The NFL season is the most compact of the four major U.S. sports, yet it's still plenty long enough for teams to rise from the dead.
On Oct. 25, the Houston Texans fell behind 41-0 at halftime to the Miami Dolphins. The Texans fell to 2-5 after the blowout loss, and then fired perpetually tardy quarterback Ryan Mallett. A little more than a month later, the Texans own the hottest defense in the league and currently hold the AFC's final wild-card spot.
On that same day, the Chiefs quietly dispatchedLandry Jones and the Steelers to end a five-game losing streak. Most observers chalked it up to Pittsburgh's lackluster starting quarterback. The Chiefs haven't lost since, outscoring opponents 160-61. As we said in the Around the NFL Podcast on Sunday, we'd be surprised if they didn't make the playoffs now.
The NFL season is long enough to contain wild ups and downs, challenging conventional wisdom from only five weeks ago. As our playoff picture shows, the lowly AFC South would have two playoff teams if the season ended today. So what's that playoff picture going to look like five weeks from today?
Race for the byes
Denver's win over the Patriots left the Panthers as the only undefeated team in the league. It also set up a far more interesting race for the two playoff byes in the AFC. It's a three-team race for two spots, with the Patriots still a game up on the No. 1 seed. Now the Broncos hold the tiebreak over the Patriots and could keep the pressure on New England to win out to earn homefield advantage.
The schedule mostly favors the Patriots. The Broncos and Bengals play in Week 16, so one of those teams is guaranteed to have a third loss. Both teams also have a tricky matchup still left with the Steelers. New England's schedule has fewer landmines. A trip to MetLife Stadium to face the Jets looms as the toughest game left on the Patriots' schedule, and a newly flexed Sunday night game at Houston will also be challenging, especially if Rob Gronkowski is not back on the field.
In short: New England remains the most likely No. 1 seed and the winner of Broncos-Bengals is the favorite for the No. 2 seed. The Patriots could probably afford another loss and still keep the top seed. But Sunday night's result opens the door for Denver to possibly earn homefield advantage yet again.
The most costly losses of the week
Seven teams are 6-5 or 5-6 in the AFC. The two biggest losers Sunday were the squads that fell to 4-7. It's hard to consider Miami or Jacksonville in the playoff picture anymore, even if both are only two games back. First of all, two games is significant when a team has four wins all year, and there are only five weeks left. More importantly, there are just too many teams to pass.
Buffalo had the next most painful loss. It now has a head-to-head loss to Kansas City, a team that is playing better than anyone in the AFC. With a strong defense bolstered by an opportunistic, consistent offense, the Chiefs are the team Rex Ryan wishes he had.
Could two AFC South teams really make it?
Crazier things have happened and the Colts' schedule is favorable the rest of the way. The team's home game against Houston in Week 15 is the key game left toward determining the division champion. Indianapolis has a chance to sweep. Houston can't be counted out for a wild-card spot, although we'll know a lot more about the Texans after the next three weeks: at Buffalo, home for New England, and at Indianapolis. If Houston can win two of those games to get to 8-6, it should be in great shape.
Bill O'Brien badly mismanaged his quarterback situation early in the year, but his staff has done a terrific job over the last month.
Steelers no longer a favorite?
Pittsburgh has looked like the favorite to win a wild-card spot all season because it has Ben Roethlisberger and a loaded offense. Regardless of Big Ben's injury status, that might no longer be the case. The Steelers have the Colts, Broncos and Bengals up next in the schedule. They need to start beating some good teams.