For most of the season, it's been a two-team battle atop the AFC. After Monday night's stunner, we're going to welcome a third contender with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove.
After that, things get hairy (but interesting!). The Los Angeles Chargers are on fire and continue rising, with a monumental matchup for the division lead coming in Week 15. The Baltimore Ravens loom as a threat to a conference power on the right day. And then we have a clump of teams that could ascend, or knock themselves right into irrelevance with a single loss.
Race for the bye
The Steelers keep doing it. At 11-2, the record is difficult to dispute, but Pittsburgh has made a living on the edge. Quite often, Pittsburgh plays down to its opponent, only to have kicker Chris Boswell hit a game-winner or Antonio Brown make a game-saving catch. It's happened so often this season that it's almost expected at this point. Pittsburgh will need its A-game this week, though, with a bout against New England that will go a long way toward determining who ends up with the No. 1 seed. After that, it's smooth sailing, Sharid.
This was the Patriots' place to lose until Monday night's stunner. In New England's loss to the still-breathing Dolphins, the Patriots fell a game behind Pittsburgh in the battle for home field throughout the AFC playoffs. No true need to worry, though, as one win in the final three weeks will clinch the AFC East for the Pats. What's that? They play the Steelers this week? With Jacksonville coming in hot after a statement win over Seattle, New England suddenly is on the precipice of falling out of a first-round bye -- or clinching that aforementioned home field with a win to bring the Patriots into a tie for first with ownership of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Jaguars are hot, they're bothered and they aren't letting any usual power intimidate them. They made that much clear in their chippy win over the Seahawks. The final three games set up nicely, with the toughest being against the suddenly-competitive 49ers. The Jags are looking at a 12-4 or 11-5 finish, which puts them in the conversation for a bye if a few other things -- New England losing to Pittsburgh and either Buffalo or New York, for example -- break their way.
The team no one wants to see
The Chargers are a couple of last-second bad breaks away from being in the above category, but at this point, that doesn't even matter. Los Angeles is the hottest team in football, led by the game's hottest quarterback right now, Philip Rivers. The Chargers are 7-2 in their last nine and are set up to take a late-season lead in the AFC West with a win over Kansas City this week, before closing the season with favorable matchups against the Jets and Raiders.
Thanks to its defense, Baltimore has been lauded as a dangerous postseason team. But after Sunday night's one-point loss, this team needs to win out to ensure it will end up in the playoffs at all. The schedule is favorable, as the Ravens' final three opponents have a combined record of 8-31. Baltimore can bank on either the Chargers or Chiefs dropping back a game, which would slide the Ravens ahead of them -- if they win out.
Fighting for air
The Chiefs are barely hanging on. Kansas City ended its four-game skid with a dominant win over the fading Raiders last week, but can fall out of a tie for first place in the AFC West with a loss to the Chargers. This is another team that must win out to guarantee a postseason berth, starting with the uber-important Week 15 meeting with Los Angeles.
Tennessee, the league's least-convincing team above .500, finally pulled up in the final turn, inexplicably losing in a punchless performance against Arizona. The loss allowed Jacksonville to move ahead of the Titans, who suddenly find themselves in a battle for a wild-card spot.
Buffalo's mission is simple: win out or bust. After Miami's inspired showing on Monday night, that might be difficult. Add in that game in Foxborough in Week 16, and this isn't looking too promising. We're careening toward a Bills/Chiefs tie. Check back for tiebreakers.
Buffalo's situation, but worse. Miami controls the separation from Buffalo, but not much else.
Thanks to the Chiefs' slide and the Chargers' late start to the season, Oakland is still in it. But last week's lifeless performance in an ugly loss to Kansas City didn't inspire much confidence.
Cincinnati gave Pittsburgh quite the run for its money in a recent matchup, but after last week's drubbing at the hands of the Bears, we're focusing more on the future of head coach Marvin Lewis than a miraculous playoff push.
The Jets have been a surprisingly feisty team for much of the season. With veteran quarterback Josh McCownnow done for the season, their chances of victory in any of the remaining weeks drop significantly. Credit is due to coach Todd Bowles, though, who took one of the league's most talent-deficient rosters and overachieved considerably by producing five wins.