The herd is thinning out and the dust is clearing in the AFC after a clarifying Week 15.
Banished out of the hunt are the conference's equines: the Broncos and Colts. Denver was hanging on by a thread at 5-8, needing a miraculous sequence of events to stay in the race. But Drew Lock and Co. never thawed out of the Arrowhead freeze, falling to the Chiefs. This dropped the Broncos to 5-9 and out of the playoff picture. The more surprising casualty of Week 15's results, the Colts saw their season come to a close with a blowout loss in the Bayou. Losers of four straight and six of their last seven, the Colts (6-8) can't seize the South and can't win a wild-card tiebreaker at 8-8 even in the best-case scenario. Indy and Jake Brisket are cooked.
The conference's top three teams -- the Ravens, Patriots and Chiefs -- handled their business against far inferior opponents, while the Texans separated from the Titans in the AFC South with an assured win in Nashville, clearing the way for a second consecutive division title and fourth in five years. New England enjoyed no such distance from the Bills, who stuffed Duck in Pittsburgh and reached 10 wins in a season for the first time since Y2K. The Steelers are left resolving their differences from the AFC's elite at the bottom of the wild card, tied with Tennessee at 8-6. (I am also legally obligated to remind you Cleveland and Oakland are still alive, as well.)
Before we analyze and handicap the remaining races, sit down with these standings:
CURRENT PLAYOFF TEAMS
1)Baltimore Ravens (12-2, AFC North champions) -- at CLE, PIT (Remaining strength of schedule: .500)
2)New England Patriots (11-3) -- BUF, MIA (.464)
3)Kansas City Chiefs (10-4, AFC West champions) -- at CHI, LAC (.429)
4)Houston Texans (9-5) -- at TB, TEN (.536)
5)Buffalo Bills (10-4) -- at NE, NYJ (.571)
6)Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6) -- at NYJ, at BAL (.607)
IN THE HUNT
Home-field advantage + first-round byes: Ravens vs. Patriots vs. Chiefs (vs. Texans vs. Bills)
Riding a 10-game winning streak, Baltimore is in the driver's seat and has been for the back half of the season. If the Ravens win one of their final two games, a first-round bye and home-field advantage is theirs, due to their head-to-head advantage over New England, the only other team that can reach 13 wins. But Baltimore's final two games are no sure things, given the Ravens have already lost to Cleveland, while Pittsburgh and its top-tier defense are still in the hunt for a wild-card bid. A major slip-up from the slippery Lamar Jackson and company could open the door for the Patriots or Chiefs to snag home-field advantage.
That being said, in all likelihood, Baltimore will be the No. 1 seed and the second bye will be left to the remaining quartet of contenders -- Patriots, Chiefs, Texans, Bills. Of the four, New England currently has the best chance of securing the bye (78 percent to Kansas City's 22 percent, according to New York Times' Upshot tool).
Of the five sides that can snag a bye, the Texans currently have the most variance in potential outcomes. Houston can get a first-round bye if it wins out, New England loses out and Buffalo falls to the Jets, but the Texans can also crash out of the postseason if they lose out while Tennessee and Pittsburgh win out (all according to NYT Upshot). The latter is the more likely scenario than the former. Speaking of Houston ...
AFC South: Texans vs. Titans
It's hard to overstate how significant Houston's road win against Tennessee, the two sides' first of two meetings in three weeks, was to the Texans' playoff chances. A loss would have given the Titans a one-game lead in the division, some needed wiggle room considering Tennessee draws the more difficult NFC South opponent in Week 16 (Saints, while Houston faces Tampa Bay) before it meets the Texans again. Instead, Houston has the one-game lead going into a Saturday showdown with Jameis Winston and the mercurial Buccaneers. A Texans win would clinch the division before Tennessee even takes the field on Sunday, leaving the Titans to hope for a Steelers collapse out of the wild card. However, a Texans loss to Tampa Bay and a Titans win over the Saints would set up a do-or-die AFC South showdown, with the loser potentially dropping out of the postseason altogether.
AFC East: Patriots vs. Bills
As thrilling as a Buffalo win over New England in December would be to the football landscape and the public consciousness, the likelihood of the Bills stealing the AFC East is low regardless of Saturday afternoon's outcome. Even if the Bills and the Pats enter Week 17 tied at 11-4, New England would be in control of the division due to its record against common opponents (NE, 7-1; BUF, 5-3). For the Bills to win the division, the Patriots would have to lose to both Buffalo and 3-11 Miami ... in Foxborough ... in December. As poorly as New England's offense is currently moving the ball, such a scenario is highly unlikely (17 percent heading into Week 17 tied, per NYT Upshot).
Wild card: Bills vs. Steelers vs. Titans vs. Texans (vs. Patriots)
The sixth seed will belong to either the Steelers, Titans or Texans (or Cleveland or Oakland, but I mean, come on). Pittsburgh has the tiebreaker over Tennessee because of conference record (6-4 vs. 6-5); Houston owns a far superior 8-3 mark in conference. If the Steelers win out, it's their spot no matter what happens between the Texans and Titans in the AFC South. If Pittsburgh falls to either the Jets or Ravens, Houston could lose out and still hop the Steelers for the sixth seed, while Tennessee could lose to New Orleans (an NFC opponent) beat the Texans and get in over Pittsburgh, both due to conference record. However, if the Steelers drop just one game and the Titans lose to the Texans in Week 17, then the sixth seed is Pittsburgh's. Get it? Got it? Good.
What are the Browns and Raiders still doing here?
As laughable as a Monty Python sketch but without the winking Anglo-absurdism, the Browns are not dead yet in the AFC. Same goes for the zombie Raiders, who are two games behind the Steelers and Titans for the sixth seed. Though playing like their seasons have been over since November, Cleveland and Oakland are both still technically "in the hunt." If the Browns win out, they can still make the postseason in a four-way tie at 8-8 with the Titans, Steelers and Colts. If the Raiders win out, they can still make the playoffs in the same manner. Of course, this would require either Cleveland and Oakland to win their remaining two games after dropping five of their last six combined.
AFC Games of the Week (ranked by significance ... TO ME)
Believe me when I tell you -- not as an employee of NFL Media, but as a friend, man of truth and morally reliable word-typer -- that Saturday's tripleheader on the Big Shield is must-watch television for anyone even remotely interested in understanding the playoff picture. And if you've gotten this far through this word salad of a primer, then I'm guessin' you are.
The opener, Texans-Bucs, doesn't technically qualify under my arbitrary definition of AFC Games of the Week because it includes a team in the NFC (yuck), but if Tampa Bay beats Houston, then the ramifications for the wild-card and AFC South races are huge, as mentioned above. It is a worthy addendum.
Bills-Patriots, the Massachusetts meat of the Saturday sandwich, is significant, not necessarily to the AFC East (as outlined above), but to the race for the first-round bye. A Buffalo win against New England would open up the door for K.C. and Houston (and Buffalo, technically) to secure a first-round bye, as the Chiefs and Texans already have the head-to-head advantage over the Pats. Also, it would be nice to see if the Pats can beat a team currently with a winning record for the first time since Week 4 against ... Buffalo.
On Sunday afternoon, Sammy Spoiler and the Jets can upend the wild card if they iron out a win against the Steelers. Plus, Lamar Jackson is always appointment television, as is the Browns' trainwreck of a season, which could be reaching its final destination at the surface of Lake Erie with a home loss to Baltimore.