Debrief: AFC playoff picture taking shape down the stretch

The playoffs started Monday night. The Ravens' 47-42 win in Cleveland was the game of the year and a reminder to everyone watching in Miami, Las Vegas and the rest of the AFC that Lamar Demeatrice Jackson is not going away quietly.

In the context of this season, the Ravens, now 8-5, needed the game more. It was the team's third game in 12 days since a COVID-19 outbreak nearly capsized their season and the NFL's regular season schedule. It was the second game since Jackson returned from a serious bout with the virus that has defined this season, like everything else in American life. I thought about that absence while Jackson missed 11 plays in the fourth quarter with cramps, only to return for a 44-yard touchdown on 4th-and-5 that will remain part of the 2019 MVP's lore as long as he plays. (Even if he didn't "pull a Paul Pierce.") 

Baltimore's path to 11 wins is wide open with the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals next on the docket. They might need to win them all to squeeze into a stacked AFC field and Jackson looks ready to take it from here, no matter how many injuries the Ravens defense suffers. 

In the context of the last 25 years, the Cleveland Browns needed the game more. That may always be true until they win a few Super Bowls like the organization that once left their city. But at 9-4 with wins over the Colts and Titans, these Browns don't have to apologize for where they stand. The entire country got to see on Monday the creativity, calm and aggression of Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. The Browns are an offensive team and play like it. Baker Mayfield is playing his best ball of the season when it matters most. 

Still, Monday night's result all but guarantees the Steelers will win the AFC North. Being part of a night like this is a step in the right direction for the 9-4 Browns, but they need to close the deal in the final three weeks. Their path to eleven wins and their first playoff spot since 2007 remains clear with the Giants, Jets and a Steelers team potentially resting starters up next. The Ravens and Browns should both be playing Wild Card Weekend, but it's hard to imagine them playing another game this season that tops this one. 

So how does the rest of the AFC Playoff picture look after Week 14?

1) The last two weeks have been extraordinary for the Chiefs, who are suddenly massive favorites to be the AFC's top seed. The Steelers losing two straight games to fall to 11-2 has simplified the race for the AFC's top seed and only playoff bye. The 12-1 Chiefs don't even need to win out to get the job done. They can lose one of their final three games and still get home-field advantage, as long as that loss comes to the Saints in Week 15 or Falcons in Week 16. (Weirdly, the Chiefs' regular-season finale against the Chargers sets up as a bigger game than the upcoming trip to New Orleans.)

The Saints still might not have Drew Brees, who's been out since Week 10, on Sunday, which doesn't seem like a fair fight. The same was true for the Chiefs' win in Miami, where the Dolphins started the game missing their top three running backs and two key linebackers, then also lost a trio of their top pass catchers during the game. 

Despite all the missing Miami players, the Chiefs' 33-27 victory felt like a playoff contest. The Chiefs enjoyed some early January practice spotting their opponent a 10-point lead before putting up 30 straight, reminiscent of both of Kansas City's AFC playoff wins last postseason.

If a defensive game plan that helped Miami pick off Patrick Mahomes three times and sack him three more times wasn't good enough to stop the Chiefs, then what will be? They play with an unmatched margin for error. Travis Kelce could be the first tight end ever to lead the NFL in receiving yards. Receiver Sammy Watkins is rounding into form just in time to make backbreaking plays in the playoffs. The Chiefs haven't looked unbeatable during their current five-game stretch of one-score wins, but they have a gear no other team can match, seemingly only used when they absolutely need it. I expect that gear to be displayed next week in the Superdome. 

Home-field advantage isn't everything, but spotting this Chiefs team a free playoff win and some extra nights at home in January isn't helping the rest of the AFC. On balance, I believe this is a better Chiefs team than the group that won Super Bowl LIV.

2) The sky will be falling in Pittsburgh all week, but the Steelers remain Super Bowl contenders. Plenty of champions have gone through similar two-game December losing streaks, most recently the 2018 Patriots and 2015 Broncos. In a conference with no other truly dominant defenses, the Steelers' pass rush can keep them in any game. In the first half of Sunday's loss to the Bills, they held the explosive Buffalo offense to three points on seven drives. Pittsburgh can also look forward to the eventual returns of linebacker Vince Williams and cornerback Joe Haden. It goes without saying the last two weeks' results are all on the offense. The Steelers can't win playoff games with the passing game as inert as it's been, and they are running out of time to improve it.

Homefield advantage is now an almost impossible goal, which is a drag for a veteran team that could use a week off. Pittsburgh's new goal following Cleveland's loss: Clinch the AFC North next Monday night against the Bengals and use the team's Week 16 game against the Colts as their playoff tune-up.

3) The Buffalo Bills' defensive resurgence is the biggest December development in the AFC. The Bills all but won the AFC East on Sunday, which shouldn't be overlooked, considering they haven't accomplished the feat in 25 years. But Bills Mafia should be aiming higher. The Bills' defense is 11th in expected points added (EPA) per play in the three games since their Week 11 bye, which isn't a shock, considering Sean McDermott's track record and the talent at hand. They were bound to figure things out, even if the pass rush isn't what it once was.

With a better-than-average defense, the Bills can beat any team. The Chiefs are the favorites in the AFC, but it's easy to see the Bills as one of the seven to eight NFL teams with a realistic chance to win the Super Bowl. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll showed an impressive ability to adjust Sunday night when his initial plan wasn't working against the Steelers. It's too bad there likely won't be fans in the stands, but the Bills should have a home playoff game, possibly two.

4-5) The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans should both make the playoffs, but the importance of winning a division has never meant less. The removal of the bye week for the No. 2 seed in each conference, which was part of expanding the playoff field to 14 teams, could lead to more Week 17 games in which teams rest starters. In a season where home-field advantage doesn't exist, different coaches are likely to have different strategies when it comes to playing for seeding. For instance, what is worth more: Improving from the No. 6 seed to the No. 4 seed, even if it requires going all out in the regular-season finale? Or getting a week's worth of rest for key starters after one of the toughest seasons imaginable?

I thought about this while watching Derrick Henry rack up 26 carries for the Titans against the Jaguars on Sunday. Now at 297 carries, he's one guy who could use a week off before the playoffs. Indianapolis QB Philip Rivers, playing with a bum toe, is another. The Colts' convincing win in Las Vegas made their playoff path far easier, and the Titans' ho-hum win over the Jaguars also lifted them to 9-4. The Colts are the more complete team; the Titans have the more explosive offense. They both appear too limited to win it all, but an AFC title game appearance isn't out of the question.

The AFC South will probably come down to Week 16. Both teams have difficult road tests, with the Titans playing at Green Bay and the Colts playing at Pittsburgh. But with winnable games elsewhere on the schedule, winning a division title may not mean much besides having a chance to celebrate in a year without enough opportunities for joy. Although that alone could be worth chasing.

6) The injuries are piling up for the Miami Dolphins at the worst time possible. Their best running back, Myles Gaskin, might not be off the reserve/COVID-19 list in time for Miami's Week 15 game against the Patriots. QB Tua Tagovailoa is battling an ankle injury, while his top three pass targets (DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki and Jakeem Grant) all left Sunday's loss to the Chiefs with injuries. Tua's maturation in the last few weeks is obvious, and it confirms that making him the starter was the smart move all along -- but the rookie is not ready to carry the team.

The playoff path for the Dolphins is pretty simple. At 8-5, they are unlikely to even reach Week 17 with a chance at the AFC East, with Buffalo sitting at 10-3. Winning out against the Patriots, Raiders and Bills would get the Dolphins in, and perhaps the Bills will be resting starters in the finale. This is a team, however, with a small margin for error that decreases with every injury. If Brian Flores can somehow get the Dolphins to the wild-card round, he deserves the Coach of the Year Award. He may have my vote either way.

7) The Las Vegas Raiders aren't done done, but I'm comfortable sticking a fork in them after they ended up on the wrong side of another 40-burger against the Colts. The firing of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on Sunday night underscored an uncomfortable truth for Jon Gruden. Despite having three years to build the roster how he wanted, with plenty of draft picks, the Raiders are no better defensively than they were when Gruden took over. The offense is good, but not good enough. Wins over the Chargers on Thursday night and the Dolphins in Week 16 would keep the Raiders alive heading into the season finale in Denver, but there's little reason to believe this team will run the table.

The NFL Films year-end video for this Raiders team could be titled "Kicking field goals when down by two scores."

8) Including the 6-7 New England Patriots in this column feels generous. This isn't the NFC, where multiple sub-.500 teams remain in the playoff picture. It's a nod to Bill Belichick, who usually has his team peaking in December but can't figure out how to build a passing game around Cam Newton and the worst group of receivers in the NFL. Winning seven or eight games with this roster would be overachieving. It's very unlikely the Patriots could win out with games left against all three AFC East teams. It's just as unlikely that nine wins would be enough to get them to the playoffs anyhow.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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