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AFC playoff picture: Pittsburgh Steelers on the brink

Four AFC teams -- the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens -- have received invites to the postseason party, but Week 15 was a bitter pill to swallow for some of the conference's Super Bowl hopefuls.

Darlington: Statements made

The Falcons and the Texans were among the teams serving notice to the NFL on Sunday, Jeff Darlington says. **More ...**

Here's what we learned:

Texans closing in on top seed

If the season ended today, the Texans would own the No. 1 seed and the Broncos the No. 2. The Texans (12-2) have clinched the AFC South and face the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts over the final two weeks of the season. Not a simple slate, but Houston would need to lose both games for Denver (11-3) to steal the top spot.

Peyton Manning and friends also would need to win out because the Broncos -- before they shape-shifted into a superpower -- lost to the Texans in Week 3.

So who's No. 2?

The Broncos are a near lock to wind up 13-3, with remaining games against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. That would leave the Patriots (10-4) out in the cold after Sunday night's painful loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

New England's chance for a bye comes down to Denver collapsing over the final two weeks.

Even if the Patriots win out against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, it's high time for Bill Belichick to prepare gaudy gift baskets for the Browns. Cleveland on paper has a better chance of knocking off the Broncos on Sunday than Kansas City doing the improbable in Week 17. If New England and Denver both wind up 12-4, Belichick and friends earn the second seed based on their win over the Broncosin Week 5.

Even more improbable? If Denver winds up 12-4 and Houston loses two straight, a 12-4 Patriots team would be your No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Steelers face extinction,

but hope remains

One too many uneven performances have cost the once-mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. Sunday's overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys dropped Pittsburgh to 7-7. With a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) this Sunday, the Steelers are done, but they simultaneously controls their own destiny. Read on, because ...

... that's not all from the jumbled AFC North

Thanks largely to a 9-5 Baltimore Ravens team that has launched itself off a cliff, the AFC North is a tangled mess heading into Week 16.

It's very possible the Bengals will win this division, and their schedule is the reason why. The Bengals would take the AFC North with two consecutive wins combined with two consecutive Baltimore losses. Not impossible. The Ravens host the New York Giants in Week 16 before traveling to Cincinnati for the regular-season finale.

If Baltimore wins either of those games -- or if the Bengals lose or tie again this season -- the Ravens would claim the division.

Back to the Steelers: They still can clinch the division with two wins and two Ravens losses. That would leave the entire division at 9-7 and hand the Steelers the tiebreaker based on head-to-head results.

Colts are in control

Indianapolis (9-5) needs only one win -- against the Chiefs this week or the Texans in Week 17 -- to secure a playoff berth. Losses by the New York Jets, Bengals or Steelers also would do the trick.

Also: If an agitated intergalactic army descends on our unsuspecting society and a bunch of other stuff happens, the 6-8 Miami Dolphins still can make the playoffs.

Yes, the Jets are still alive

Have patience with us. We still haven't forked the Jets, and it won't happen any time soon if Gang Green takes care of business against the Tennessee Titans on Monday night.

Rex Ryan's merry bunch is alive. If the Jets win their final three games -- which would mean five consecutive wins to close the season -- they're playing in January IF the winner of Bengals vs. Steelers loses the following week. Scarily possible considering the Jets face the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills to close the campaign.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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