We've reached professional pigskin's witching season, when the temperature drops and the pressure rises around the NFL.
We're three months into the 2019 campaign, and in the AFC, only two teams have been eliminated from playoff consideration -- the Miami Dolphins, who were supposedly "Tanking for Tua" from the season's genesis, and the Cincinnati Bengals, who found out only halfway through Zac Taylor's first year as coach that they were accidentally "Burrowing for Burrow."
The rest of the conference's 14 organizations are alive, some (Baltimore and New England) much more so than others (the Jets). But through 13 weeks, no team has clinched anything -- no division, no playoff berth, no nothing. That should change after this week, when two teams (Ravens, Chiefs) have an opportunity to clinch their respective divisions and four (Ravens, Chiefs, Patriots, Bills) can secure a place in the postseason.
With so many moving parts in the AFC playoff picture this week, we'll take a look at which teams are rising, falling and floating in the standings. But first, let's gander at the current state of the conference, in playoff seeding and remaining schedule:
CURRENT PLAYOFF TEAMS
1)Baltimore Ravens (10-2): at BUF, NYJ, at CLE, PIT.
2)New England Patriots (10-2): KC, at CIN, BUF, MIA.
3)Houston Texans (8-4): DEN, at TEN, at TB, TEN.
4)Kansas City Chiefs (8-4): at NE, DEN, at CHI, LAC.
5)Buffalo Bills (9-3): BAL, at PIT, at NE, NYJ.
6)Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5): at ARI, BUF, at NYJ, at BAL.
IN THE HUNT
If the top of the AFC looks a bit odd to you this week, it's because the Patriots are not the conference's top seed for the first time since the early weeks of September. Due to New England's loss in Houston on Sunday night, the Pats dropped into a tie with the Ravens at 10-2. Baltimore owns the tiebreaker because of its own Sunday night victory over New England back in Week 9. If the two sides finish the season tied atop the conference, the AFC will run through M&T Bank Stadium. But neither organization is secured a first-round bye at this stage, given their remaining schedules and the rising play of Houston, Kansas City and Buffalo.
Little else changed in the AFC standings aside from New England's loss; the Patriots were the only AFC team with at least seven wins entering Week 13 to lose. Last week's games did however provide a demarcation point in the AFC wild-card race. Four teams were tied at 6-5 entering Week 13 (Steelers, Titans, Raiders, Colts), all of whom are gunning for the sixth seed. Tennessee's win over Indianapolis sent the Colts further down the standings and elevated the Titans, while Pittsburgh's victory over Cleveland and Oakland's blowout loss in Kansas City further stratified the conference's no man's land. The one-game gulf could shrink if the Raiders top the Titans this week, but more on that later.
Kansas City Chiefs: With Patrick Mahomes back in the saddle and moving like he used to, all is right in Kansas City. Sunday's 40-9 victory over Oakland wasn't K.C.'s top offensive afternoon (SEE: a season-low 259 yards), but the Chiefs' defense shut down what had been a diverse Raiders attack. The result of the rivalry game sent K.C. up two games in the AFC West over Oakland (2.5 games if you count the tiebreaker) and set a division-clinching scenario in Week 14. If the Chiefs knock off the Pats in Foxborough and Oakland falls to Tennessee in the Black Hole, then Kansas City will be AFC West champions for the fourth straight season. That's an inevitability, given the Chiefs' remaining schedule (after NE, opponents hold a combined record of 14-22), but K.C. might not be done there. Securing a first-round bye, though out of the Chiefs' control, is within the realm of possibility.
Tennessee Titans: Tennessee has taken on new life with Ryan Tannehill under center in place of Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry morphing into the league's most dominant runner. Winners of five of their last six, the Titans are currently on the outside looking in but actually control their path to a division title and playoff game in Nashville. Tennessee faces a gauntlet to end the season (combined record of 32-16) but two of those games are against the team holding them down in the standings: Houston. With two wins over the Texans in their final four games, Tennessee would have a 1.5-game advantage over their division rivals, not taking into account this week's bout against the slumping Raiders and their Week 16 meet-up with the NFC South champion Saints. No team is hotter in the conference heading into the season's final quarter. Well, no team except ...
Baltimore Ravens: Put your big truss in the Ravens, who are not only rising up the standings but up NFL.com's Power Rankings, in the public consciousness, everywhere. Over the course of its eight-game winning streak, Baltimore has knocked off AFC powers in New England and Houston and NFC stalwarts in Seattle and San Francisco. This has allowed the Ravens to establish a three-game lead in the AFC North with four weeks to go. Baltimore can clinch back-to-back division titles this week for the second time under John Harbaugh (and in franchise history) with a win over Buffalo and a Steelers loss in Arizona. Baltimore can clinch a playoff berth with merely a victory. Playoff berth, shmlayoff shmerth. With the tiebreaker over New England, the Ravens are in prime position to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the AFC if they handle their remaining opponents (25-23) as they have their last eight.
Indianapolis Colts: After securing an early lead out of the gate at 5-2, the Colts, losers of four of five, are fading fast at the quarter pole. Indy was the AFC South leader for the meat of the season, but due to injuries on offense (T.Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack, Devin Funchess) and poor luck/no Luck, the Colts enter their final four games at .500, one game out of the wild card, and facing three road tests. The good news for Indy is that, aside from a Week 15 game in New Orleans, its final slate is pretty tame; two of the other teams hail from the current professional football wasteland that is Florida and the other just fired its coach. But for the Colts to sneak into the postseason or a division title, they will need their on-fire division rivals in Houston and Tennessee to capitulate and/or for Pittsburgh, who beat Indy in Week 9, to fall on hard times.
Oakland Raiders: The autumn wind carrying Oakland above. 500 has curdled into a wintry freeze, halting the Raiders' sacking of the AFC playoff picture until further notice. Since beating the Chargers at home on Thursday Night Football, Oakland has been outscored 84-29 in a three-game stretch, losing to the Chiefs and Jets and beating only the lowly Bengals. The Raiders' hopes of winning the West and playing one last playoff game in Oakland are slim to none; K.C. can clinch the division this weekend, as mentioned above. A loss this weekend at home to Tennessee would sink Oakland's playoff chances even more so, putting the Raiders two games behind the sixth seed with three weeks left. The Raiders' closing slate is manageable -- three straight 4-8 teams after TEN -- but Oakland hasn't proven in recent weeks it can handle even the conference's worst sides.
New England Patriots: At 10-2, New England's playoff chances aren't in as dire straits as its offense's hopes of stringing together consecutive scoring drives. But the Patriots should be concerned that home-field advantage, a first-round bye and even a division title are no sure things this season. Baltimore owns the tiebreaker over the Patriots atop the AFC. With Kansas City and Buffalo coming to town, the Patriots are at risk of dropping two more games before the season is over, opening the door for the Chiefs or Texans (if they win out) or the Bills to leap them in the standings. Blessed with an easy schedule for the umpteenth year in a row, New England is 2-2 (a.k.a. average) in its four games against teams with winning records (8-0 against losers). So triumphs over Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are not givens, and neither is the comfort of playing do-or-die games at Gillette this January.
What will Devlin Hodges' Steelers look like in the season's final quarter? Pittsburgh's steel resolve in the face of debilitating offensive injuries is a testament to Mike Tomlin's coaching and Kevin Colbert's roster construction. But at 7-5, Pittsburgh has but a tenuous clasp on the AFC's sixth seed with three road games and a prime-time test at Heinz against Buffalo still remaining on its schedule. The Steelers have gotten by with Hodges and Mason Rudolph at quarterback by playing stifling defense -- Pittsburgh hasn't allowed more than 24 points in regulation since Week 2 against Seattle -- and traveling only as far as Cincinnati since its Week 7 bye. The schedule-makers did Pittsburgh favors in the middle of the 2019 campaign, but now the Steelers will be forced to iron out tough victories on the road with the 2018 Alabama State Duck Calling champion calling shots at the line in order to quack the postseason.
AFC Games of the Week (ranked by significance ... TO ME)
1) Ravens at Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS): A Buffalo win would upset the apple cart in the AFC. A Buffalo win coupled with a Chiefs win would put the Bills in control of the conference. Lamar Jackson's Ravens are undoubtedly the more complete team, but Josh Allen's Bills are the definition of a wild card. After Buffalo's Turkey Day dismantling of Dallas, anything feels possible for the overlooked Orchard Parkers, even shutting down the MVP favorite. Sprinkle in the 2018 first-round QB narrative and Jackson potentially breaking Mike Vick's single-season rushing record, and this matchup has it all.
2) Titans at Raiders (Sunday, 4;25 p.m. ET, CBS): This rematch of the 2002 AFC title game is Oakland's second-to-last game in, well, Oakland, but is its last gasp at reaching the postseason. A loss to Tennessee would put the Raiders 2.5 games behind the Titans (counting the tiebreaker) with three games to play. Playoff picture aside, watching two of the game's best backs in Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry going head-to-head in the late-afternoon slot is my good place.
3) Chiefs at Patriots (Sunday, 4;25 p.m. ET, CBS): New England's not an enjoyable watch, and Kansas City is on a roll. Last year's AFC title game participants are two dynasties passing in the night. That's not to say that Bill Belichick won't best Andy Reid yet again and put the conference on notice yet again. But this rivalry is old hat (their fourth meeting in 28 months), and the result of this game won't determine whether either side sees January football.