With a quarter of the season to go, the AFC playoff picture is really four distinct races for six playoff berths. What's fun is that there's a race for every flavor of football you might hope to see. Want to see two great modern teams at their peak? You've got the Patriots and Steelers competing for the top two spots in the conference. Prefer smashmouth football? The Jags and Titans are waiting in the AFC South. If you'd rather watch total chaos unfurl, the AFC West is a three-team disaster zone with four games to go.
The other cool thing is that these races each have one (or more) head-to-head game to go that could end up deciding things on their own. As much as the AFC has felt preordained to come down to Patriots-Steelers for most of this season, there's still a lot of drama waiting to unfold during this final month of the year.
So, as we did when we broke down the NFC playoff picture last month, let's take a look how the AFC shakes out with four weeks and one Monday Night Football game to go. And this time, let's begin at the top:
Seeds 1 and 2: Patriots vs. Steelers
It's not really a surprise that the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are huge favorites to come away with first-round byes. They would have been the two teams most onlookers would have chosen before the season began, and as we get within striking distance of the playoffs, ESPN's Football Power Index suggests there is a 78.4 percent chance of the Patriots and Steelers relaxing at home during wild-card weekend and waiting to see who they'll play next.
The pressing matter is figuring out which of the two will claim the top seed in the conference and, therefore, home-field advantage in a would-be AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are the current favorites with a 60.6 percent chance of finishing atop the conference, if only because they're a half-game ahead of the Steelers at 10-2. Pittsburgh will join them as the only double-digit winners in the AFC if they beat the Bengals in Cincinnati on Monday night, a win that would put Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' playoff hopes on life support.
Assuming the Steelers prevail, both teams will face a tricky matchup in Week 14 in advance of what might be the Game of the Season in Week 15. The Steelers will host the archrival Ravens, and while the idea that divisional games are closer than nondivisional contests isn't supported by evidence, Baltimore will be desperate to keep its slim division title hopes alive. Bill Belichick's team will travel to Miami, where they've somehow lost three of their past four trips and likely will not have Rob Gronkowski in the lineup because of suspension.
If the Steelers can get to Week 15 tied or one game behind the Patriots, they'll be in good shape. Pittsburgh hosts Tom Brady & Co. on Dec. 17, and that home-field advantage makes them slight favorites to win: FPI gives the Steelers a 50.8 percent shot at prevailing. The Steelers also have about as easy of a slate as you can imagine after that game, as they travel to play a floundering Texans team before hosting the Browns in Week 17. The Patriots, meanwhile, host the Bills and Jets.
Week 15 also will be our best look into whether the Patriots' defense has really emerged as a top-tier unit. After allowing an average of 30.5 points per game over the first four games of the season, the Pats' D has rounded into shape. Since Week 5, the Patriots are allowing an average of just 11.3 points per game, which is the best figure in football. They held the Bills to three points on Sunday, including an interception and a fourth-and-goal stuff on Buffalo's two trips to the red zone. Former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore even came away with a fourth-quarter interception. It felt comprehensive in the way that it feels when the Patriots claim the AFC East for themselves every season.
The Patriots are certainly better on defense. The huge blown coverages and miscommunications are mostly gone, though the Bills nearly came up with one such touchdown on a Joe Webb pass Sunday, only for the third-string quarterback to overthrow a wide-open Travaris Cadet.
DVOA hasn't been quite as impressed, though, as the Patriots still ranked 29th in the per-play efficiency stat heading into the game. It's also true that the New England defense has it easier than any other team in the league, given that the Pats' offense routinely pieces together long drives and rarely turns the ball over. They've also played a series of middling offenses (with the Falcons and Chargers as exceptions) and gone up against a team's backup quarterback for part or all of the game in three of the past four weeks.
One stat we can use is win probability added, which measures each team's performance against a win expectancy framework on a play-by-play basis. By WPA, the Patriots were the league's worst defense from Weeks 1 to 4, costing New England a staggering 2.48 wins with its performance. The Giants were second to last and their defense was more than a half-win better. Brady and the offense were worth a league-best 2.61 wins over that time frame, so it might not surprise you to remember that the Pats started 2-2.
Since then, the Patriots haven't exactly been the best defense in the league, but they have genuinely turned into a playoff-caliber unit. Their D has ranked eighth in the NFL since Week 5, having cost New England a mere 0.36 wins over its past eight games. Throw in the league's third-best offense and its best special teams over that time frame, and it's no surprise the Patriots are on an eight-game winning streak.
Availability could end up determining which team wins the highest-profile game of the AFC season. If Gronkowski is suspended two games after possibly concussing Tre'Davious White, he would miss the critical game against the Steelers. Meanwhile, with Antonio Brown's ailing toe potentially keeping him out of the Bengals game, it remains to be seen whether Pittsburgh's star wideout will be his usual self or even on the field at all two weeks from now. With the Patriots having their 10th win in the bag, I'll give them the slightest edge for the top spot in the conference when things are said and done.
Seed 3 (+1) : Jaguars vs. Titans for the AFC South
Barring a truly heartbreaking collapse, both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are making it to the postseason. The AFC South rivals are tied atop the division at 8-4, each projected to win 10 games, and have better than a 90 percent shot of playing past Week 17. FPI suggests that the odds of the 2017 playoffs featuring two teams from what had been regarded as football's weakest division for years are currently at 91.2 percent.
The Titans hold the tiebreaker after beating the Jaguars handily in Week 2 and host the rematch in Week 17. And yet FPI indicates that the Jaguars have a 55.7 percent shot of winning the division to Tennessee's 44.3 percent mark. You would figure the Titans must have a landmine waiting on their schedule, but that isn't true; they have to play the Rams at home, but the Jags host the Seahawks next week. Both also have a road game to come against the 49ers.
What's the difference between these two teams? Well, only one of them might be any good. While both the Jaguars and Titans are 8-4, Jacksonville has outscored its opposition by a whopping 121 points, which is right in line with how the Patriots have performed. The Jags' Pythagorean expectation suggests they're actually playing like a team that should have 9.4 wins by now. Jacksonville is not playing a tough schedule, and it has blown out some truly awful teams, but it ranked eighth in DVOA ahead of Sunday's 20-point win over the Colts.
The Jags are playing better than their record. Mike Mularkey's Titans, who have been outscored by 16 points this season, are not. They have the Pythagorean expectation of a 5.6-win team instead. Without making this too much like the College Football Playoff, notice how the Jaguars have dominated against their shared opponents with the Titans, while Tennessee has often lost comfortably or held on for a narrow win:
The Titans are in this race because they've gone 5-1 in one-score games, a streak that would have extended to 6-1 if it weren't for Derrick Henry's 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter Sunday on a play in which falling down just past the first-down marker would have ended the game. Tennessee's wins over Seattle and Baltimore both required late opposing touchdowns to get remotely close, but the Titans came within a 47-yard Ryan Succop field goal of tying with the Browns and needed late comebacks to beat the Bengals and Colts. Doug Marrone's squad is 1-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer and had to overcome a pair of late Blake Bortles interceptions to launch its comeback win over the Chargers.
Bortles is the key to the Jaguars' continuing to play at this level. Nobody is questioning whether their defense will keep it up, although its remarkable run of health came to a close on Sunday when Telvin Smith became the first Jags defensive starter to miss a game this season. Running back Leonard Fournette's ankle is a concern given that he was limping on the sideline at times on Sunday, but he doesn't appear to have an injury that will keep him out. It's going to come down to Bortles, and while he remains inconsistent, he does appear to be getting better as this season goes along and he grows more confident. Split his season into two halves and you can see the difference:
Note how Bortles' Total QBR (which is adjusted for opponent) has soared while his passer rating has increased by only seven points. Because QBR is built upon a win expectancy framework, Bortles' leap suggests he's both putting up better numbers and doing it in more meaningful situations as opposed to racking up stats in garbage time. Bortles still isn't a finished product by any means. He shows little aptitude for game situations, throwing instant checkdowns on third-and-long well short of the sticks.
On Sunday, Bortles one-hopped a possible touchdown pass and was saved from an interception by a defender stepping out of bounds. He also threw for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 20 pass attempts by halftime. Bortles isn't the franchise quarterback Jags fans willed themselves into believing he was heading into 2016, but he also might not preclude them from being a team people want to avoid in the playoffs. Next Sunday's game with Seattle will be a fascinating test for the former third overall pick.
I'm inclined to trust the numbers and peg Jacksonville to win the South. If it wins in Week 17, it also would likely prevail as division champion by virtue of a better division record. The Titans would still be in great shape to come away as the likely fifth seed in the wild-card race, which would mean a road trip to play the AFC West champ to start the postseason.
Seed 4: The last survivor of the AFC West
Let's pretend, just for a minute, that you're a Kansas City Chiefs fan and you were made a mysterious offer by a smoky figure just before kickoff of the Chiefs-Patriots season opener. Let's say you had the opportunity to fast-forward the season to the end of Week 13, at which point your favorite team would be in a three-way tie with the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders at 6-6 atop the division with the Denver Broncos essentially eliminated. You don't hear anything else about whether anyone's healthy or how your season goes, just that you're 6-6. Would you have taken that offer?
FPI says you should have, but it's also human nature to feel much less excited about that proposal after seeing the Chiefs collapse in recent weeks. Kansas City had a 37.0 percent chance of winning the West before the season started and then peaked at 93.1 percent after its 5-0 start. Now, having lost four straight games to the Cowboys, Giants, Bills, and Jets, Kansas City has ceded significant ground. Andy Reid's team is still favored to right the ship and win the division, but their odds have fallen to 58.3 percent.
Sunday made things even more frustrating for Chiefs fans: Not only did they lose to the Jets, but they also lost despite a brilliant performance from much-maligned quarterback Alex Smith. Buoyed by a pair of early touchdowns to Travis Kelce, Smith produced the day's longest pass -- a 75-yard toss to Tyreek Hill -- and its third-longest run -- a 70-yard dash through Jets arm tackles. He finished with the best QBR of the day (94.6) in going 19-of-33 for 366 yards with four touchdowns and that 70-yard romp. Smith had the exact sort of day disgruntled Chiefs fans thought would be possible only by bringing in Patrick Mahomes.
It was easy to pin the Chiefs' problems on Smith, who is likely to leave after the season. It's tougher when your scapegoat plays well and you have to find another cause. On Sunday the Chiefs fell victim to a disastrous performance from their secondary, particularly 2015 third-round pick Steven Nelson, who was lit aflame by Jermaine Kearse for multiple big plays. Kearse finished with 157 yards, while a pair of Nelson holding penalties gave the Jets new life in a goal-to-go situation and then granted the Jets another shot at a two-point conversion. The second call inspired Marcus Peters to throw a referee's flag into the stands, with the stray projectile surely invoking nasty flashbacks of Mark Sanchez for Jets fans.
The struggles of the secondary shouldn't really be a surprise, given that the Chiefs lost Eric Berry for the season back in Week 1. Cornerback still would have been a problem spot for Kansas City, but Berry has a way of making up for deficiencies elsewhere in the lineup. The hope after Berry went down was that the Chiefs would be able to survive on the strength of their pass rush, especially with the hopes that Justin Houston was finally healthy.
As much as the offense has slowed down and the secondary has been exposed, the total disappearance of the Chiefs' pass rush is at the heart of their problems. During that 5-0 start, they took down opposing passers on an even 7 percent of dropbacks and created pressure 27.6 percent of the time, with both marks above league average. Over the past seven games, though, Kansas City has posted the league's lowest sack rate (2.6 percent) and its second-lowest pressure rate (22.6 percent), ahead of only Buffalo.
The Chiefs on Sunday failed to sack Josh McCown once on 36 dropbacks, with the longtime backup becoming the second-oldest player since 1950 to run for two touchdowns in one game (behind a 41-year-old Doug Flutie in 2003). Houston has 8.5 sacks, but he has failed to come up with one in five of seven games during Kansas City's fall to earth, and nobody else has picked up the slack. Dee Ford has been out with a back injury. Tamba Hali has played 36 defensive snaps thanks to knee problems. Frank Zombo is a useful player to have on the roster, but he shouldn't be a primary edge rusher for half a season. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton desperately needs Ford back or for Chris Jones to turn into a monster, because Houston can't do it on his own.
Andy Reid is left with a team that doesn't seem to piece together a complete performance these days. When the offense plays well, as it did on Sunday, the defense misses tackles and commits too many penalties. When the defense gets after it, the offense can barely conjure up a drive for quarters at a time. The one exception over the past two months was the 29-19 victory over the Broncos on Monday Night Football on Oct. 30.
It's ironic, then, that the Chiefs are suddenly in a division race with one of the league's most terrifying pass rushes. The Chargers didn't deliver their best performance in gaining some measure of revenge on the Browns by beating them 19-10 on Sunday, but they did seal their win with a Joey Bosa strip-sack of DeShone Kizer in the red zone. No team has done a better job of saving its own bacon inside its own 20: The Chargers have a 12.8 percent sack rate on red zone dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks, with no other team in the league over 10 percent.
And while the Chiefs built their offensive identity on avoiding giveaways, strangely, the Chargers are now the team that keeps holding onto the football. Philip Rivers & Co. now have gone three games without an offensive turnover. To put that in context, Rivers has been under center for 188 starts as a Chargers quarterback and had only one prior three-game stint without a giveaway -- in 2014. Rivers is now 41-8 in games in which the Chargers don't turn the ball over.
The Raiders, too, have roared back to life on the strength of a pass rush. Over the past two weeks, Oakland has sacked Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian and Geno Smith on 9.5 percent of their dropbacks, the sixth-highest rate in the league. They haven't been quite as safe with the football -- they've lost two fumbles in two weeks and Derek Carr threw two gift-wrapped interceptions that the Giants dropped on Sunday -- but the Raiders also freed up Marshawn Lynch for his first 100-yard rushing game in silver and black.
Of these three teams, both FPI and I are most skeptical of the Raiders. Oakland's two-game streak includes wins over the Broncos and Giants, two of the worst teams in football starting backup quarterbacks. The Raiders recovered five of the six fumbles in Sunday's win, which required a late touchdown to seal things. They also still have to travel to face both the Chargers and Chiefs and have a road game against the Eagles in Week 16. FPI gives them just an 8.3 percent chance of winning the West and an 0.6 percent shot of winning a wild-card berth.
Los Angeles has a better shot, although it only takes even the faintest memories about the Chargers' recent past to remind you of their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Their schedule is certainly easier than Oakland's, as Anthony Lynn's team gets the Raiders and Washington at home while traveling to play the Chiefs and Jets. The Chargers also have been living on the charmed side of the turnover battle -- they recovered all three fumbles against the Browns and have nabbed six of eight loose fumbles during their winning streak. The Chargers now have a 33.4 percent shot of winning the division, incredible given that their odds rounded down to zero after starting 0-4.
Even given their slide, though, the Chiefs are in the most advantageous spot. They already hold a tiebreaker win over the Chargers and hold the division tiebreaker with a 2-1 record. The Chiefs host both of their divisional rivals that are still in the hunt and have only one road game left -- against the Broncos in Week 17. They still get to play at home against the Dolphins. Their 58.3 percent chance to win the West is a far cry from the certain lock the Chiefs seemed like earlier this season, but it's still better than any other team.
The division race matters most here because there's a pretty good shot the West will send only one team to the postseason. The Chargers and Chiefs have just over a 4 percent shot each of heading to the playoffs via wild card this season, while the Raiders are at 0.6 percent. The Chiefs would lose a tiebreaker battle with the Bills after falling to Tyrod Taylor & Co. last week, while the Chargers would beat the Bills (thanks, Nathan Peterman!) but come up short against the Jaguars.
As bad as they seem right now, the Chiefs are still the smart play. They've overcome losing streaks before -- remember the 2015 Chiefs losing five games in a row as part of a 1-5 opening before winning their final nine games of the season -- and there's little reason to think that Reid suddenly doesn't know how to coach a team in the regular season. Given that they've exhibited both a great offense and a great defense at different times in recent weeks, it stands to reason that the Chiefs will put things together and have both on display at the same time. If they lose to the Raiders next Sunday, though ...
Seed 6: Ravens vs. The World
A three-game winning streak with victories over Brett Hundley, Tom Savage and a combo of Matthew Stafford and Jake Rudock doesn't sound very impressive, but it has probably done enough to push the Baltimore Ravens into the postseason. Baltimore was still a 50-50 playoff proposition after a loss to the Titans took John Harbaugh's team into the break at 4-5, but three straight wins have Baltimore's playoff probability up to 87.3 percent.
The Ravens' toughest game of the season awaits with a trip to Pittsburgh, but they should be in great shape to finish with at least a 6 seed even if they lose. Their schedule ends with the Browns, Colts and Bengals. The pass defense will naturally suffer without the presence of cornerback Jimmy Smith, who became the latest defensive back to suffer a season-ending Achilles injury on Sunday, but the Ravens at least have a plausible option to insert into the lineup in first-round pick Marlon Humphrey. Baltimore holds a tiebreaker over the Raiders but not over their likely wild-card partners in the AFC South. Having lost to both the Jags and Titans, the Ravens have a 50.3 percent shot of finishing with the sixth seed.
If it's not the Ravens, some team is going to make a memorable run up the table. The only other team with a 7 percent shot of winning a wild-card spot in the AFC is the Buffalo Bills. Sunday's blowout loss to the Patriots dropped them to .500, but Sean McDermott's team still has a home-and-home with the Dolphins and a home game against the Colts to go along with a terrifying trip to Foxborough. They don't have to run the table to make the playoffs, but if they lose to the Patriots and win their three other games, The New York Times model still gives Buffalo only a 45 percent shot at the postseason.
Otherwise, it would take a miraculous run from the Cincinnati Bengals (4.8 percent odds heading into the Steelers game) or even the Miami Dolphins (1.1 percent). Some team is going to get hot in December, but unless the Ravens totally collapse without Smith, the wild cards are probably set with Baltimore and the loser of the AFC South race. Are you ready for Blake Bortles vs. Joe Flacco in a playoff game? Hey, somebody's got to eat a W ...