Playoff picture: Texans get much-needed boost with win

FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 file photo, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks to pass to running back Dion Lewis (33) during the first quarter of an NFL football game in East Rutherford, N.J. As New England (10-2) prepares to host the Baltimore Ravens Monday night, Dec. 12, 2016 the ghost of Deflategate has emerged this week, even as Brady insists its the furthest thing from his mind. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
Julio Cortez/AP

The playoff race remains predictably crowded early in the fourth quarter of this NFL season, creating a complicated bundle of scenarios for the division crowns and wild-card spots available for the taking.

The afternoon game Sunday with the biggest impact on the postseason picture was likely Houston's 22-17 win at Indianapolis, considering the teams began the day in a three-way tie with Tennessee for first place in the underwhelming AFC South.

The Titans, meanwhile, got a big boost with their 13-10 win over defending Super Bowl champion Denver, which fell into a tie with Miami for the final AFC wild card. The Broncos hold a tiebreaker over the Dolphins.

Here's a closer look at the candidates:

AFC EAST

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-2)

Remaining schedule: vs. Baltimore on Monday, at Denver on Dec. 18, vs. New York Jets on Dec. 24, at Miami on Jan. 1.

Division record: 3-1. Conference record: 7-1.

Control top seed in AFC following Oakland's loss to Kansas City on Thursday night.

MIAMI DOLPHINS (8-5)

Remaining schedule: at New York Jets on Dec. 17, at Buffalo on Dec. 24, vs. New England on Jan. 1.

Division record: 2-1. Conference record: 5-4.

If the Dolphins are going to end an eight-year playoff drought, they'll probably have to do it with second-string quarterback Matt Moore. Miami starter Ryan Tannehill sustained a knee injury Sunday that will likely end his season.

With brutal finish to schedule for Broncos, Miami still has a chance to move up. Earlier win over Pittsburgh could come in handy, in case of head-to-head tiebreaker with Steelers. Rooting for Baltimore to win AFC North, because of loss last week to Ravens.

Miami has won seven of eight and Moore has made 25 career starts – but none since Tannehill was drafted in 2012.

BUFFALO BILLS (6-7)

Remaining schedule: vs. Cleveland on Dec. 18, vs. Miami on Dec. 24, at New York Jets on Jan. 1.

Division record: 1-3. Conference record: 3-6.

Favorable final stretch of games gives Bills longshot hope in wild-card chase, but losing mark against AFC competition will make tiebreakers tough. Loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday likely extends streak of postseason absences to 17 in a row.

Thanks for playing: NEW YORK JETS (4-9).

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS (7-5)

Remaining schedule: at New England on Monday, vs. Philadelphia on Dec. 18, at Pittsburgh on Dec. 25, at Cincinnati on Jan. 1.

Division record: 4-0. Conference record: 7-2.

With Christmas Day grudge game against rival Steelers looming in two weekends, Ravens will be challenged to avoid falling behind until then. Win that one, though, and they'll own the tiebreaker thanks to earlier victory against Pittsburgh. Wild card also in play for loser of division race, and strong conference record will help.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-5)

Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati on Dec. 18, vs. Baltimore on Dec. 25, vs. Cleveland on Jan. 1.

Division record: 2-1. Conference record: 6-3.

With potential tiebreakers not currently in favor and first wild-card spot under control of AFC West runner-up, division race is best route. Home game against Ravens in two weeks gives them good chance. If they split season series, tiebreaker scenario could go all the way from division record, common games record, conference record to strength of victory at No. 5.

Thanks for playing: CINCINNATI BENGALS (5-7-1), CLEVELAND BROWNS (0-13).

AFC SOUTH

HOUSTON TEXANS (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Jacksonville on Dec. 18, vs. Cincinnati on Dec. 24, at Tennessee on Jan. 1.

Division record: 4-0. Conference record: 5-4.

Most favorable remaining schedule of three AFC South competitors. Would need to pass three teams to get wild card, so this is all but certain to be a one-bid division.

TENNESSEE TITANS (7-6)

Remaining schedule: at Kansas City on Dec. 18, at Jacksonville on Dec. 24, vs. Houston on Jan. 1.

Division record: 1-3. Conference record: 4-5.

Unlikely to win two or three-way tiebreakers with Texans and/or Colts, so win over Broncos helped greatly. Home game against Jaguars could be soft setup for division title game in Week 17 vs. Texans now that Colts have fallen behind.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (6-7)

Remaining schedule: at Minnesota on Dec. 18, at Oakland on Dec. 24, vs. Jacksonville on Jan. 1.

Division record: 2-3. Conference record: 4-6.

Crushing loss to Houston on Sunday with consecutive daunting road games looming after. Four wins in past seven games after collapse at Houston on Oct. 16 could be too little too late, but momentum can be an amazing thing.

Thanks for playing: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (2-11).

AFC WEST

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-3)

Remaining schedule: vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18, vs. Denver on Dec. 25, at San Diego on Jan. 1.

Division record: 4-0. Conference record: 7-2.

Took control of division race with win over Raiders on Thursday to sweep season series. Might be able to lose out and still get wild card, but Chiefs are chasing first-round bye and unlikely to let up. Monday night 14 rooting interest: Ravens to beat Patriots.

OAKLAND RAIDERS (10-3)

Remaining schedule: at San Diego on Dec. 18, vs. Indianapolis on Dec. 24, at Denver on Jan. 1.

Division record: 2-2. Conference record: 7-2.

Loss to Chiefs eliminated chance of clinching first playoff spot in 14 years this weekend. One more win, plus a loss by Miami or Denver, would do it. Would have to finish one game ahead of Chiefs to win AFC West, but path to wild card could be clearer by Monday night.

DENVER BRONCOS (8-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. New England on Dec. 18, at Kansas City on Dec. 25, vs. Oakland on Jan. 1.

Division record: 1-3. Conference record: 5-4.

Good news for Broncos is they've got the tiebreak edge over Miami at the moment. Bad news is their third-place status in division and daunting remaining schedule. Monday night rooting interest: Patriots to beat Ravens.

Thanks for playing: SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (5-8).

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS (11-1)

Remaining schedule: at New York Giants on Sunday night, vs. Tampa Bay on Dec. 18, vs. Detroit on Dec. 26, at Philadelphia on Jan. 1.

Division record: 3-1. Conference record: 7-1.

Only team that's already clinched a postseason spot, Cowboys went into Sunday night's game against Giants knowing a win would secure division title and first-round bye. Dallas in prime position to earn No. 1 seed and guarantee itself home playoff games until the Super Bowl that's a mere 4-hour drive away in Houston.

NEW YORK GIANTS (8-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Dallas on Sunday, vs. Detroit on Dec. 18, at Philadelphia on Dec. 22, at Washington on Jan. 1.

Division record: 2-1. Conference record: 5-3.

Winning out would give them tiebreaker over Cowboys, but still require two other losses by NFL's top team to win NFC East. Fortunately for Giants, wild-card race is in their control. Would lose head-to-head tiebreaker with both Minnesota and Green Bay, but New York is ahead of those competitors.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS (7-5-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Carolina on Dec. 19, at Chicago on Dec. 24, vs. New York Giants on Jan. 1.

Division record: 3-2. Conference record: 5-4.

Dreaded tie with Cincinnati on Oct. 30 could be what dooms postseason bid, but remaining slate appears promising. Unless a wild scenario emerges with Cardinals surging forward and Vikings and Packers fading, tiebreaker rules won't need to be deciphered for Washington. Currently first team to miss cut in wild-card race.

Thanks for playing: PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (5-8).

NFC NORTH

DETROIT LIONS (9-4):

Remaining schedule: at New York Giants on Dec. 18, at Dallas on Dec. 26, vs. Green Bay on Jan. 1.

Division record: 3-2. Conference record: 7-2.

Can clinch division with two more wins, or fewer with corresponding losses by Minnesota and Green Bay. Winning at least twice more would put them in prime position for wild card, at least. Strong finish could deliver No. 2 seed and first-round bye.

GREEN BAY PACKERS (7-6)

Remaining schedule: at Chicago on Dec. 18, vs. Minnesota on Dec. 24, at Detroit on Jan. 1.

Division record: 2-1. Conference record: 5-4.

To win division, need to make up one game on Detroit over next two weeks, beat Lions in finale and at least stay even with Minnesota, depending on upcoming results. Might need to win out but chances look pretty good – especially after impressive victory Sunday over Seattle.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Indianapolis on Dec. 18, at Green Bay on Dec. 24, vs. Chicago on Jan. 1.

Division record: 1-3. Conference record: 4-6.

To win division, must finish one game ahead of Detroit given two losses last month to Lions. Could also lose tiebreaker to Green Bay, depending on upcoming results. To get wild card, must pass two teams and stay ahead of Packers. Likely need to win out and even in that case could still need some help.

Thanks for playing: CHICAGO BEARS (3-10).

NFC SOUTH

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (8-5)

Remaining schedule: at Dallas on Dec. 18, at New Orleans on Dec. 24, vs. Carolina on Jan. 1.

Division record: 3-1. Conference record: 6-3.

One of league's most surprising teams, particularly considering 3-5 record after losing at home to Atlanta on Nov. 3. Bucs currently control second wild-card spot even if Falcons were to win NFC South tiebreaker. Need to stay ahead of Washington, Minnesota and Green Bay.

ATLANTA FALCONS (8-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. San Francisco on Dec. 18, at Carolina on Dec. 24, vs. New Orleans on Jan. 1.

Division record: 3-1. Conference record: 6-3.

Sudden surge by Buccaneers has put Falcons and playoff push on notice. Final four opponents all have losing records, giving them slight edge in division race, but momentum in December might be more important than schedule.

Thanks for playing: NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (5-8), CAROLINA PANTHERS (5-8).

NFC WEST

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8-4-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Los Angeles on Dec. 15, vs. Arizona on Dec. 24, at San Francisco on Jan. 1.

Division record: 1-1-1. Conference record: 4-4-1.

Can clinch division with one more win or Arizona loss. Looking to beat out Detroit and AFC South winner for first-round bye, but loss Sunday at Green Bay made task more difficult.

Thanks for playing: ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-7-1), LOS ANGELES RAMS (4-9), SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (1-12).

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