Editor's Note - it's been correctly pointed out that some of the tie-breaker commentary included below is not 100% correct. My apologies, but for now, I'll be leaving it as it was posted so as not to spend unnecessary time combing through each and every scenario. Too many games left on the schedule for that. Let's see how the chips fall these next couple of weeks before really digging in with our speculation about how the AFC playoff picture may or may not end up come the conclusion of Week 17. Thanks as always for the conversation and feedback. - Blitz - (Michael B.)
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their third straight on Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens. It was one helluva entertaining game, with fans across the country having to fight back the onset of cardiac arrest on multiple occasions throughout the game. But I'll save my thoughts on the heartbreaking loss for just a bit. Too emotionally exhausted for now. First, let's take a look at the AFC Playoff picture now that all but one the Monday night 5game has been played in Week 12. The following are the playoff teams if the season ended today. (AFC record in parenthesis)
- Indianapolis Colts - 11-0 (7-0)
- Cincinnati Bengals - 8-3 (6-3)
- San Diego Chargers - 8-3 (6-3)
- New England Patriots 7-3 (5-3)
- Denver Broncos - 7-4 (5-3)
- Jacksonville Jaguars - 6-5 (5-2)
- Baltimore Ravens - 6-5 (6-4)
- Pittsburgh Steelers - 6-5 (4-4)
- Miami Dolphins - 5-6 (3-4)
- Tennessee Titans - 5-6 (3-6)
- New York Jets 5-6 (4-5)
- Houston Texans - 5-6 (4-5)
- New York Jets. An impressive win for them today against the visiting Panthers. The Jets schedule is actually fairly favorable, but they've proven already that they're not nearly consistent enough to win their next five or even four of the next five. I don't see them as a factor.
- Houston Texans. Another heartbreaking loss for Houston at the hands of the Colts. Peyton Manning mounts a rally down 17 points and easily finishes Houston in the 4th quarter to improve the Colts' record to 11-0.
- Tennessee Titans. I'd absolutely dread seeing Tennessee on my favorite team's schedule this next five weeks, but in all likelihood, Tennessee just fell one game too deep in the hole to start the year. The Titans have to win out to pass the Steelers - as the Steelers will more than likely get to 9 wins at worst. The Titans also are in the hole bigtime in terms of their conference record. They simply can't afford to lose again, and even if they do win out, they'd need some significant help from the teams they're chasing. If the Titans can win at Indianapolis next weekend though, then all bets are off - they could very well finish the improbably off and get to 10 wins after starting 0-6. I think they likely get tripped up next week and then be in an insurmountable hole. That said, man, it's been crazy watching the transformation of that team.
- Miami Dolphins. New England travels to Miami next weekend with a chance to close the door down on the division most likely. Miami is also dangerous and very formidable in a single game situation, but I think they lack the quarterback play to make a strong final push. Chad Henne thre interceptions on Miami's final three drives on Sunday. Ouch. Miami does have one slight advantage in that all five of their remaining games are against teams they are chasing in the standings. Win all five and they'd likely sneak in. I just don't see that happening given their team and schedule.
- The good news for Denver is....they still have two games left with the Kansas City Chiefs, and one against the lowly Raiders. That's likely three wins to get them to 10.
- The bad news for Denver is.... 1) their other two games are extremely difficult road matchups. First, at Indy in Week 14, then at Philly in Week 16....2) they also don't hold tiebreakers against the Steelers and Ravens. That means they have to finish a full game clear of both teams to edge them out. We do know this - the Steelers and Ravens can't both finish 11-5 because of the simple fact that the teams play each other once more. So, for Denver, it's pretty simple - win those three winnable games against your divisional foes and then win either one of the two against Philly or Indy and you're 99% assure of being in with 11 wins, provided Jacksonville doesn't run the table, which is almost certainly not going to happen.
- The good news for Baltimore is.... They have a solid 6-4 AFC record and still have the awful Raiders at home in Week 17. The other good news regarding their schedule is consecutive home tilts against the Lions and Bears following a trip to Green Bay this weekend.
- The bad news for Baltimore is....Well, frankly, there isn't tons of bad news for the Ravens following their huge victory over the Steelers. They must, however, find a way to win next weekend at Lambeau Field. That sounds doable, but the Packers are definitely playing much better football at the moment than they were a month ago. The Packers also will be coming off 10 days rest in wake of a very easy win over the Lions. The Ravens of course will be coming off a war against the Steelers the previous Sunday. Finally, and this is actually fairly troubling if you're a Ravens fan - the Steelers can afford to lose one more game actually under a lot of different scenarios, but if it were to boil down to the Ravens and Steelers competing for a final playoff spot, Pittsburgh would just have to make sure that that lone loss didn't come to anybody but the Green Bay Packers. If the Steelers handle Oakland, Cleveland, Baltimore at home, then Miami in Week 17, Pittsburgh would get the edge over Baltimore in tiebreakers. Why? Because they'd finish with an 8-4 AFC record compared to 7-5 for Baltimore.
- The good news for Jacksonville is.....They control their own destiny. With five AFC games remaining on their schedule and only 2 losses thus far in conference, the Jags are guaranteed to make it to the playoffs if they win out. Frankly, they'd probably be okay if they were to win five of six, particularly if the loss came against anybody but Miami or Houston. The Jags also have their next three at home, which never hurts. The first two are against the Texans and the Dolphins, meaning consecutive wins and they've really crippled two of the 'chasers' in the Wild Card pack. Finally, they close with the Browns, who will likely have totally shut it down for the year by Week 17.
- The bad news for Jacksonville is....Well, in addition to them really not being that good and one of the league's youngest teams (13 rookies see the field regularly for them), Jacksonville has both New England and Indianapolis left on their schedule. Jacksonville is a solid and improving young team, but I'm pretty sure they're not quite ready to beat both of those teams, let alone either one of them. I have a real hard time seeing them get to 10 wins quite frankly. 10 could very well be enough for them though if they win their next two, so for now I'll consider them contenders.
- The good news for Pittsburgh is....1)Their schedule sets up nicely over the course of this next three weeks. They return home to host the Raiders next Sunday, then travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns on Thursday night. With Shaun Rogers out for the year, there's very little outside of Joshua Cribbs that should give Pittsburgh any trouble. They then have 10 days to rest and prepare for Green Bay at home. Don't get me wrong, I am taking nothing for granted with this year's Steelers team, but I think it's safe to say that they'll win their next two. I wrote about it recently and I'll say it again, I think having that 10 days between the Browns and Packers game will be huge....2) the other good news is that the Steelers still control their destiny over the Ravens. Win out and they're in. As I outlined earlier, that doesn't even need to happen though. The Steelers can afford to lose one more and still beat out the Ravens so long as that one loss comes at the hands of the Packers and not the Raiders, Browns or Dolphins....3) It's also worth noting that the Steelers hold the tiebreaker edge over the Chargers, who currently hold a two game edge over Pittsburgh. However, San Diego still has road games at Dallas and Tennessee left, as well as a home tilt against the Bengals in three weeks. It's not inconceivable I suppose for San Diego to lose three more games and subsequently their lead in the AFC West. That, in turn, would put them in some trouble if Pittsburgh could get to 10 wins.
- The bad news for Pittsburgh is.... Well, let's just say things aren't bouncing their way this year. It just may simply not be their year, as frustrating as that may be to swallow. However, the Steelers should get Troy Polamalu back for the home stretch and hopefully Ben Roethlisberger will be ready to work some magic when he plays next Sunday. You can't count out the champs until they're officially on the mat. We're not there just yet despite Sunday night's loss to the Ravens.