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No margin for error in wacky AFC

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DECEMBER 06: Tight end Anthony Fasano #80 of the Miami Dolphins can't quite make a reception in...
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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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One down, nine to go.

The AFC playoff picture is a tad clearer thanks to San Diego’s 42-17 rout of Tennessee on Friday night. The Titans (7-8) are now eliminated from contention, while San Diego (12-3) has secured the conference’s No. 2 seed behind Indianapolis (14-0).

After that, anything goes.

New England, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Denver, Miami, Jacksonville, Houston, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets all remain alive in what has become a mad scramble for four postseason slots. Here is a breakdown of where things stand for these squads entering Sunday’s games.

Note: These scenarios do not include the possibility of ties. The odds of a tie game in the final two weeks of the season are as good as those of Jim Zorn returning as Washington’s head coach in 2010.

New England (9-5)

Remaining schedule: Jacksonville (Sunday), at Houston (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: The Patriots will win the AFC East with a victory in one of their final two games or if Miami loses one of its final two contests. New England also is jostling with Cincinnati (9-5) for the No. 3 playoff seed. The Patriots are poised to win a tiebreaker if both squads finish with the same record. Still, playing for seeding against the Texans may be less important for New England than resting players for the postseason.

Outlook: A seventh division title since 2000 would further bolster New England’s status as “Team of the Decade.” But these Patriots aren’t nearly as formidable as previous squads with the playoffs approaching. Because of deficiencies on defense and in the running game, New England will go only as far as QB Tom Brady can carry the team. The Patriots do seemingly match up well against Indianapolis. The Colts needed to rally from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit in last month’s 35-34 victory.

Cincinnati (9-5)

Remaining schedule: Kansas City (Sunday), at the New York Jets (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: The Bengals will clinch the AFC North crown with a victory in one of their final two games. Cincinnati, though, shouldn’t need to wait until Week 17 to celebrate with the Chiefs (3-11) coming to town Sunday.

Outlook: December was rough for Cincinnati on several fronts. The Bengals are still grieving the loss of wide receiver Chris Henry, who died this month in a truck accident. Cincinnati also dropped road games to Minnesota and San Diego. Unless the offense regains some oomph, the Bengals have no shot at getting past the second round.

Baltimore (8-6)

Remaining schedule: at Pittsburgh (Sunday), at Oakland (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: The Ravens are assured of a wild card and No. 5 playoff seed by winning their final two games. Cincinnati needs to lose its final two games for Baltimore to have a shot at winning the AFC North. Baltimore can clinch a playoff berth Sunday with a victory over Pittsburgh and one of the following:
  • A) Losses by Jacksonville and the Jets
  • B) Losses by Jacksonville and Denver
  • C) Losses by the Dolphins, Jets and Broncos.
The Ravens would win a tie with Pittsburgh (7-7) for a wildcard slot because of a better divisional record.

Outlook: Even though the Ravens are 0-3 this season against Cincinnati and New England, neither club should want to play Baltimore again. The Ravens have won three of their past four games and rank second in scoring defense with 225 points allowed. Baltimore’s weakness is its injury-riddled secondary, which makes a first-round rematch with Cincinnati more appealing than New England.

Denver (8-6)

Remaining schedule: at Philadelphia (Sunday), Kansas City (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: The Broncos have the inside track for the No. 6 seed, but a loss to Philadelphia would leave Denver vulnerable to missing the playoffs entirely. Baltimore has an earlier head-to-head victory over Denver. Miami and Jacksonville hold the edge in tiebreaker scenarios featuring multiple 9-7 teams. Denver does match up well in potential tiebreakers against the Jets and Texans. The Broncos would qualify for the playoffs Sunday with an upset win over Philadelphia combined with losses by Jacksonville, Miami, Pittsburgh and the Jets.

Outlook: After a 6-0 start, Denver should have wrapped up a postseason berth long ago. But the Broncos continued their slide back into the pack last Sunday with a home loss to Oakland. While the Broncos did post a fluke victory over Cincinnati in the season-opener, Denver’s more preferable playoff option would be a first-round rematch against New England. As evidenced by Denver’s 20-17 overtime victory in Week 5, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels knows the Patriots well from his days as a Bill Belichick disciple.

Jacksonville (7-7)

Remaining schedule: at New England (Sunday), at Cleveland (Jan. 3)

Playoff summary: The Jaguars need to win their final two games and hope Baltimore or Denver stumbles at least once. Under that scenario, Jacksonville’s 8-4 conference record would separate the Jaguars from the pack in multi-team tiebreakers with other 9-7 clubs. The one scenario Jacksonville doesn’t want is a head-to-head tiebreaker against Miami. The Dolphins would have the edge because of a 14-10 victory in Week 14.

Outlook: Not good after consecutive home losses to Miami and Indianapolis. Jacksonville is 0-4 all-time against New England and enters Sunday’s game as an eight-point underdog. But even if they fall short of the playoffs, the Jaguars already have overachieved in what is considered a rebuilding season.

Miami (7-7)

Remaining schedule: Houston (Sunday), Pittsburgh (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: The Dolphins must sweep Pittsburgh and Houston, then get a little help from other teams for a wild card. Miami needs a Baltimore loss to Pittsburgh and Kansas City upset of Denver. The Dolphins also want to avoid a multi-team tiebreaker that involves Jacksonville because of the Jaguars’ superior conference record. Miami would win the AFC East in a 9-7 tie with New England because of a better conference record.

Outlook: Even with injuries having sidelined a slew of key players, Miami is the type of hard-nosed, well-coached team that could cause fits in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for Miami, such an appearance seems unlikely.

Pittsburgh (7-7)

Remaining schedule: Baltimore (Sunday), at Miami (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: Even with a win Sunday, Pittsburgh still loses a playoff tiebreaker to Baltimore should both teams finish 9-7 because of an inferior division record (the Ravens would be 3-3, the Steelers 2-4). The Steelers also would be eliminated in multi-team tiebreakers with Houston and the Jets because of an inferior conference record. The best-case situation for Pittsburgh would be finishing with Baltimore and Denver as the lone 9-7 teams vying for two wildcard spots. Denver would be eliminated because of prior losses to both squads.

Outlook: Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin is right. The Steelers do still have a pulse after last Sunday’s wild 37-36 win over Green Bay. The problem is that Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes are on life support because of an earlier five-game losing streak. The Steelers could cause problems in the postseason if they get there, especially if SS Troy Polamalu returns from a knee injury. Pittsburgh, though, is likely to follow in the same footsteps as the 2006 squad that didn’t make the playoffs after winning a Super Bowl the previous season.

New York Jets (7-7)

Remaining schedule: At Indianapolis (Sunday), Cincinnati (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: New York’s playoff hopes aren’t quite as dead as coach Rex Ryan thought after last Sunday’s home loss to Atlanta. The Jets must win their final two games and hope for at least one loss by Miami, Denver and Jacksonville. A Ravens loss to Pittsburgh also would help New York’s chances.

Outlook: Stranger things have happened. The Jets could get a break Sunday in Indianapolis if the Colts rest their starters, particularly QB Peyton Manning. Denver and Jacksonville could easily fall this weekend as well, while Miami isn’t a sure bet to sweep the Texans and Steelers. The Jets are trying to avoid becoming the first team in NFL history to not reach the playoffs after leading the league in rushing and total defense.

Houston (7-7)

Remaining schedule: at Miami (Sunday), New England (Jan. 3).

Playoff summary: The Texans must win both their games and hope that a slew of other contenders finish 8-8. Houston also needs to finish with a better record than Jacksonville, which holds the divisional tiebreaker because of two wins over the Texans. Houston’s 4-6 conference mark and prior loss to the Jets also are crippling in tiebreakers.

Outlook: The Texans are poised to miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season, which is the longest drought for an NFL expansion team since New Orleans began play in 1967. That tempers any excitement from what could be the franchise’s first winning season.

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