The AFC playoff landscape has taken shape with three weeks remaining in the regular season. The Kansas City Chiefs have clinched a postseason berth, while 11 other teams remain alive in the chase and four have officially been eliminated from playoff contention.
Of the group jockeying for position, the Chiefs opened up a two-game lead for the No. 1 seed on Sunday, thanks to their own overtime win and losses by the Patriots and Texans. However, K.C. is only a game ahead of the Chargers in the AFC West race, with the two teams set to face off in Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night.
No. 5: Los Angeles Chargers (10-3)
No. 6: Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
No. 7: Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
No. 8: Miami Dolphins (7-6)
No. 9: Tennessee Titans (7-6)
No. 10: Denver Broncos (6-7)
No. 11: Cleveland Browns (5-7-1)
No. 12: Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)
While the Chiefs are the lone AFC team to clinch a postseason berth so far, the Patriots and Texans own two-game leads in their respective divisions and are on track to get in, barring complete collapse. The Chargers are well on their way to becoming the top wild-card team and could still make a push for the AFC West crown, based on what happens in this short-week visit to Kansas City. The North is very much up for grabs.
Given what’s on the line as the AFC hits the stretch run, here’s a snapshot of five conference teams that could prove the biggest spoilers in the NFL playoff picture.
OK, stop laughing now. Yes, there is dysfunction in Oakland, where the franchise is building for the future and just fired general manager Reggie McKenzie, but the Raiders are fresh off a game where they ambushed the Steelers in a wild 24-21 win. On the menu are two playoff hopefuls and a matchup against the Chiefs. The Bengals and Broncos are clinging to life, and Denver just suffered a huge blow in losing to the lowly 49ers. The Bengals and Broncos cannot lose to the Raiders if they want to remain in contention for a playoff spot. Oakland’s season finale against Kansas City will have big implications for the playoff picture if the Chiefs lose to the Chargers on Thursday night.
The Colts will be kicking themselves for a 6-0 loss to the Jaguars two weeks ago if the defeat helps keep them out of the postseason. But Indianapolis is primed to have a say in what happens to both conferences down the stretch. First, Indy hosts the NFC East-leading Cowboys on Sunday. One week later, the Colts welcome the Giants, a team still alive at this moment. The Colts are contending for a wild-card spot, so the season finale against the Titans, who are also hoping to get into the playoffs, caps off a high-drama close to Indianapolis’ regular season.
With rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield coming into his own, the Browns might be the team nobody wants to face at this point of the season. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Bengals and Ravens, avoiding this dangerous Cleveland team isn’t an option. The Browns-Ravens matchup in Week 17 could go a long way toward determining which team from the AFC North advances to the postseason, especially considering Pittsburgh still has two tough games against the Patriots and Saints in coming weeks. Given the roller-coaster ride in Pittsburgh this season, would anyone be surprised if the Steelers end up spoiling their own chances?
Head coach Todd Bowles could very well be fighting for his job in the remaining three games, and he has an opportunity to make a statement against two current division leaders and an NFC team still alive in playoff chase. Of course, a lot of the Jets‘ success depends on which team shows up — the one that lost six games in a row or the one that overcame a 17-6 deficit to win in Week 14 behind rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. The Jets are in position to have a say in how the playoff picture develops in both conferences, and could potentially put the Packers out of their misery. Even if they only win one of their final three games, the Jets can significantly alter the playoff picture.
The Chargers as a spoiler? Yes, the Chargers. Despite being in the driver’s seat for a postseason berth with a 10-3 record, the Bolts can make things very interesting in the AFC West with a win against the Chiefs on “Thursday Night Football.” Such a result would leave L.A. and K.C. with identical records and a split in the season series — though the Chargers would still need some outside help to completely overtake the Chiefs, as Kansas City owns the tiebreaker with a superior division record. Los Angeles also has games against the playoff-hopeful Ravens and Broncos. No matter what happens down the stretch, the Chargers are in prime position to crush somebody’s postseason dreams and restructure seeding if they leapfrog the Chiefs.
Follow Herbie Teope on Twitter @HerbieTeope.