It's that time of the year.
The trees are near-bare; your co-workers are wearing more brown and orange than usual; breadwinners are surprising loved ones with bow-ordained automobiles on nationwide commercials. Oh, and the playoff race in the National Football League is taking shape.
No longer are we badgering on about which rookies are busts or whether the offseason acquisitions are earning their shiny new deals. Instead, we're fixing our eyes on division leads, head-to-head records and preposterous tie-breaking scenarios.
Some races are more difficult to decipher ahead of Week 11 than others ... Currently, the entire NFC playoff picture is a cramped imbroglio, with four 5-4 teams currently on the outside looking in. But the developing dance in the AFC is easier to break down: Three teams have all but wrapped up division titles; two forever also-rans are near-locks for January football, but still have a postseason home game to fight for; and the sixth seed is up for grabs. (Seriously, does anyone want the sixth seed? Sean McDermott? Bueller?!)
To begin our weekly dive into the race to Minneapolis, let's break the 16 AFC teams into tiers, separating the proletariat from the bourgeoisie:
This triumvirate of AFC staples has made the postseason in each of the past two years. Of the past 16 AFC Championship Games, 14 have included either the Pats, Steelers or both. These are the perennial contenders, the clubs we penciled, nay, Sharpied into the postseason before the 2017 campaign even kicked off. The only uncertainty regarding these three teams is how they will be seeded come January. A Week 15 matchup between Pittsburgh and New England should help clarify that predicament.
In more ways than one this year, it feels like the turn of the century. Hating the Yankees is en vogue, technology is terrifying again and the Titans and Jaguars are playoff-bound. No need to knock on wood or kneina hura. It's happening. In the 15 seasons since the South was enshrined, the Texans and Colts have topped the division 13 times; Tennessee hasn't won the South since 2008 and #DUVAL has never taken the crown. But with Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck sidelined by injury, Houston and Indy are afterthoughts, leaving a void atop the league's most underappreciated division. It's possible the Titans and Jags won't separate in the standings until their Week 17 tilt, when the winner should secure a home playoff game -- in the 4:35 p.m. ET ESPN slot on Saturday, of course.
Unlike in the NFC, where the wild-card spots are currently held by 7-3 and 6-3 teams with Super Bowl pedigrees -- and where there are four more teams above .500 waiting in the wings -- the younger conference's wild-card hopefuls are not as proven. Just three weeks ago, McDermott's overachieving Bills were being heralded as the story of the season, but two ugly losses later, their defense and playoff aspirations look more fraudulent than competent -- and they're abandoning Tyrod Taylor in favor of a rookie at QB! The Dolphins boast one of the league's ugliest offenses and are coming off a three-loss stretch of prime-time games during which they were outscored 112-45 -- and it wasn't that close. Baltimore rocked Miami in one of those games, but has been meh all year, relying on a consistent defense to prop up Joe Flacco's reputation. A favorite to win the West coming into 2017, the Raiders ran ashore after a quartet of losses, but two prime-time wins over K.C. and Miami have Oakland in a position to make a run.
Eight wins can get you in this year. Nine is just as fine. These four clubs have the best opportunity to reach that win total (and secure an early postseason exit) because of current record, strength of schedule going forward (looking at you, Ravens) and overall makeup.
Welcome to football purgatory, where everyone has made up their minds on these teams and the games don't really matter. All of these ballclubs have fatal flaws that will hold them back down the stretch against tough competition. The Jets can't close games and remain talent-poor. Cincinnati's offense isn't consistent. Regardless of where they're playing and how many people are in the stands, the Chargers are cursed. Denver employs three backup quarterbacks.
No team quarterbacked by Tom Savage, Jacoby Brissett or DeShone Kizer in the year two thousand and seventeen is allowed to play meaningful games past the winter solstice. Look it up. It's in the league bylaws. In an alternate universe (please take me there), Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck are piloting Houston and Indy through a four-team melee in the hypercompetitive AFC South. But alas, injuries -- both chronic and sudden -- have robbed us of this juicier reality. The Browns, meanwhile, were eliminated from playoff contention in September and will spend their January scouting quarterbacks in bowl season.
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These groupings, and their damn-good titles, are subject to change in the coming weeks, as teams continue to prove themselves worthy or unworthy of postseason play. Until then, go outside, enjoy autumn's crisp chill, then retreat inside, opt for central heating and watch these Week 11 games to stay in the know: Titans at Steelers ("Thursday Night Football"), Bills at Chargers (The Anthony Lynn Revenge Game?), Bengals at Broncos (loser burns up upon re-entry), Patriots at Raiders (Estadio de la Altitud).