With Thanksgiving in the rear-view, it's time to move on to December, a time for conspicuous consumption -- but more importantly in our field, playoff prognostications. In that spirit, let's recap the state of the AFC postseason race in the tune of the holidays:
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
With contenders jockeying,
Pretenders receding, the Pats are still here!
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Though Miami and Cincy
And Tennessee simply are no longer near,
The AFC playoff race remains unclear!
Here's how things stand in the ... standings through Week 12 in the AFC:
Indianapolis Colts (6-5) | @JAX, @HOU, DAL, NYG, @TEN
Miami Dolphins (5-6) | BUF, NE, @MIN, JAX, @BUF
Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) | DEN, @LAC, OAK, @CLE, @PIT
Denver Broncos (5-6) | @CIN, @SF, CLE, @OAK, LAC
Tennessee Titans (5-6) | NYJ, JAX, @NYG, WAS, IND
Cleveland Browns (4-6-1) | @HOU, CAR, @DEN, CIN, @BAL
Buffalo Bills (4-7) | @MIA, NYJ, DET, @NE, MIA
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8) | IND, @TEN, WAS, @MIA, @HOU
New York Jets (3-8) | @TEN, @BUF, HOU, GB, @NE
Oakland Raiders (2-9) | KC, PIT, @CIN, DEN, @KC
Now, let's get into the intriguing subplots ...
With five teams almost assuredly locked into playoff spots, there remains only one vacancy in the AFC playoff picture. The sixth seed is currently home to the Ravens, who, on the legs of Lamar Jackson, have stormed back into contention. But Baltimore (6-5) currently has the same record as the city's former denizens, the Colts. Indy has won five in a row behind Andrew Luck's comeback crusade, improved offensive line play and a growing defense led by DROY favorite Darius Leonard.
Behind Baltimore I and Baltimore II are five teams with six losses, all with opportunities of varying legitimacy to sneak into the postseason. Surging from the depths of disaster are Denver and Cleveland. Happy to be nominated are Cincinnati and Miami. Forever oscillating are the bipolar Titans, or as NFL.com colleague Dan Hanzus reverently refers to them, the Titoons.
It's anyone's guess in late November as to which team will claim the No. 6 seed. ESPN's Football Power Index gives Baltimore (43.6 percent) and Indianapolis (39.3) relatively solid chances to get in, while Denver and Tennessee have around a one-in-10 shot. The remaining three (Cincinnati, Miami and Cleveland) all sit under 3 percent. But fortunes and trends can change in a fortnight. Just two weeks ago, the Titans were thought of as a threat in the AFC after dismantling New England; now, they're two losses away from the couch. Vance Joseph's seat was flaming hot nary three weeks ago, but the Broncos have ridden two competitive losses and consecutive wins over the AFC's cream back into serious postseason consideration. And yet, both clubs have the two easiest remaining strengths of schedule among the seven sixth-seed hopefuls. So in sum, who knows?
Race for the first-round byes
While the AFC's middle class duke it out below deck, the conference's upper-crust teams are locked in a five-way duel for home-field advantage and a first-round bye. The Chiefs, Patriots, Texans, Chargers and Steelers are separated by just one game in the loss column, and each club could conceivably enter January with the AFC's top seed. Kansas City has easily been the conference's most consistently dominant team, but potential pitfalls remain on its schedule (bouts against three playoff contenders and scary defenses sandwiched by two gimmes against Oakland). New England is getting healthier, but must take at least two from a dangerous three-game stretch against Minnesota, Miami and Pittsburgh to stake a claim for the conference's top spot. Houston is the sore thumb in this fist, but because of a terribly weak remaining SOS, the Texans have a very real opportunity to secure a bye. The stumbling Steelers are set back in their pursuit of No. 1 by their Week 1 tie with Cleveland and face three teams with at least eight wins in their final five games. The Bolts have the toughest road to a first-round bye, as their last five tests all come against AFC playoff contenders; L.A. would also have to beat K.C. in Arrowhead and then hope the Chiefs drop another game. Speaking of ...
Aside from the AFC East, which was clinched by the Pats on Labor Day, all three divisions are up for grabs. As I was saying in the previous graph, the juggernaut Chiefs could lose not only a first-round bye, but the division if they're not careful. It would take a mammoth close from the Charlie Brown Chargers and an Arrowhead upset in Week 15, but it's still possible for K.C. to play its first playoff game on the road. Pittsburgh and Baltimore already split their decisions, and if the Ravens continue to roll and the Steelers start to slide (as their last two games have suggested could happen), then the North could go down to the final week. In the wake of the Texans running through the Titans on Monday night, only one team, Indianapolis, truly stands in the way of Houston seizing the South. The Colts have a chance to gain a full game on the Texansin Week 14, but must otherwise hold out hope that Houston has problems against a string of floundering opponents. (OK, back to the East. Technically the Fins still have a chance to win the division. So do the Bills and the friggin' Jets, if you tinker with the math. But who are we kidding here? New England's on to January already.)
Injuries that will impact the playoff picture
Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers: The Bolts back is dealing with an MCL sprain, one that could keep him out for multiple weeks. Gordon wasn't necessarily the catalyst behind the Chargers' offensive success this season, but he was an instrumental and versatile asset, leading L.A. in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. With Gordon out, the load falls to his tremendous dual-threat backup, Austin Ekeler, and seventh-round rookie Justin Jackson. Whether they can handle Gordon's carries or Philip Rivers can carry the club more against top-tier run defenses in Pittsburgh and Baltimore will determine L.A.'s seeding status.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have a franchise-altering choice to make in the coming days: Will they stay (with Jackson) or will they Joe? Flacco is recovering from a hip injury that has kept him out the last three weeks, but Baltimore might not need him to return so soon, if at all. In Flacco's absence, Jackson has played pretty well, recreating Baltimore's offense in his own image, and led the Ravens to consecutive wins, albeit against two porous defenses. The writing was on the wall for Flacco before the injury, but if Jackson does struggle against stiffer competition, could the Ravens revert to their tried-and-true veteran signal-caller, when healthy, for one last playoff run?
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: The All-Pro safety hasn't played a snap since September of 2017, but Berry is now practicing again. It's no secret that the Chiefs' secondary has been particularly poor this season, especially in relation to Kansas City's historic success on offense and steady growth in the front seven. Berry's eventual(?) return to the starting lineup could help plug that hole and keep Los Angeles' and Seattle's offense at bay later in December.
Jack Doyle, TE, Indianapolis Colts: Indianapolis boasted perhaps the league's top TE group before losing Doyle to a season-ending kidney injury. In Doyle, the Colts will miss their sixth-leading receiver and a harbinger for their success; Indy is 5-1 with Doyle and 1-4 without him this season. Three other tight ends are also ill in Indiana: Mo Alie-Cox (calf), Ryan Hewitt (ankle), Erik Swoope (knee).
Games of the week
Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday Night Football): Rivers vs. Roethlisberger, in prime time, 14 years after their historic QB draft class entered the NFL, with playoff positioning on the line. Shoot it into me veins. Legacy storylines aside, the winner of this game will improve its stock in its division race (PIT can maintain or extend its lead over BAL, while LAC can keep pace with KC before their Week 15 showdown), while the loser will fall behind in seeding. If the Steelers lose, they will fall to .500 in the conference, the worst mark among the five top-seed contenders. If Baltimore wins earlier in the day and Pittsburgh is defeated, the Steelers will be up only half a game in the North heading into Week 14. A Chargers loss won't in the slightest sink their postseason hopes, but will set them way back in their pursuit of a division title.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals: Mark this one down as a loser-goes-home match, or even a loser-loses-his-job bout. Both 5-6, Cincy and Denver are ships passing in the night, but while Phillip Lindsay and the Broncos are sailing full speed ahead on a Mediterranean pleasure cruise, the Bengals are going the way of J. Bruce Ismay. Driskel, as noted above, is making his first career start for the injured Dalton against Von Miller and one of the hottest front sevens in the league. Bonne chance.**