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AFC playoff race to pick up in December

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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This truly will be a December to Remember in the NFL.

POWER RANKINGS

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For the first time in league history, there are 19 teams within one game of first place in their respective divisions entering Week 13. It’s also the first time since the NFL expanded and restructured in 2002 that all eight divisions have at least two teams within one game of first place this deep into the regular season. If this trend continues, the final week of the season should have far more impact on playoff seeding than in previous years when many of the spots were already clinched.

With five games remaining, here is a division-by-division primer handicapping the postseason odds of viable playoff contenders.

AFC | NFC


AFC EAST

Contenders: New England (9-2), New York Jets (9-2), Miami (6-5)
Easiest schedule: Miami (26-29; .473 winning percentage). The Dolphins will host three teams with losing records (Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit). Miami, though, needs to win at least one of its remaining road games against the Jets or Patriots for a legitimate playoff chance. Even then, the Dolphins are still a long shot because of previous losses to Baltimore (8-3) and Pittsburgh (8-3) that would work against them in a wild-card tiebreaker scenario.
Hardest schedule: New York Jets (33-22; .600 winning percentage). The Jets must hope winning a slew of close games earlier this season pays dividends in a brutal four-game stretch that includes contests at New England, Pittsburgh and Chicago. The Patriots don’t have it much easier with nonconference matchups against Chicago and Green Bay following the Jets game.
Key games: New York at New England (Monday night), New England at Chicago (Dec. 12), New York at Pittsburgh (Dec. 19).
Outlook: Barring an epic collapse, the Patriots and Jets are playoff-bound. New England is sitting pretty for home-field advantage throughout the postseason with earlier victories over the Ravens and Steelers. However, the Patriots must avenge a Week 2 loss to the Jets or risk being reduced to a wild card should New England and New York finish with the same record.

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AFC NORTH

Contenders: Baltimore (8-3), Pittsburgh (8-3).
Easiest schedule: Pittsburgh (24-31; .436 winning percentage). A three-game home stretch in Weeks 14-16 includes two of the league’s worst teams (Cincinnati and Carolina). The Steelers also end the season on the road against the erratic Cleveland Browns (4-7).
Hardest schedule: Baltimore (27-28; .491 winning percentage). After playing the Steelers on Sunday night, Baltimore plays only one more team above .500. But it’s a good one — New Orleans.
Key games: Pittsburgh at Baltimore (Sunday night), New York Jets at Pittsburgh (Dec. 19), New Orleans at Baltimore (Dec. 19).
Outlook: The Ravens and Steelers couldn’t be more equally matched entering Sunday night’s tilt. They have the same record in the conference (6-2) and division (2-1) as well as almost the exact same number of points scored and surrendered. Having defeated a Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers squad in Week 4, Baltimore can essentially take a two-game lead in the division with another victory Sunday night.

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AFC SOUTH

Contenders: Jacksonville (6-5), Indianapolis (6-5), Houston (5-6), Tennessee (5-6)
Easiest schedule: Indianapolis (24-31; .436 winning percentage). No team could use a breather more than this injury-stricken squad that has lost in three of its past four outings. The Colts will have extra time to rest and regroup following a Dec. 9 Thursday night game at Tennessee, one of two meetings against the Titans in a 24-day span.
Hardest schedule: Tennessee (30-25; .545 winning percentage). The Titans are on a four-game losing streak but only one defeat came in the AFC South. Tennessee’s lone remaining nondivision game is Dec. 26 at Kansas City. The Titans would be guaranteed the division crown by winning their remaining five games, but that scenario is highly unlikely considering Tennessee’s offensive problems.
Key games: Jacksonville at Tennessee (Sunday), Houston at Baltimore (Dec. 13), Jacksonville at Indianapolis (Dec. 19), Tennessee at Kansas City (Dec. 26).
Outlook: For the first time since 2002, Indianapolis is assured of winning less than 12 games. But in this flawed division, a 9-7 mark may be good enough to earn the AFC South title. Jacksonville seems to have the best chance of knocking off the Colts provided the Jags can avoid another late-season swoon like in 2009. Watch out for the Texans — a franchise that tends to finish strongly — if Houston can win its next two games against Philadelphia and Baltimore.

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AFC WEST

Contenders: Kansas City (7-4), San Diego (6-5), Oakland (5-6)
Easiest schedule: San Diego (21-34; .382 winning percentage). Statistically, no bona fide AFC playoff contender has a clearer path to the postseason. The Chargers play their next three games at home before finishing on the road against Cincinnati and Denver, although wintry weather could be a factor in those two contests. Expect NBC to use its flex option to ditch a Dec. 26 Sunday night game between San Diego and Cincinnati (2-9).
Hardest schedule: Oakland (28-27; .509 winning percentage). Denver (3-8) is Oakland’s lone remaining opponent with a losing record. Without a win Sunday at San Diego, the slumping Raiders are likely headed toward a franchise-record eighth consecutive season without a playoff berth.
Key games: Oakland at San Diego (Sunday), Kansas City at San Diego (Dec. 12).
Outlook: The Chiefs have rebounded well from a midseason slump with two consecutive wins. But there may be no hotter team in the NFL than the Chargers. San Diego is averaging 33.3 points during its four-game winning streak and fields the NFL’s top-ranked defense. A Chiefs victory in San Diego would give Kansas City a tiebreaker edge based on a Week 1 win over the Chargers. The Chiefs also get to end the regular season at home against Tennessee and Oakland.

Tagged: Steelers

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