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AFC playoff picture: Pittsburgh Steelers take big step

We've got four weeks to go until our popular playoff picture page just turns into playoff matchups. Week 13 helped to clarify the AFC wild-card race, while muddying the chase for a playoff bye.

Here's what this week's results told us.

Bengals, Steelers take big step forward

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers took major steps toward making it a three-team race with the Indianapolis Colts for the final two wild-card spots with their fourth-quarter comebacks on the road. Playing in Baltimore easily was the toughest game left on Pittsburgh's schedule, and it won the game with Charlie Batch behind center. Three of the Steelers' final four games are at home. They should have a great deal of confidence.

The Bengals, also 7-5, have won four consecutive games. They probably will have to win in Pittsburgh in Week 16 to make the playoffs, but there's still a chance three AFC North teams could make the playoffs again. The Steelers, Bengals and Colts don't have the look of teams ready to stumble down the stretch.

Near death to the seven-loss teams

I've previously refused to completely stick a fork in the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills because of their ridiculously easy schedules the rest of the way, and the possibility that the Steelers, Bengals and Colts could fall apart in December. With Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis all winning Sunday in tough spots, that looks very unlikely. It's looking far more likely it will take 10 wins to make the AFC playoffs.

Baltimore's big step back

It's hard to overstate what a devastating loss the Ravens suffered Sunday. They dropped out of the No. 2 seed in the AFC because they'd lose a three-way tiebreaker to the New England Patriots. That's secondary because so much can change over the next month, but we have doubts the Ravens will enter January on a winning streak.

Check out their remaining schedule: at Washington, vs. Denver, vs. New York Giants, at Cincinnati. No easy games. Yes, the Ravens beat the Patriots head-to-head. We still give Denver and New England a better chance at earning the No. 2 seed. The Ravens easily could go 2-2 against that schedule.

Houston at New England looms large

We've had some "Monday Night Football" stinkers this year, but it doesn't get much better than next week's matchup. This game matters so much, for so many reasons:

  1. The Houston Texans essentially can sew up home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs with a win. If the Patriots prevail, they would be only one game back of Houston with three to play, and New England would own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
  1. A loss by the Patriots would give the Broncos a great chance to sneak into the No. 2 seed. They have three very easy games left (Oakland, Cleveland, Kansas City), in addition to their Week 15 road game in Baltimore.
  1. A Texans loss likely would prevent them from resting starters in Week 17. Think about it. If the Texans clinch home-field advantage early, they won't have anything to play for in Week 17. Their opponent in the finale: Indianapolis.

To put it another way: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh should be rooting for New England this week. The other AFC contenders will want the Texans going all out to beat their division rivals for seeding in the final week. It would be a shame if the final wild-card spot was decided any other way.

Looking ahead to Week 14

Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders: Denver needs to hold serve on "Thursday Night Football."

Dallas Cowboys at Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati's margin for error remains small.

Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: Tennessee doesn't look dangerous, but seemingly every Indianapolis game is tight.

Baltimore Ravens at Washington Redskins: Rarely has this regional matchup meant so much.

San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers: Here's a preview: The Chargers blow a fourth-quarter lead.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots: Perhaps the biggest game left on the AFC docket.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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