Who's in, who's out?

Trying to sort out the AFC playoff picture is like trying to fit together one of those great jigsaw puzzles that takes months and weeks to piece jointly. It's a tough task, but somebody has to break this mess of a conference down, and unfortunately, I believe I am up to it. Without further ado, here are the six teams that will play meaningful games in January.

AFC East: All the Jets and Bills can hope to do at this point is act as spoilers to knock the Patriots out of the division running.


Both teams face impossible schedules the rest of the season, with Buffalo playing the Patriots, Chargers and Packers and New York taking on Denver, and like Buffalo, they will also run into the Patriots and the Packers.

Neither team can afford a single loss, nor does neither team have enough talent to sweep their foes.


So that leaves the division up to Miami and New England, who like Buffalo and New York, have stiff competition to face off against the rest of the way.


Everyone is sold on the fact that once Miami gets Jay Fiedler back in the lineup, they will just go on a tear to seal up the division crown. I beg to differ. We've seen the Dolphins break down in the dead of winter before, and despite the emergence of Ricky Williams as a rushing force they haven't had before, I see the same pitfalls confronting this team yet again. While they should post two Ws against the Bears and Vikings, they will lose at home next Sunday against the explosive Raider Nation, which would setup a season ending confrontation with the Patriots for all the marbles.


New England has the bigger edge, albeit slightly, because three of their last four games are at home and all three of those games are against their division rivals. They will lose once, on the road against Tennessee, but they will find a way to sweep the division (including that home game against Miami) and although they aren't playing like world beaters, they will march on to the postseason.


AFC North: With 6-6 records a piece, the Ravens and Browns have slim playoff aspirations but they will have to settle for being .500 teams instead.


The Ravens are just too young and injured to go 4-0 in their last four games, which includes a crucial matchup against New Orleans on Sunday.

The Browns are more up and down than a seesaw. Their losses to the 4-8 Panthers, and the 6-6 Chiefs, a game in which the Browns practically won had in not been for Duane Rudd tossing his helmet on the last play of the game, will end up sealing their doom.


By virtue of default, Pittsburgh will run away with the inaugural AFC North division title. If they were playing a tougher schedule the rest of the season, I could make a better case to pick either the Ravens or the Browns but with games left against Carolina and Houston, the Steelers would just need to win against either Tampa Bay or Baltimore to clinch the North.


AFC South: The season is over for the Jaguars and Texans, so this division fight will come down to the big boys from Indianapolis and Tennessee, which is what everyone expected at the beginning of the season anyways.


Picking the Colts to outlast Tennessee is easy, considering that they have one less loss than the Titans coming into their showdown in Nashville.


However, all the Titans have to do is defeat Indy to change everything.


Both teams have to face Jacksonville the rest of the way, although the Colts get to battle the Jaguars at home, in the final game of the season.


The Titans though still have one elixir left against the Texans, so we will call this a schedule wash that favors both teams equally.


Tennessee has to play a better team than any that the Colts will face in New England, but Indy has to face the Browns and the Giants in back to back weeks, and those two teams will be very desperate themselves.


So the final verdict says the Titans will win this Sunday, holding the tie breaker advantage over the Colts, as both teams will finish with identical 10-6 marks at the conclusion of the year.


AFC West: Finally, we save the best for last. First off, the Chiefs are eliminated from contention right off the bat. They will play a major role in deciding the division winner though, considering that they face the Raiders, Chargers and Broncos.


So who will collapse and who will thrive down the stretch?

I like
Denver to sink in the face of adversity, and the Raiders and Chargers will keep themselves afloat for the most part.


Let's start with breaking down Denver's impending downfall first. As much as I still think they can just as easily run the table the rest of the way given the talent that's on their roster, as I can see them stumbling short of the finish line, I envision the latter scenario occurring.


Their last second losses to the Dolphins, Colts and Chargers will be too much to overcome, and their defense will continue to breakdown as the season progresses.


Meanwhile, the Raiders and Chargers, who square off in a huge game this Sunday, should lock up two spots in the playoffs.

Oakland looks formidable once again, with their run defense clicking on all cylinders and their offense fixing its red zone deficiencies. Although their schedule is by far the toughest of any of the remaining playoff contenders, the Raiders will run the table and seal up the No.1 seed.

San Diego meanwhile is a solid team and with their ability to run the football, they should be able rumble through the porous defenses of Buffalo, Kansas City and Seattle down the stretch.


That leaves the last vacated wildcard spot for the Indianapolis Colts to snag.


So there you go boys and girls, the playoff teams will be the Raiders (12-4), Steelers (10-5-1), Titans (10-6), Patriots (10-6), Chargers (11-5) and Colts (10-6).


Teams on the outside looking in: Denver (9-7), Miami (9-7), Kansas City (8-8), Cleveland (8-8), Baltimore (8-8), Buffalo (7-9).


Go call your bookies right now.

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