Now, comes the anticlimax.
The 2016 regular season will go down like most "Sopranos" seasons, with the second-to-last episode dropping the hammer. While four of the six playoff teams will be vying for seeding next week, Week 17 won't have the same juice. The Oakland Raiders are hoping the rest of their season isn't a comedown.
Derek Carr's broken fibula was a devastating moment for an entire franchise and fanbase that waited 14 years for a season like this. They rightfully had Super Bowl champion dreams with Carr. With fourth-year pro Matt McGloin now under center, any playoff win will feel like overachieving. Yet it's worth noting McGloin joins a situation that couldn't be better.
The Raiders have one of the NFL's best pass protecting offensive lines. (In a cruel bit of bad luck, Carr was injured on the only QB hit Oakland gave up on Sunday.) They have one of the best starting wide receiver duos in football. They have an emerging running game and an offense that gets receivers wide open, often taking short passes a long way.
Carr's talent and leadership was a massive part in making all of the above work. But McGloin doesn't need to win 12 games like Carr. He's trying to win three to get to the Super Bowl in Houston, and that journey starts next week in Denver. Don't laugh.
AFC West still comes down to Denver
The Raiders can still be the No. 1 seed -- though they could also fall to No. 5 -- while the Chiefs could be as high as No. 2 or as low as No. 6. Just as important, the Raiders need to quickly adjust to life without their MVP candidate. Oakland's defense has improved down the stretch and gets to face a stagnant Denver offense that has managed just two touchdowns in their last three and a half games.
Even the biggest McGloin optimist (ahem) knows that the Raiders will have to play complementary football at a higher level than it was with Carr. The defense will need to go from "improved" to "weaponized." The running game will take a greater share of the load. Michael Crabtree needs to cut out those drive-killing drops. McGloin is not a "play it safe" type of backup. He will get his money's worth with aggressive throws, like he did on two third-and-long conversions late against the Colts. That approach can work when surrounded by immense talent.
It's hard to overstate the importance of the Broncos game to Oakland's chances of making it far in January. Winning three road games with McGloin at quarterback as a wild card team isn't going to happen. Staying at home for the Divisional Round and possibly beyond is a lot more feasible.
The easy analysis is to just hand the AFC over to the Patriots following Carr's injury. But that shows a lack of respect for the Chiefs, Steelers and the beautiful randomness of sports. The Broncos won a Super Bowl last year with far-below-average quarterback play. Jeff Hostetler won a Super Bowl as a backup. Jake Delhomme and Rex Grossman both made the big game. These things happen.
By the time the Raiders suit up Sunday in Denver, they will know if they are just playing for the AFC West title or if they could nab the No. 1 seed. That's because ...
The Patriots still have plenty on the line
That's why it's hard to imagine the Patriots taking Sunday's game in Miami lightly. The Dolphins have clinched their wild-card spot and could rest players, but that doesn't seem like coach Adam Gase's style. Miami will still be playing for seeding. A win by the Dolphins and a loss by the Chiefs in San Diego would move Miami to the No. 5 seed, thus avoiding Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Round.
Like the Raiders, Miami is entering the playoffs with their backup quarterback at the helm. It would serve Miami well to get Matt Moore every game snap possible, and it would serve Gase's young program well to take on a championship-level team in a difficult spot. The Dolphins have faced only one team that currently has a winning record since Week 6, and they lost that game to the Ravens 38-6.
So who are the real contenders?
A lot will be written about the inexperience at quarterback in these AFC playoffs. It's true that the mind's eye doesn't easily picture Matt McGloin, Matt Moore or Tom Savage having a podium at the Super Bowl press conference. Of those three, McGloin has the best supporting cast and the best path to have a few breaks go his way if the Raiders can earn a bye.
The Chiefs and Steelers, meanwhile, are absolute threats to take down New England. Pittsburgh was the only team in football to rank in the top ten in offense and defense in FootballOutsiders' latest efficiency rankings. The Steelers needed all of that balance to withstand the Ravens in a Christmas Day classic, my pick for game of the year. The Steelers are likely to hit the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. This is exactly the team that the Patriots' defense, which has faced exactly one above-average quarterback all year, should fear.
The Chiefs remain the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL, but it's no fluke that Andy Reid's team is 22-5 since early last season. They play a brand of football based on turnover margin, avoiding mistakes, special teams play and situational football. That's a formula similar to a Patriots team with an unknown, second-year quarterback back in 2001.
These things happen.