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Beyond Colts, much left to be sorted out in AFC playoff race

INDIANAPOLIS -- All that is known for certain about the AFC playoff picture is that it includes a blue horseshoe -- the one belonging to the Indianapolis Colts.

After their victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, the unbeaten champions of the AFC South have secured the No. 1 seed, which gives them a first-round bye and homefield advantage through the postseason. And they got it with three games to spare.

Playoff picture

Peyton Manning and the Colts claimed the AFC's No. 1 seed, but where do the rest of the teams stand? Take a look at how the AFC teams stack up for the postseason. **More ...**

The rest of the picture is a little fuzzy. Although beating the Dallas Cowboys put the San Diego Chargers in good shape to lock up the No. 2 seed, that prize remains up for grabs, as does the Chargers' quest to win the AFC West. Despite their loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Cincinnati Bengals are only a game behind heading into their Week 15 showdown at San Diego. They're also still the front-runners in the AFC North.

The New England Patriots moved a step closer to winning the AFC East, but the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are only a game behind.

With nine AFC teams owning winning records, and only six making the playoffs (including four division winners), the wild-card race is a jumbled mess that won't likely be decided until the final week of the season.

Here's a closer look at the AFC playoff picture after Week 14 (teams listed in order of current seeding):

1. Indianapolis (13-0, clinched South, first-round bye, homefield advantage)

The Colts don't have a game that means anything until the divisional round of the playoffs, which won't be played until the weekend of Jan. 16-17. Figure on Peyton Manning and other starters getting some rest through most of the final three games, beginning with Thursday night's NFL Network matchup with Jacksonville, because the Colts are far more focused on winning another Super Bowl than they are on going 16-0.

2. San Diego (10-3, first in the West)

By beating the Bengals in Week 15 at San Diego, the Chargers could all but secure the No. 2 seed and the AFC West crown. Their next two games are challenging -- at 6-7 Tennessee and against 4-9 Washington, which is playing better than its record indicates -- but the Chargers have won an NFL-record 16 consecutive games in December.

3. Cincinnati (9-4, first in the North)

The task for the Bengals is clear: Win at San Diego. That would keep them in the hunt for the No. 2 seed and ahead of their closest challenger in the North, 7-6 Baltimore. The lopsided loss at Minnesota had to be crushing for a Bengals team that was trying to redeem itself after a three-game wobbly stretch against lowly competition.

4. New England (8-5, first in the East)

After two consecutive losses and a week of controversy that saw Bill Belichick send home four players (including Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas) for being late for practice and then benching Thomas for sounding off about the punishment, the win over Carolina on Sunday was huge. But the Patriots have plenty of work in from of them to hold off the challenges of the Dolphins and Jets. A Week 15 victory at Buffalo is a must.

5. Denver (8-5, second in the West)

The Broncos' two-game winning streak came to an abrupt halt at Indianapolis. But their hopes of winning the West are still mathematically alive. The biggest challenge in their remaining schedule is a Week 16 trip to Philadelphia. Even if the Broncos don't catch the Chargers, they're still looking good for a wild-card spot.

6. Jacksonville (7-6, second in the South)

Losing to Miami was a big blow to the Jaguars' wild-card chances. They can't afford to lose any of their remaining games. They could catch a break Thursday night, assuming the Colts are in shut-down mode.

Baltimore (7-6, second in the North)

The Ravens are riding high after crushing Detroit. High enough to catch Cincinnati for the North title? Probably not. Either way, the Ravens need to win out, but 10 wins doesn't assure them a spot in the playoffs.

Miami (7-6, tied for second in the East)

Despite winning two in a row, the Dolphins' best hope to make the playoffs figures to be as a division champion because they would be a long-shot to get there as a wild-card. If that's the route they go, their win over Jacksonville on Sunday would give them a tiebreaker over the Jaguars.

N.Y. Jets (7-6, tied for second in the East)

Their situation is similar to that of the Dolphins. The Jets, however, have already lost twice to Miami and their lone matchup with Jacksonville, so their uphill climb is even steeper.

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