AFC playoff picture, NFL power rankings and more

The AFC playoff picture is a beautiful disaster, giving us tremendous football and manic fans all the way through the holidays.

The NFL loves to trumpet parity. In 2016, it has more than it knows what to do with.

Going into the Monday night game between the Colts and Jets, only a handful of teams are truly playing out the string with four games remaining. The NFC has a nice race shaping up in the wild card section, with the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers all fighting for two spots.

Yet it is the AFC which is going to give us non-stop drama right through New Year’s Day.

There, we only know a few things. The New England Patriots are winning the East. The Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars are not making the playoffs. Everything else? It’s up for grabs.

Should the Colts beat the Jets tonight, the South will have Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee all tied atop the division with 6-6 records. The teams all still play each other, with the Titans hosting the Texans on the final Sunday of the regular season.

In the North, the race is hot and heavy between two old rivals. The Steelers and Ravens both beat playoff contenders on Sunday, moving their records to 7-5, respectively. Baltimore beat Pittsburgh in November, so the tiebreaker goes to Charm City until the rematch on Christmas afternoon at Heinz Field.

In the West, we have one of the greatest can-you-top-races in NFL history. The Oakland Raiders are 10-2 in an incredible turnaround campaign. In most years, the Raiders would be running away with home-field advantage. But this is 2016.

The Kansas City Chiefs pulled off an improbable win over the Falcons over the weekend, putting them at 9-3. Andy Reid’s team has already beaten the Raiders in Oakland, and now draws the Silver and Black on Thursday night in Arrowhead. Whoever wins will be leading the West and in position for a bye week in the playoffs with three games remaining.

Then there are the defending champions. The Denver Broncos survived a Paxton Lynch start against the Jaguars, winning 20-10 to run their mark to 8-4. Denver has lost to both Kansas City and Oakland, but remains in the West race with contests against each over the final two weeks.

As for the wild card picture, the Chiefs are in the top spot with the Broncos sitting in the sixth and final position. Pittsburgh and Miami are on the outside looking in at 7-5, while the Bills are all but finished at 6-6 after a blown 24-9 lead in Oakland.

All told, the AFC is a wild circus. Love it.

Power rankings

Top 10 current wide receivers

1. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
2. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
4. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
5. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
6. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
8. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
9. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
10. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos

Quotable

“It’s a team sport. Individual awards and things like that mean that I’ve been a part of great teams with great coaches and great teammates,” he said after win No. 200 last Sunday. “I’ve had a lot of really great support over the years, so hopefully we can keep winning. It never gets old.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on his record-setting 201st NFL win

New England is 10-2 this season, and despite missing four games, Brady might be the frontrunner for the MVP award. Brady has been nothing short of Rembrandt in cleats since becoming the starter in Week 2 of the 2001 season. To say that Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play would not be a stretch.

Random stat

In games where Philip Rivers had thrown for more than 300 yards this season, the Chargers are 1-4.

Info learned this week

1. Packers are beginning to show life

Green Bay was able to take down the Texans, 21-13, on Sunday. The win put the Packers at 6-6, and while the Lions and Vikings remain ahead of them, the schedule is conducive to a nice run through December and into January.

The only tough games would be dates with the Seahawks and Lions, but Seattle is at home. The matchup with Detroit is on Week 17, perhaps for the division. While the Packers have a long way to go, they are starting to climb back into the mix.

2. Saints continue to blow opportunities; Lions proving doubters wrong

Once upon a time, New Orleans was almost impossible to beat in the Superdome. This year, the Saints have lost four of seven at home. On Sunday, Detroit put the Saints out of commission with a 28-13 victory, dropping New Orleans to 5-7 overall.

Meanwhile, Detroit is sitting pretty at 8-4, two games clear of Green Bay and Minnesota in the NFC North. The Lions now have a home game with the Bears before three tough contests versus the Giants, Cowboys and Packers.

3. Cowboys locking up bye, Vikings circling drain

The Vikings had a real chance to beat Dallas on Thursday night, but couldn’t finish off a final, furious drive. Minnesota is now 6-6 and while a wild card spot isn’t impossible, the season feels like a lost cause. The only ray of hope? The Jaguars are next on the schedule.

As for the Cowboys, they are 11-1 and quite simply trucking toward January. With the Lions having four losses and the Falcons dropping their fifth on Sunday, it would take a major collapse to miss out on a bye week come the postseason.

4. 49ers assume themselves top-three pick in 2017

By getting pounded by the Chicago Bears, the 49ers will be in great shape for the second-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. While it’s never good to lose, this is a situation where it might be a blessing in thin disguise.

At 1-11, the 49ers would need a shocking win streak to finish any higher than third in the draft order. Jacksonville is sitting at 2-10, but they are the only true threat. San Francisco is suffering through a rancid year, but it could pay off in the spring.

It appears the Browns will hold the first pick with their 0-12 record.

5. Rams sign Fisher to extension

Maybe some of you thought this would lead the column. Nope, if only because the Rams don’t warrant the attention of anybody. Los Angeles signed Fisher to a two-year extension, signaling its complacency for the next few seasons.

The Rams are 4-8 and showing no signs of life. While Fisher’s horrid deal is getting the headlines, general manager Les Snead also got an extension. Snead has failed in every way imaginable, including whiffs on multiple high picks and his head coach.

It’s a total disgrace.

History lesson

There have only been two teams to ever reach the playoffs after finishing below .500. The Carolina Panthers did so in 2014, going 7-8-1 and winning the NFC South. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks managed the feat at 7-9, even winning a Wild Card game.

This year, the AFC South could make it three teams in that group. The Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are leading the gaggle at 6-6, while the Indianapolis Colts could make it a trio at the top with a win on Monday night over the Jets.

Parting shot

This is what the NFL is all about. Sunday felt like the first true moment of playoff-push time, with the snow falling at Lambeau Field and the best teams showing up. Early in the season, the contenders can be picked off by a plucky foe. Not so easy when the calendar, and weather, turns.

As we enter the final quarter of the season, some teams and their fans will be left to wonder what could have been. Others will begin gearing up, knowing there are greater hopes to be realized. It’s the NFL in the winter, and it’s unlike anything else.

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