Analysis

AFC Playoff Picture: From Chiefs to Browns, contenders in flux

If you're feeling unsettled, unsure of yourself or simply confused this holiday season, then you and the American Football Conference have something in common. Unlike you, however, the AFC will resolve its issues and question marks over the next 13 days.

In the NFC, things feel fixed. Three divisions have been clinched, and the only spot truly up for grabs is the conference's sixth seed.

Things are not so quaint in the AFC. The younger league boasts just two confirmed playoff teams and zero crowned division champions with two weeks left to go in the season -- and there's a possibility that could be the case heading into Week 17, too.

Don't believe me? Ask these standings, friend:

IN THE HUNT:

If that doesn't clear things up for you -- and it shouldn't -- here's a more in-depth look at the gridiron Rorschach test that is the AFC playoff picture heading into Week 16:

AFC South

This division is all but locked up for the Texans, who are more focused at this point on securing a first-round bye. One win over Philadelphia or Jacksonville would assure Houston a home game in January. If the Texans fail to close out the season with one more victory, however, the Colts or Titans can steal the division with a perfect two weeks. There's also a distant possibility that Houston could miss the playoffs entirely.

Indianapolis and Tennessee finish the year against each other in Nashville in what could be a play-in game, with either the division title or the sixth spot in the AFC at stake. As things stand right now, this Colts-Titans clash is the front-runner to be the flexed "Sunday Night Football" game for Week 17. A Ravens loss and Titans win on Saturday would give Tennessee control of its destiny in the wild-card race, hence ensuring the IND-TEN contest would have significant playoff implications. But more on that below ...

AFC East

For New England, it's easy -- or at least, it should be. Win and you're in for the 10th consecutive year. The Patriots have whiffed on division-clinching scenarios in back-to-back weeks, going from the miraculous meltdown in Miami to the revenge-game loss in Pittsburgh in Week 15. But with only home games against AFC East also-rans in the Bills and Jets remaining, it is highly, extremely, so, so, so freakin' unlikely that New England blows this. If, by an act of an old-testament deus or the indiscriminate hammer of Father Time, the Patriots lose four straight to close out 2018 and the Dolphins also win out against the Jaguars and Bills, then New England will surrender its division crown for the first time since 2008. But for all intents and purposes of this exercise, the Pats are East champs once again. Let's move on.

AFC West

Both Los Angeles and Kansas City have clinched berths, but the division crown remains in balance and could be so until Week 17. Even after the Chargers' upset victory at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night, the Chiefs still control their path to a West title, due to their superior division record. But K.C. faces the toughest test on Sunday night of the two clubs' remaining four combined games: against Seattle in Seattle. If the Chargers lose on Saturday night to the Ravens, the Chiefs can clinch the division and a first-round bye with a win over the Seahawks. Reverse those outcomes, and L.A. can clinch the division with a win in Denver in Week 17. Whichever team wins the division is very likely to have a first-round bye and is also likely to have home-field advantage throughout the postseason. No big deal.

AFC North

Pittsburgh stopped a three-game losing skid and maintained control of the AFC North with its win over New England, but with just a half-game lead over the Ravens and a dangerous meeting with the Saints up next, the Steelers can't let up. Pittsburgh is still at risk of losing the division and even a playoff berth if it stumbles in New Orleans and Baltimore upsets the Chargers. However, the Steelers can also clinch the division this week if the Ravens lose in Carson on Saturday night and the Steelers defeat the Saints in the Superdome on Sunday afternoon.

What about the Browns? They can't win the North, but they can still slip into the postseason and YOU WON'T BELIEVE HOW THEY CAN DO IT!!! (That's a tease for later.)

First-round bye

No AFC team has clinched a division, and therefore, no club has clinched a first-round bye. However, the AFC West champion is almost guaranteed to enjoy Wild Card Weekend from the 19th Hole.

Every team still in the hunt, save for the Dolphins and Browns, can potentially secure a bye, but the clubs that are the most likely to do so at this point are the Chiefs and Patriots. Kansas City is considered the favorite to take the West and can guarantee a bye by both reaching 12 wins and clinching the division -- something the Chiefs can do this weekend.

Though New England is currently a game back of Houston, the Patriots have an easier schedule. If the Texans lose just one of their final two -- most likely to Philadelphia -- and the Pats win out, New England will be in position for a bye, thanks to its victory over Houston in Week 1.

The winner of the AFC North -- Pittsburgh or Baltimore -- is also eligible for a bye if Houston and New England collapse, as are the Colts and Titans, who are both currently on the outside looking in.

Wild-card race

And now, it's chaos. Every team listed in this article could potentially be a wild-card team, from the currently top-seeded Chiefs to the desperate Browns. The Chargers are the only team that can clinch a wild-card berth this week, with a loss and a Chiefs win. The No. 5 seed will go to the runner-up in the AFC West. The No. 6 seed could go to the Texans, Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Titans, Dolphins or Browns. Take your pick!

As things stand, the Ravens control their destiny in this matter. However, if they lose to the Chargers, that opens the door for the Titans or Colts to enter Week 17 with the upper hand. If both Tennessee and Indianapolis win this weekend and Baltimore loses, the two South rivals will enter the final week in a win-or-go-home scenario. Miami can sneak back into the picture if all three teams lose this weekend. As for Cleveland ...

So you're saying there's a chance ...

Believe it or not, the Browns can still make the playoffs in the AFC's overcrowded wild-card race. It will take one specific -- but not improbable -- confluence of events. The winning scenario is as follows:

1)Titans lose to Redskins in Nashville on Saturday afternoon
2)Ravens lose to Chargers in Carson on Saturday evening
3)Browns beat Bengals in Cleveland on Sunday
4)Colts lose to Giants in Indianapolis on Sunday
5)Browns upset Ravens in Baltimore in Week 17
6)Dolphins lose either to Jaguars in Miami in Week 16 or to Bills in Orchard Park in Week 17
7)Colts, Titans tie in Nashville, in front of Al, Cris, Michele and the World

Memorize that script. By. The. Word. It will be on the final.

Elimination station

There are too many teams, and this is all a bit confusing. Can any of these clubs be eliminated? Like, yesterday! Of course! Not literally yesterday, but I get what you mean, sassy voice.

If anything from that Browns script listed above doesn't occur this week, then Cleveland is done. If the Dolphins lose at home to Cody Kessler and the Jaguars, then the Fish are fried, and deservedly so. The Titans can also be bounced if they lose to Washington, the Ravens beat the Chargers and the Steelers top the Saints.

Other than that, we're stuck with these myriad if-then scenarios for at least 12 more days. My message to the overwhelmed: Embrace the uncertainty. Live in the chaos. Expect the unexpected, or better yet, expect nothing at all.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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