AFC Playoff Picture: Texans turn up heat; Broncos making push

For much of the 2018 regular season, the AFC featured a two-team race between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots for the No. 1 seed. But after a nine-game winning streak, the Houston Texans entered the fray to apply pressure for the right to possess the highly coveted home-field advantage throughout the postseason. And the Los Angeles Chargers could become the fourth team to join in if they beat the Chiefsin Week 15.

Needless to say, there remains plenty of unfinished business entering the final four weeks of the regular season, which is sure to produce plenty of drama and fireworks as teams look to separate themselves from the pack.

Here's a snapshot of the AFC entering Week 14.

NOTE: Click on each team's name to see full schedules.

No. 1 seed:Kansas City Chiefs (10-2) | Remaining schedule: vs. BAL, vs. LAC, at SEA, vs. OAK
No. 2:New England Patriots (9-3) | at MIA, at PIT, vs. BUF, vs. NYJ
No. 3:Houston Texans (9-3) | vs. IND, at NYJ, at PHI, vs. JAX
No. 4:Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1) | at OAK, vs. NE, at NO, vs. CIN
Wild Card 1:Los Angeles Chargers (9-3) | vs. CIN, at KC, vs. BAL, at DEN
Wild Card 2:Baltimore Ravens (7-5) | at KC, vs. TB, at LAC, vs. CLE

The Chiefs' final four games come with obstacles, including three opponents who are also very much in contention for the postseason. What helps Kansas City is that three games are at Arrowhead Stadium, which is historically one of the toughest venues in the league for opposing teams to play. Since Andy Reid arrived in 2013, the Chiefs are 33-11 at Arrowhead Stadium (technically 34-11 at home, but one of the home games, in 2015, was in London). Additionally, the final month of the calendar year has been kind to Reid's teams at Arrowhead, where the Chiefs have won nine of their last 10 December games. Kansas City can use any advantage it can muster, with the Patriots and scorching-hot Texans breathing down their necks, and with Kareem Hunt's release creating a question mark at the running back position. The Chiefs also need to take care of business within the AFC West, with the Chargers currently just one game behind.

Meanwhile, a fascinating race to the finish line has emerged in the AFC North, where the Steelers currently hold a half-game lead over the Ravens. The Steelers' matchups against the Patriots and Saints aren't cakewalks, and the Ravens' path isn't easy, either, with games against the Chiefs and Chargers down the stretch. Baltimore has an interesting decision to make: stick with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has won three straight games, or return to veteran Joe Flacco when he recovers from the hip injury that has kept him out since Week 9?


No. 7:Miami Dolphins (6-6) | vs. NE, at MIN, vs. JAX, at BUF
No. 8:Indianapolis Colts (6-6) | at HOU, vs. DAL, vs. NYG, at TEN
No. 9:Denver Broncos (6-6) | at SF, vs. CLE, at OAK, vs. LAC
No. 10:Tennessee Titans (6-6) | vs. JAX, at NYG, vs. WAS, vs. IND

Those in the logjam of .500 teams are ready to pounce if a lot of things go in their favor, such as winning out and receiving outside help to catch the teams they're chasing.

Of the quartet, the Broncos are arguably the most dangerous, getting hot at the right time on the heels of a three-game winning streak. The loss of cornerback Chris Harristo a broken fibula hurts the defense down the stretch, of course. But Denver is in prime position to make a move; before a season-finale showdown with the Chargers, the Broncos will face three opponents with a combined record of 8-27-1. Meanwhile, the Colts' fate could be determined in the next few games, which is highlighted by a brutal stretch against the Texans and Dallas Cowboys, winners of four straight.


No. 11:Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) | at LAC, vs. OAK, at CLE, at PIT

Injuries, bad defense and bad offense -- heck, basically bad everything -- have contributed to the Bengals' demise over the last month and a half. Since starting the season 4-1, the team has gone 1-6, which includes a current four-game slide. Making matters worse, the Bengals are without starting quarterback Andy Dalton, who landed on injured reserve with a thumb injury. Of course, the any given Sunday mantra still applies in a league where anything can and will happen. But the Bengals, who have been outscored 134-65 over the past four games, have too much to overcome with a closing stretch that includes heavyweight opponents in the Chargers and Steelers.


No. 12:Cleveland Browns (4-7-1) | vs. CAR, at DEN, vs. CIN, at BAL
No. 13:Buffalo Bills (4-8) | vs. NYJ, vs. DET, at NE, vs. MIA
No. 14:Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) | at TEN, vs. WAS, at MIA, at HOU
No. 15:New York Jets (3-9) | at BUF, vs. HOU, vs. GB, at NE
No. 16:Oakland Raiders (2-10) | vs. PIT, at CIN, vs. DEN, at KC

This last group boasts teams with promise for the future -- plus one team wondering what happened to the 2018 campaign.

The Browns are in a good place despite their record, as rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has shown he is the real deal. Cleveland also has a strong foundation of talented youth and veterans on both sides of the football to give Mayfield a solid supporting cast, and the head coach vacancy will command interest.

The Bills and Jets have their franchise quarterbacks in the form of Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, but they need to surround them with more talent during the offseason.

Oakland is clearly in rebuilding mode under head coach Jon Gruden. The Raiders had better immerse themselves in the draft evaluation process now to ensure they make good use of three first-round picks to make up for the losses of traded-away veterans Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper.

As for the Jaguars, the 2018 season will be looked back on with regret. This team was a preseason darling to return to the playoffs, but the wheels came off after a 2-0 start. A recent seven-game losing streak cost quarterback Blake Bortleshis starting job and placed head coach Doug Marrone on the hot seat.

Follow Herbie Teope on Twitter @HerbieTeope

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