Nine Sundays deep in the 2019 NFL campaign, the AFC wild-card picture is as muddled as ever. Consequently, we're in for a compelling race over the back half of the regular season.
I firmly believe that the AFC's four current division leaders -- the Patriots (8-1), Ravens (6-2), Texans (6-3) and Chiefs (6-3) -- will hold serve over the next two months. Meanwhile, three AFC teams -- the Dolphins (1-7), Jets (1-7) and Bengals (0-8) -- are completely cooked. This leaves nine teams vying for the conference's two wild-card slots. Great news for me, whose last name rhymes with the number nine!
So, without further ado, allow me to rank the contenders in a crowded AFC wild-card race, Schein Nine style:
LOCK IT IN
1) Buffalo Bills (6-2)
I'm going to nail my Cinderella pick for the third straight year. In March of 2017, I pointed to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who advanced all the way to the 2017 AFC Championship Game. In March of 2018, I spotlighted the Chicago Bears, who won their first division title in nearly a decade. And this past March, I focused attention on the Buffalo Bills, who are off to their best start since 1993 -- the last of their four straight Super Bowl seasons.
I love the defense. I love the head coach. I love the culture. I'm not surprised that quarterback Josh Allen has indeed progressed in Year 2, having just logged his third game of the season with a 100-plus passer rating -- something he only accomplished twice as a rookie. Meanwhile, third-round RB Devin Singletary's return to good health is a huge deal, as evidenced by the rookie's 140 total yards in Sunday's 24-9 win over Washington.
The Bills can absolutely hit 11 wins this year, putting them in a class of their own in the AFC wild-card race.
2) Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
Sunday's 26-24 loss at Pittsburgh dropped Indianapolis to a 0-6 in games missed by T.Y Hilton since the explosive receiver was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. That's pretty crazy. But now all eyes turn to another ailing Colt, Jacoby Brissett. The Andrew Luck replacement was enjoying a breakthrough season before injuring his left knee early in the second quarter on Sunday and sitting out the rest of the game. In the postgame, Indy coach Frank Reich said Brissett's injury seems like a sprain -- possibly "MCL-ish" -- which has Colts fans holding their collective breath.
Backup QB Brian Hoyer can beat the visiting Dolphinsthis coming Sunday, but enduring a prolonged absence from (or having to rely on a compromised version of) Brissett would be a big hit to these Colts. This roster was nicely put together, but it has some flaws -- including a kicker who suddenly cannot be relied upon. I love Adam Vinatieri. He's a first-ballot Hall of Fame kicker. But his 2019 struggles continued in Sunday's two-point loss. It's over. It's been over.
3) Los Angeles Chargers (4-5)
The shame of this season, for Bolts backers, is that these Chargers could have won the West if they'd taken care of business over the past two months. L.A. can win any game it plays. The talent is there, even with all the injuries. And I love head coach Anthony Lynn. Thursday's game in Oakland feels gigantic. Speaking of the Silver & Black ...
4) Oakland Raiders (4-4)
Under the radar, Derek Carr has been really strong this season -- particularly in the past three weeks, when he's piled up a 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 120.4 passer rating. Josh Jacobs is an absolute beast at running back, having already broken Marcus Allen's franchise record for rushing yards by a Raiders rookie (697) with 740 in his first eight NFL games. And most importantly, this entire roster is playing hard for Jon Gruden.
The remaining schedule looks quite manageable. After this Thursday's game against the Chargers, Oakland gets the winless Bengals and the one-win Jets. Add in home games against the Titans and Jaguars, as well as a Week 17 date with the Broncos, and a wild-card berth seems pretty attainable. The Raiders have 9-7 written all over them, which, considering the recent talent drain and the Antonio Brown fiasco, would be quite nice.
5) Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
Mike Tomlin's usage of the challenge flag late in the fourth quarter on Sunday was akin to a petulant child tossing socks out of a dresser drawer. But when Adam Vinatierimissed the stadium on a potential game-winning kick, Pittsburgh was able to escape with a win.
I'm on record saying this team has no chance of making the playoffs. I was highly critical of the offseason plan and the in-season trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick. But at 4-4, with Fitzpatrick making splash plays each week, there's genuine life in Pittsburgh -- especially with four remaining games against teams with two or fewer wins.
I'm happy for the incredible pros on this team who have had to deal with injuries and some nonsense. I'm absolutely thrilled for the rabid fans. It's a long shot, but I'm stunned the Steelers are even here right now. Their effort through it all has been great. Tomlin deserves credit for holding it all together.
6) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)
The defense hasn't been as stifling as many expected, but it's still a talented unit, with rookie Josh Allen providing immediate returns (seven sacks) on the pass-rushing front. After a highly disappointing sophomore campaign, Leonard Fournette has bounced back in a major way, ranking third in the NFL with 831 rushing yards while posting a career-best average of 4.8 yards a pop.
7) Tennessee Titans (4-5)
Mike Vrabel's defense is quietly stout, ranking seventh in points allowed. But the offense has yet to really come together under first-year coordinator Arthur Smith. And Tennessee's remaining schedule features just one game against a sub-.500 team (4-5 Jacksonville in Week 12).
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?
8) Denver Broncos (3-6)
9) Cleveland Browns (2-6)
I first-guessed the Freddie Kitchens hire immediately after it was made. General manager John Dorsey deserves major blame for that ill-fated promotion -- and for the sorry state of this Browns offensive line. But I still thought Cleveland would win a fair amount of games just because of all the other talent on the roster.
This has been an epic failure for last offseason's most hyped team. Baker Mayfield has taken a big step back in Year 2. Kitchens should be one-and-done coaching Cleveland.