How will the playoff picture shake out in a stacked AFC?
A dozen AFC playoff teams are about to get down and dirty in the playoff race.
For the first time since 2009, 12 teams from the conference stand at .500 or better entering the final six weeks of the season. The only division leader with more than a one-game lead is New England (8-2). Victories over all three of the current division leaders (Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver) also have put the Patriots in prime position for the AFC's No. 1 seed for the fourth time in five seasons.
But while the AFC road to Super Bowl XLIX may wind through Foxboro, it isn't necessarily a dead-end for whomever New England would face. The 2010 and 2012 Patriots lost home playoff games. New England also has fallen this season to two strong playoff contenders -- albeit on the road -- in Kansas City (7-3) and Miami (6-4).
Here is my forecast for how I see the AFC playoff race unfolding over the next six weeks.
AFC EAST/No. 1 seed: New England (8-2)
Opponent winning percentage: .550
Outlook: The New York Jets (2-8) are the lone remaining opponent on New England's schedule that has a losing record. After facing Detroit on Sunday, the Patriots head to Green Bay in Week 13 for what could be a Super Bowl XLIX preview. New England ends with three consecutive division games. A Week 14 home rematch with Miami, which beat the Patriots in Week 1, will likely determine the AFC East winner.
Prediction: 13-3, AFC East champion. It's expecting too much for the Patriots to win out but they're not losing in Week 16 against the Jets or at home in Week 17 versus Buffalo unless resting players for a playoff run.
AFC WEST/No. 2 seed: Kansas City (7-3)
Opponent winning percentage: .475
Outlook: The Chiefs play Oakland (0-10) twice within the next four weeks but the rest of the schedule is a lot tougher. Matchups at Arizona (9-1) and Pittsburgh (7-4) loom in Weeks 14 and 16, respectively.
Prediction: 12-4, AFC West champion. The formula the Chiefs are using looks a lot like the version used by the 2013 Seattle Seahawks. Kansas City has compensated for a lack of dynamic wide receivers with a strong rushing attack (141.2 yards a game) and quarterback Alex Smith's skill at taking care of the football. He has thrown only four interceptions in 291 passing attempts. The Chiefs also lead the NFL in pass defense (201.6 yards a game) with outside linebacker Justin Houston posting a league-high 12 sacks. The true test for Kansas City will come Nov. 30 at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs must get past Denver, which has won five straight meetings between the two teams since Peyton Manning became the starting quarterback.
AFC NORTH/No. 3 seed: Pittsburgh (7-4)
Opponent winning percentage: .560.
Outlook: The Steelers have two clubs with losing records on their remaining schedule (home against New Orleans in Week 13 and at Atlanta in Week 15). However, that doesn't necessarily bode well for this quirky team. Two of Pittsburgh's four losses came against woeful 2-8 squads in Tampa Bay and the New York Jets.
Prediction: 10-6, AFC North champions. The Steelers have two big advantages over their divisional brethren -- a bye this weekend and both of their final games at home, albeit against tough opposition in Kansas City (7-3) and Cincinnati (6-3-1). The Steelers would get the seeding edge over Indianapolis if both finish with the same record by virtue of a 51-34 blowout of the Colts in Week 8.
AFC SOUTH/No. 4 seed: Indianapolis (6-4)
Opponent winning percentage: .400
Outlook: The Colts have a great opportunity to rebound from last Sunday's lopsided loss to New England with upcoming games against Jacksonville (1-9) and Washington (3-7). The schedule does get tougher with three road games in the final season's final four weeks, highlighted by a trip to Dallas (7-3) in Week 16. The Colts face the AFC South's lone remaining contender -- Houston (5-5) -- at home in Week 15.
Prediction: 10-6, AFC South champion. The loss of versatile running back Ahmad Bradshaw (ankle) is a mega-blow for a team that must now rely upon Trent Richardson to carry the load at the position. In other words, the Colts will go only as far as quarterback Andrew Luck can carry them.
FIRST WILD CARD: Denver (7-3)
Opponent winning percentage: .508
Outlook: Don't let the above winning percentage fool you. Eliminate the Oakland Raiders (0-10) and the combined record of Denver's remaining opponents jumps to 30-19-1.
Prediction: 11-5, top wild card. The sky may feel like it's falling in Denver where the Broncos have lost two games in a three-week span for the first time since Peyton Manning's arrival in 2012. The Broncos can breathe a bit easier if they can survive the next two games against visiting Miami on Sunday and Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 13. But that's a big "if," considering Denver's difficulty running the football and protecting Manning.
SECOND WILD CARD: Miami (6-4)
Opponent winning percentage: .483
Outlook: Winning on the road at Denver (7-3) this Sunday and New England (8-2) in Week 15 would be a tall order. But the Dolphins play three of their final four games at home, including Week 16 and 17 against Minnesota (4-6) and the New York Jets (2-8), respectively.
Prediction: 10-6, second wild card. The 2013 Dolphins squandered the chance to make the playoffs by losing their final two games against the underdog Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Doing the same this season under the same circumstances against Minnesota and New York would be inexcusable, but this is a much improved squad.
Opponent winning percentage: .548
Outlook: With the exception of Tampa Bay (2-8), each of Cincinnati's five upcoming opponents stand at .500 or better. Four of six games are on the road. And one of the home contests comes against Denver on Monday Night Football in Week 16 where quarterback Andy Dalton has a 2-6 career record in prime-time games.
Prediction: 9-6-1. Matchups against two other schizophrenic AFC North rivals -- Pittsburgh (7-4) and Cleveland (6-4) -- will go a long way toward deciding the division.
Opponent winning percentage: .467
Outlook: A game at New Orleans this Monday night looks much less daunting since the Saints have stunningly lost two straight home appearances. But the Ravens have little room for error with four of their five remaining games against teams at .500 or better.
Prediction: 9-7. Baltimore's record in the division (2-3) and conference (3-4) don't bode well in tiebreaker scenarios.
Opponent winning percentage: .375
Outlook: No team has an easier remaining schedule on paper than the Texans. That's because Houston still plays twice against Jacksonville (1-9) and hosts Tennessee (2-8) in Week 13. The competition will be much stiffer against Cincinnati (6-3-1), Indianapolis (6-4) and Baltimore (6-4).
Prediction: 9-7. Realistically, Houston must defeat the Colts in Week 15 for a chance at winning the AFC South. If the Texans finish strong and fall short of the playoffs, head coach Bill O'Brien should be second-guessed for not replacing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with Ryan Mallett earlier in the season.
Opponent winning percentage: .508
Outlook: The Browns play four of their final six games on the road, including two straight to end the season against Carolina and Baltimore. The return of suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon should help, but his reinsertion into Cleveland's offense must be handled carefully. Trying to force-feed him the football could disrupt the unit's flow.
Prediction: 8-8. The Browns have surprised me and the rest of the NFL throughout the season, so a 9-7 or even 10-6 record isn't that much of a reach. But with the exception of a 170-yard effort against Cincinnati, Cleveland's running game has tanked since the loss of standout center Alex Mack (broken fibula). The Browns could ultimately rue a 24-6 loss at Jacksonville in Week Seven that remains the Jaguars' only win of the season.
Opponent winning percentage: .500.
Outlook: Obstructed by snow. Seriously. The brutal winter weather in the Buffalo area is having a major impact on the team's preparation for Sunday's home game against the New York Jets. There is even the possibility of the NFL having to move the tilt to another locale. The Bills need wins against the Jets, Cleveland and Oakland with the remaining opposition -- Denver, Green Bay and New England -- much, much stiffer.
Prediction: 7-9. The NFL's longest active streak without a playoff appearance will extend to 15 seasons unless the Bills can improve an offense that has scored 17 or fewer points in three of the past four games.
SAN DIEGO (6-4)
Opponent winning percentage: .633
Outlook: Seattle (.683) is the only NFL team with a tougher remaining schedule than the Chargers. December is especially murderous with home matchups against New England (8-2) and Denver (7-3) followed by road games against San Francisco (6-4) and Kansas City (7-3). Even the lone remaining team with a losing record -- St. Louis (4-6) -- is starting to get hot with victories over the 49ers and Broncos in the past three weeks.
Prediction: 7-9. Don't expect another strong December run like in 2013. The Chargers appear to have peaked after a 5-1 start largely because of injuries.