Rob Gronkowski injury: How it changes AFC playoff race

Here’s how Rob Gronkowski’s injury changes the AFC’s playoff picture.

The New England Patriots were preparing for their Week 13 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, but then a bomb was dropped. All-world tight end Rob Gronkowski, will be out for the rest of the regular season and requires back surgery to repair a herniated disk.

The loss of Gronkowski removes one of the league’s most dynamic offensive forces from the Patriots offense. With the Patriots first in the AFC at 9-2, the injury does not remove the team from the playoffs, but does impact their chances of winning a playoff game.

The Patriots have five games remaining, at Los Angeles, home against Baltimore, at Denver, home against the Jets and away at Miami. Assuming the AFC West gets three playoff teams, New England will likely still get a first round bye if they win just two of their remaining games. But the injury likely means New England will have to settle for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

With the AFC South and AFC North likely to get only one playoff team, 11 wins should be just enough for the Patriots to get a bye week. But it will likely take 10 wins for a team to make the playoffs.

Winner of AFC West will be the No. 1 seed in the playoffs

The Raiders are currently tied for the best record in the AFC with the Patriots at 9-2. But the Raiders have three division road games left. The Raiders also host Buffalo and Indianapolis. At this point they’re the favorite to win the AFC West, but the Kansas City Chiefs have a chance to pass the Raiders. Oakland has a one game lead, but if the Chiefs beat them again, that lead suddenly disappears and increases the likelihood the Raiders will have to travel for their first playoff game.

Kansas City went into Oakland and beat the Raiders earlier in the season. At 8-3, Kansas City is still alive for the division title. The Chiefs travel to Atlanta this week, before three straight home games and then the season-closer at San Diego. The Gronkowski injury increases the odds that the second place team in the AFC West will have a better record than the Patriots.

Denver and Miami battle for last playoff spot gets more interesting

The Chiefs victory over the Broncos in Week 12, and Miami’s winning streak has the two likely competing for the last playoff spot. Both Miami and Denver play New England in the last five weeks of the season.

Miami plays three road games, against the Ravens, Bills and Jets. But the Dolphins also host the Cardinals and Patriots. Denver plays Jacksonville and Tennessee on the road before hosting New England. It’s realistic to think Denver wins all three of those games before playing Kansas City and Oakland. Given their schedules, Miami has to be a slight favorite over Denver to claim the sixth playoff spot in the AFC.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh have an outside chance to get a bye week or wildcard

If either Baltimore or Pittsburgh wins out, they could steal a bye week from the Patriots. Both teams find themselves tied for the AFC North lead at 6-5. But both teams have relatively easy schedules down the stretch. A Christmas Day game in Pittsburgh will decide who wins the division.

Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh have games remaining against Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Steelers play the New York Giants and Buffalo. Baltimore plays Miami and Philadelphia.

Since the best the losing team in the Christmas game can do is 10-6, their odds of winning a wild card are slightly behind those of Miami and Denver, because both teams hold a one game advantage. But if both those teams struggle down the stretch, either Baltimore or Pittsburgh become a dangerous team in the playoffs.

Three AFC South teams all within a game

Going into Week 12, the AFC South is mediocre. But it’s also going to come down to Week 17 to decide a division winner. Currently Houston leads the division at 6-5, Tennessee is 6-6 and Indianapolis is 5-6. Each of the three teams is flawed and almost certainly going to be a one-and-done team in the playoffs. The AFC South may turn out to be a race to nine wins. The first team to nine will win the right to lose in the playoff to the second place AFC West team. Then again, there’s a chance none of the three teams finishes better than 8-8.

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