Insiders

NFL AM: AFC Contenders With Easiest Road to the Postseason

on

The 13th week of the 2016 NFL season gets into full swing on Sunday afternoon with a slew of interesting matchups courting big-time playoff implications around the league.

That’s specifically true in the AFC where it seems at least three of the divisional races, and of course the Wild Card race, with a game or less separating several teams from playoff position. That leaves wide-open and there for the taking for at least 10 teams still in good position for a playoff spot. But with just five weeks remaining in the season, schedules have shaken out to make the path to the postseason easier for some teams than others. Here’s a look at a few of the teams that should benefit from their schedule.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-5)

Just a few short weeks ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were in the midst of a four-game losing streak that sent them tumbling out of playoff position, it might have seemed unlikely that they’d find themselves so high on a list of this nature.

But anyone who looked ahead at Pittsburgh’s schedule, even back then, knew that it was far too early to count the Steelers out.

Since a Week 10 loss to Dallas, the Steelers have been boosted by dominant wins over cupcake opponents, the winless Browns and the Colts without Andrew Luck. Now they enter the final five games of the season very much in control of their own destiny in the AFC South and they may have the easiest route to a division crown of any team in the AFC. Their toughest remaining game is on Sunday when they host the red-hot New York Giants in what is likely to be the Game of the Week. On paper, the teams seem pretty evenly matched, but the x-factor here is likely to be Pittsburgh’s ability to run the ball and control the pace of the game, something New York hasn’t been able to do all season. It may come down to the final few minutes with the Steelers defense having to hold off a Giants rally, but they should pull it out.

Following that game, Pittsburgh has two straight on the road, games in Buffalo and Cincinnati. The Bills remain one of the most enigmatic teams in the league and could put up a fight, but Pittsburgh should be able to overcome it. The Week 15 game with Cincy is one we’d usually look forward to, but the Bengals are a mess this year and with A.J. Green still likely out and primetime Andy Dalton on full display without his best weapon, it’s hard to see anything other than the Steelers in a walk. Pittsburgh then settles back in at home for the final two games of the season, including a Christmas Day matchup with the Ravens that could decide the division. Baltimore already got the best of the Steelers in Week 9, and Pittsburgh has shockingly lost four straight to the Ravens. But the time is nigh for that skid to end. The Steelers then finish with a matchup against a Browns team that could be staring down 0-16.

With that slate, it’s possible Pittsburgh could sweep through December and roll into the postseason peaking with a seven-game winning streak. But we’ll hedge our bets and say they slip once, probably on the road in Buffalo or Cincy, or maybe they gift Cleveland a season-ending win. Either way, it seems the Steelers are headed for the playoffs again.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in AFC North, No. 3 AFC Seed

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (9-2)

The long-term hopes of the Patriots as Super Bowl contenders this season took a significant blow this week when tight end Rob Gronkowski was diagnosed with a back injury requiring surgery that is likely to keep him out of action for the rest of the season. However, though Gronk’s absence is a hit to the Pats offense, it shouldn’t slow down their progression toward the top spot in the AFC for the playoffs.

That’s because, of the AFC contenders, New England seems to have the most desirable road to the postseason. That starts on Sunday when the Pats play host to the Rams, a game against a rookie quarterback that Bill Belichick and his troops should have no trouble taking care of. New England faces its stiffest remaining tests in the two weeks that follow, a Monday night tilt against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14 and then a trip to Denver to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Broncos in Week 15. It seems likely that the Pats drop one of those games but not both, putting them at 11-3 heading into a pair of divisional matchups to end the season. In Week 16 they get a rematch with the Jets, who gave New England fits last week, but at Foxboro with home field in the playoffs hanging in the balance, it’s hard to imagine New York being able to overcome Brady and Belichick. That leaves a Week 17 matchup in Miami, that might mean as much to the Dolphins, also fighting for playoff position. But as improved as Miami is, it’s hard to imagine them spoiling home field for New England for a second straight year.

Prediction: 13-3, 1st in AFC East, No. 1 AFC Seed

OAKLAND RAIDERS (9-2)

Like the Patriots, the Oakland Raiders are boosted by and advantage of at least one game over the other teams they’re competing with for playoff positioning. And although they play three tough divisional games in the final five weeks, their schedule also doesn’t look all that insurmountable.

Oakland’s final five begins this week with a visit to the Black Hole by the scuffling Buffalo Bills. It’s a classic trap game for the Raiders. The enigmatic Bills have been known to play some of their best games against the best teams in the Rex Ryan era, and Oakland could be looking ahead to next Thursday night when they head to Kansas City for a rivalry game against a Chiefs team that’s breathing down their neck in the AFC West. But it’s still a game Oakland should be able to handle. Provided they do that, they could go into that game with a two-game advantage on KC, who faces a much tougher battle against Atlanta in Week 13. The Raiders also owe the Chiefs a little something as Kansas City is one of only two teams to hand Oakland a loss this season, and they did it in somewhat dominant fashion, in Oakland. The Raiders will be primed for revenge in what should be one of the best Thursday night games of the season.

Following that game, Oakland gets a little extra time to prepare for another tough divisional test against the Chargers in San Diego. The extra days of preparation should prove beneficial to pulling out a victory on the road. The Raiders get a brief reprieve from their road swing to end the season in Week 16 when they host the Colts in Week 16, another game that, on paper, looks like a win, but could present a trap with a tough divisional matchup looming the following week. That matchup pits the Raiders against the Broncos in Denver in a game that could have all sorts of implications for both teams. How the Raiders fare in those two trap games against Buffalo and Indianapolis will go a long way toward determining how things shake out in Oakland as it relates to the postseason, but they’ve done enough in the first 12 weeks of the season to earn the benefit of the doubt in those situations.

Prediction: 13-3, 1st in AFC West, No. 2 AFC Seed

HOUSTON TEXANS (6-5)

For what only seems like the 50th straight season (it hasn’t been that long since Peyton Manning ruled the roost), the AFC South is a mess with no clear-cut favorite to win and three teams in play to back into the postseason as division champion. The schedules and the talent give Houston a clear edge, despite their myriad deficiencies.

Houston starts its trek toward a second straight playoff appearance on Sunday with an unenviable visit to Green Bay to take on a Packers that seemed to find a rhythm last week and suddenly has the look of a team nobody wants to play in December or January for that matter. Hard to see that ending well for the Texans. But even if they fall, they’ll head into the final four weeks of the season at 6-6, tied with Tennessee atop the division and their remaining slate gives them the edge, mostly because the Titans follow up their odd Week 13 bye with back-to-back games against the superior Broncos and Chiefs. Yikes.

Meanwhile, Houston heads to Indianapolis in Week 14 to face a Colts team that simply has no direction and no talent outside of the quarterback position. It should be a bland game, but the Texans should win it. Houston then heads home to face a Jaguars team with nothing to play for, another bad game they should win. They follow that with a Christmas Eve visit from the Bengals in Week 16 that will pit Brock Osweiler vs. primetime Andy Dalton in a matchup that could make Santa toss up those cookies left out for him. But again, the Texans are the superior team and should emerge victorious. That leaves a Week 17 game against the Titans that, if everything plays out as expected, should mean nothing to either team. So even if Tennessee, which seems like the better team at the moment, wins that one, it will be too little too late. Of course, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected in the AFC South, so anything short of a Jaguars playoff run is possible. The Texans getting in and then getting blasted by the Chiefs in the first round, again, just seems by far the most likely scenario.

Prediction: 9-7, 1st in AFC South, No. 4 AFC Seed

That takes care of the division winners, and it seems likely that the Chiefs will grasp the top Wild Card spot at this point with a challenging but not insurmountable slate of their own down the stretch. That will leave the sixth and final spot down to the Broncos and surprising Dolphins. History tells us Denver takes that, and you don’t bet on the Dolphins until they prove you should. Even then, you probably still shouldn’t bet on the Dolphins.

Regardless, the AFC Playoff picture is wide-open and although all roads lead through New England, the Pats have shown some flaws this season that could be exposed some January, which make five of the six playoff teams (sorry Houston) real contenders for the conference crown as a spot in the Super Bowl.

 


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys