AFC playoff predictions: Patriots won't be a part of postseason action

It wasn't long ago that the Denver Broncos were being written off as an early flash in the pan -- as a team that had fooled many of us into believing it truly was possible to overcome a tumultuous offseason and perform at an elite level.

The four-game losing streak that followed a 6-0 start seemed to be closer to what the Broncos were expected to do with a new coach, Josh McDaniels, and a new quarterback, Kyle Orton.

Then came Thanksgiving night and what might very well have been a last chance for redemption. The Broncos proceeded to give a balanced offensive performance and regain their defensive swagger in beating the New York Giants. They followed that with a lopsided victory last Sunday in Kansas City.

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Now, the Broncos find themselves with the ability to make a major impact on the AFC playoff picture. By winning at Indianapolis Sunday, the Broncos not only would put the only blemish on the Colts' record but also stay in the hunt for the AFC West championship while greatly improving their status as a wild-card team.

"We set a goal in the beginning of the season to be in the hunt come Thanksgiving and win as many games as we could after Thanksgiving," tight end Tony Scheffler said. "Right now, we're 2-0 and looking forward to the rest of December. This is really when you need to play your best football. You try to cut the mistakes as the season goes on, try to get those little kinks out of armor, and try to gather momentum to go into January and then, hopefully, February."

The same can be said about a number of teams in the wide open AFC.

The Colts, who already have clinched the AFC South championship, are the only ones with an ultra-tight grip on their destiny. Thanks largely to stumbles by the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, intense battles remain for most of the other division titles and for wild-card berths.

"It's fun to be presented with this challenge this late in the year," Scheffler said.

The Broncos have plenty of company in that regard.

Here's a closer look at the AFC race:

Indianapolis (12-0)

Remaining schedule: Denver (8-4), at Jacksonville (7-5), N.Y. Jets (6-6), at Buffalo (4-8).

With a victory over the Broncos, the Colts will clinch a No. 1 playoff seed and home-field advantage through the postseason while becoming the only team in NFL history to win 22 consecutive regular-season games. The Broncos are the lone threat to the Colts' unbeaten season. After that, Indianapolis won't face anything approaching a serious challenge until the playoffs.

Prediction: The Colts will probably land the top seed Sunday, so the only bit of intrigue left for the final three games is whether they'll play their starters and make a real run at 16-0. In all likelihood, Peyton Manning and his fellow front-liners will get plenty of rest and be ready to make a strong run for a second Super Bowl victory since 2006.

San Diego (9-3)

Remaining schedule: at Dallas (8-4), Cincinnati (9-3), at Tennessee (5-7), Washington (3-9).

The red-hot Chargers are in good position to win the AFC West. Philip Rivers is playing well enough to merit MVP consideration. The defense has done an impressive job of overcoming injuries. The Cincinnati game will likely decide the No. 2 playoff seed, although the Chargers must avoid the temptation of overlooking the Titans and especially the Redskins.

Prediction: The Chargers win their division and get the second seed. They're good enough to live up to the many preseason forecasts that had them winning the Super Bowl, but going through Indianapolis to get there might be more than they can handle.

Cincinnati (9-3)

Remaining schedule: at Minnesota (10-2), at San Diego (9-3), Kansas City (3-9), at N.Y. Jets (6-6).

For a team that swept its division, the Bengals aren't looking all that dominant these days. They face two extremely difficult road tests to help get them ready for the postseason.

Prediction: Without any challenge from Baltimore or Pittsburgh, the Bengals win the AFC North. But their postseason appearance could be brief.

Denver (8-4)

Remaining schedule: at Indianapolis (12-0), Oakland (4-8), at Philadelphia (8-4), Kansas City (3-9).

After two impressive wins, the Broncos have some momentum entering their toughest game of the season. The Raiders and Eagles also figure to present stiff challenges, but the Broncos are fortunate to close their schedule with their second game in five weeks against the lowly Chiefs.

Prediction: Despite the difficulty of their remaining schedule, the Broncos should land a wild-card spot.

New England (7-5)

Remaining schedule: Carolina (5-7), at Buffalo (4-8), Jacksonville (7-5), at Houston (5-7).

After two losses in a row and three in their last four games, the Patriots have taken on the unfamiliar look of a team in crisis. Their defense has been atrocious and their offense looks out of synch. The fact Bill Belichick felt the need to deliver a stern message to his squad by sending Randy Moss and three other players home for being late for practice Wednesday is troubling because it indicates a lack of discipline rarely associated with the perennial Super Bowl contender. The last four games are winnable, but the way the Pats are playing, it might not matter.

Prediction: The Patriots are unraveling. Look for Miami to overtake them for the AFC East crown and force them to watch the postseason for the second year in a row.

Jacksonville (7-5)

Remaining schedule: Miami (6-6), Indianapolis (12-0), at New England (7-5), at Cleveland (1-11).

The Jaguars are fortunate to find themselves in contention, especially with their rushing attack in a three-game slump. They appear to get a break with their schedule, however, because after the Dolphins, they face a Colts team that is likely to have everything wrapped up and will be sitting key starters, the struggling Pats, and the lowly Browns. A wild-card playoff berth could very well go to the winner of the New England game.

Prediction: They'll grab a wild-card spot.

Baltimore (6-6)

Remaining schedule: Detroit (2-10), Chicago (5-7), at Pittsburgh (6-7), at Oakland (4-8).

This team has taken a major fall since appearing in the 2008 AFC Championship Game. The loss at Green Bay in the Monday Night Football penalty fest exposed the vulnerability of the Ravens' pass defense and the inability of young quarterback Joe Flacco to make big plays with the game on the line. Still, the schedule should allow for a rebound, at least in the next two games. A wild-card spot is likely to hang in the balance for those last two road trips.

Prediction: This team just doesn't look like it belongs in the postseason.

Miami (6-6)

Remaining schedule: at Jacksonville (7-5), at Tennessee (5-7), Houston (5-7), Pittsburgh (6-7).

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First-year starter Chad Henne is steadily developing into a first-rate quarterback. He is doing a good job of handling the pressure of crunch time. Ricky Williams is picking up the backfield slack left by Ronnie Brown's season-ending injury. The defense isn't as opportunistic as it was in 2008, but seems to be able to do enough to keep the Dolphins in games. To stay in contention for the AFC East crown or a wild-card spot, the Dolphins must at least win one of their two remaining road games, and finish strong with the final two home contests.

Prediction: The Patriots have created the opening, and the Dolphins should take advantage of it for their second consecutive divisional title.

N.Y. Jets (6-6)

Remaining schedule: at Tampa Bay (1-11), Atlanta (6-6), at Indianapolis (12-0), Cincinnati (9-3).

The schedule could work to the Jets' advantage, especially with the possibility that the Colts and Bengals won't have anything to play for by the time those games roll around. But taking advantage of it is another story, given the health and performance concerns at quarterback.

Prediction:Kellen Clemens is likely to prove why he has spent most of the season on the bench when he starts against the Buccaneers. Even if Mark Sanchez gets over his knee problems, he doesn't have enough experience to lead a successful stretch drive. The Jets won't reach the postseason.

Pittsburgh (6-7)

Remaining schedule: Green Bay (8-4), Baltimore (6-6), at Miami (6-6)

It's hard to believe the defending Super Bowl champions find themselves on the brink of elimination, but that's what happens after five straight losses. The defensive dominance has disappeared. The offense has no identity.

Prediction: With their loss Thursday night against Cleveland, the Steelers are in desperation mode, and even if they win out, would need a lot of help to get in. Sub-.500 conference mark makes task nearly impossible.

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