While the National Football Conference is preparing to hand fans one of the more fascinating playoff brackets since the 1970 merger, the AFC is refusing to play along.
In a dangerously top-heavy conference, we find ourselves lodged in an all-too-familiar place: the juggernaut Patriots resting atop their glorious, gleaming throne, staring down at a colorless flock of ham-and-eggers.
The Steelers might have something to say about that, but anyone else unseating New England come January would qualify as one of the more severe Cinderella stories of the past two decades.
All in all, this year's AFC looms as a rock-solid piece of evidence in favor of ultimately reseeding the playoffs from top to bottom across both conferences.
Want to come at me with your love of the Titans, Ravens or Jaguars? Go ahead. I hold zero belief that any of these clubs can turn the trick next month. Instead of underdog-friendly miracles, the cold and distant football gods seem enamored once again with the same old song and dance out of Foxborough.
As for the rest of the AFC, let's examine where the contenders -- or at least the teams with five-plus wins -- land on our Faith Factor Scale, a form of measurement I cooked up nine minutes ago when this assignment landed in my lap:
New England Patriots (10-2) | Faith Factor: 98/100
New England's Week 15 showdown with the Steelers remains the sexiest game left on the conference slate. It's a matchup bound to determine home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, barring some sort of meltdown elsewhere by one of these two battle-tested rivals. Even when the Patriots hit stormy waters -- as they did for two-plus quarters against the Bills -- they figure out their issues over the course of a game. That task is doable when Tom Brady is playing the best football of his life while surrounded with a wild flock of weapons. Meanwhile, a New England defense that generated fierce concern in September hasn't allowed more than 17 points in a game since Week 4. Waiting around for something new and exciting to happen in the AFC? Keep waiting. The best coach-and-quarterback combination in NFL history shows zero signs of surrendering the Throne of Ease.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2) | Faith Factor: 90/100
When they're good, they can beat anyone, league-wide. The Steelers possess juicy on-field power and explosive point-generating potential with Antonio Brown looking like the best receiver in football this season. Le'Veon Bell remains a versatile whirlwind and Ben Roethlisberger has more talent around him than ever before with wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant also at his disposal. It's the defense, though, that makes this Pittsburgh team different than recent incarnations. The Steelers might not boast the numbers of Baltimore's stingy unit, but they're equally dominant on D for games at a time. Ryan Shazier's scary spinal injury is about as jarring a setback as a team can face, but Monday night's comeback win over the Bengals is a credit to the mental toughness of this squad. The key with Pittsburgh is keeping its stars healthy after back-to-back playoff runs that saw Bell and Brown stripped from the lineup with injuries. Set for a showdown with the Ravens before their epic clash with the Pats, the Steelers can't afford to let up if they hope to acquire home-field advantage in the AFC.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) | Faith Factor: 79/100
Forget the record. Watch the games. This Chargers team is far from perfect, but the club's 6-2 after a disastrous winless month to open the campaign. Today's Chargers feature the game's most fearsome pass-rushing duo in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa to go along with a ball-hawking, Casey Hayward-led secondary that has helped the Bolts trigger 12 turnovers in their past four tilts. The offense suffers stops and starts, but Keenan Allen has been one of the game's premier pass catchers of late, with 436 yards, 33 grabs and four touchdowns over his past three games. The Faith Factor is a steep drop from Pittsburgh, but the Bizarro Factor with this team is sky high. The Chargers also produced one of their better defensive outings against New England in Week 8 -- in Foxborough.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4) | Faith Factor: 71/100
The Jaguars have made incredible progress this season. Their long-suffering fan base deserves to enjoy every minute of a promising campaign bolstered by a fantastic defense that makes Jacksonville an enticing watch down the stretch. You can't find a weakness on that side of the ball, from Calais Campbell and the sack-happy front seven to a Jalen Ramsey-led secondary that squeezes the life out of opposing passing games. This D's a joy to observe, nearly making up for the team's troubling wild card under center. When Blake Bortles plays the way he did last Sunday -- and simply doesn't turn the ball over -- Jacksonville has a chance to beat (often flatten) anyone around. The Jags took down the Steelers and could do so again, but the Bortles floor is equally disconcerting. The team is 1-4 when the enemy scores more than 10 points, something the Patriots will do if and when these teams tangle. It's becoming dull to pick on Bortles, but he alone took 20-plus points off my Faith Factor in the Jaguars.
Tennessee Titans (8-4) | Faith Factor: 57/100
Tennessee's six wins over the past seven games have come against the Colts (twice), Browns, Ravens, Bengals and Texans. In the middle of that stretch, the Titans were detonated by a Steelers team that had no trouble mopping the floor with a group that isn't the equal of its shiny record. Tennessee flashed more identity a year ago, plowing through defenses with a better version of DeMarco Murray behind a power-scheming line that packed a punch. This time around, the Titans feel like a club waiting to get picked off in the wild-card round, unless Marcus Mariota sheds the skin of a mostly uninspiring campaign. He's a good young quarterback who still makes the occasional dazzling play, but there aren't enough weapons around him. General manager Jon Robinson has accomplished plenty in two seasons, but more progress is needed before this team is ready to spar with the big boys. That said, Tennessee's Week 17 showdown with the Jaguars looms as a doozy.
Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | Faith Factor: 54/100
The rest of this list includes teams with a scattering of strengths to go with all sorts of trouble spots. Of any unit from any team below this line, Baltimore's defense reigns supreme. A game up -- or more -- on any wild-card contender outside the AFC South, the Ravens sit as favorites to merge into January play and possibly pull off an upset. Beyond this week's game at Pittsburgh, the rest of the schedule is cake, but Baltimore's offense is hideous enough to ensure nothing comes easy. Joe Flacco played his best game of the year against the Lions, but I don't expect that to become a thing. This is a massively limited attack, one that will doom this team before long.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-6) | Faith Factor: 49/100
The Chiefs remind me of last year's Vikings, operating as the league's biggest story over the first five weeks before self-destructing in wild fashion down the stretch. I want to trust the combination of Andy Reid and Alex Smith, but Kansas City's loss to the Jets was an outright disaster. On a positive note, the Chiefs have a chance to write their own fate with games up next against the Raiders and Chargers before closing out with the lackluster Dolphins and Broncos. There's still a lot of football left, but this team has sunk into hyper-depressing territory.
Oakland Raiders (6-6) | Faith Factor: 46/100
Sunday's game with the Chiefs is major. That said, have the Raiders looked like a playoff team at any stage all season? Their rowdy and loyal fan base probably thinks so, but the Week 7 win over Kansas City looks less impressive in early December. The Raiders have also fallen to the Bills, Chargers, Ravens and Broncos and suffered a wipeout in Mexico against the Patriots. I refuse to claim excitement over what comes next.
Buffalo Bills (6-6) | Faith Factor: 43/100
The Bills gave New England fits for two quarters this past Sunday, but they couldn't get out of their own way on offense. Buffalo needs more from this attack for a chance to sneak into a wild-card spot. The Bills knocked off the Raiders -- and look like the better team -- but unlike Oakland, they aren't tied for the division lead and still face New England again in a few weeks. Two games against Miami and a tilt with the Colts could pave the way to nine wins, but that's assuming the Bills play pristine football the rest of the way. Still, in the macro sense, it's hard not to like where the club is going under talented coach Sean McDermott.
New York Jets (5-7) | Faith Factor: 33/100
The Bengals might have more talent than the Jets, but New York has done more with this young roster than anyone could have dreamed. Gang Green faces the dead-on-arrival Broncosin Week 14, but that's where the story ends, with a grisly remaining slate to close the year. Still, Todd Bowles coached his butt off this season and might yet find his quarterback in the draft.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) | Faith Factor: 27/100
Crumbling against the Steelers basically ended their season and showcased why the Bengals can't be seen as playoff material. The remaining schedule is challenging, the offense is flawed and the quarterback is bound to kill you in one of their upcoming games, if not more. Another lost campaign for Marvin Lewis.
Miami Dolphins (5-7) | Faith Factor: 11/100