers the Texans and 49ers send the Patriots into a spiral.

The outsider here is a fading Baltimore team. The Ravens would retain a shot at the No. 2 spot with a win over the Broncoson Sunday, but that will require something special from an outfit that just fired its offensive coordinator. After the Broncos, the Ravens land the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals. Something doesn't feel right with the Ravens, but we're not counting them out.

Wild-card rumble has northern flavor

Andy Dalton never has beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers. After a must-win affair with the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night, his Bengals (7-6) face the Steelers (7-6) in a Week 16 AFC North clash. The Bengals then close their season with the Ravens at home. Cincinnati has a prime opportunity to shake up the landscape.

The Steelers face a rough ride, with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the Bengals the following weekend and the upstart Browns in Week 17.

We'd love to tell you how this plays out, but these teams are 7-6 for a good reason: Total inconsistency.

Expect chaos.

Colts: AFC South champs?

The Colts are a nice little feel-good story, but not if you're the Texans.

Indianapolis (9-4) plays Houston twice over the final three weeks, sandwiched around a generous helping of the Chiefs. The Texans have the Minnesota Vikings as their third game. Even if the Texans beat the Patriots on Monday, the Colts can take the AFC South by winning out if Houston were to drop that Minnesota game. Both teams would be 12-4, and the Colts would own the tiebreaker.

It becomes even more possible if New England wallops Houston. There's even a scenario -- which involves a lot of math, so just trust me on this -- where the Colts could wind up as the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Back to reality: One week at a time, but the Colts are going to the playoffs, effectively turning Rosenthal into a soothsayer.

Those pesky, green-clad J-E-T-S

Speaking of our fearless editor, Rosenthal's recent, wild ramblings about Rex Ryan's New York Jets had everyone around here deeply concerned.

We still haven't forked the Jets. That resistance movement looked insane just weeks ago, but -- sigh, the boss was right -- New York is riding a two-game winning streak against a creampuff late-season schedule.

Beyond the conference heavies, the AFC is mainly riffraff. Only the six-win Jets have a realistic chance of upsetting the apple cart. With games against the Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills, a nine-win season isn't impossible.

Ryan's drama magnets live on the fringe -- possibly without a functioning pro passer on the roster -- but that's what makes the Jets so TOTALLY lovable.

Looking ahead to Week 15

Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens: Remember when the Broncos were 3-3? Me, neither.

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: If you've read even a scrap of the drivel above, you know why this game matters.

Cincinnati Bengals at Philadelphia Eagles: The Bengals cannot afford a letdown with the Steelers and Ravens up next.* *

San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots: Football-nerd heaven. The sun, moon and stars. Nothing less than the game of the year.

New York Jets at Tennessee Titans: Yes, this has playoff implications. You do the math.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys: The Steelers are running out of time. An ugly loss to the Chargers makes this a must-win for Big Ben and friends.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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