While the NFC is crowded with a bunch of playoff caliber teams, the AFC only has five teams above .500. The Steelers and Patriots are the clear favorites at 8-2, while the Chiefs, Jaguars and Titans look like solid bets to make the postseason. The intrigue stems from what AFC team will win that sixth and final playoff spot, despite the franchises in the hunt looking mostly average to put it nicely. At the moment, the Ravens are second wild card at 5-5. The Bills are also .500 with the Chargers, Bengals, Raiders, Dolphins, Jets and Texans all trailing by a game at 4-6. It looks like nine wins could be enough to sneak into the postseason, with even eight wins being a distinct possibility when looking at the remaining schedule.
Baltimore Ravens (5-5): The Ravens are clearly led by their defense. The team has collected 16 interceptions over the first ten games of the season, with the unit led by the likes of Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams. The secondary is very strong and deep and the front seven has been much better at stopping the run since the aforementioned Williams returned from injury. The offense on the other hand, has trouble moving the football to say the least. Joe Flacco ranks as the 31st QB in the league so far this year with the team having to overcome injuries from many of their best offensive players including Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead among others. It goes without saying that this type of offense will struggle to keep up with the likes of the Pats and Steelers in the playoffs, but Baltimore seems to be best positioned to make a run at the second wild card when looking at their schedule and current roster.
Buffalo Bills (5-5): The Bills have taken a nosedive since what was a promising early season start. Head coach Sean McDermott has turned to rookie Nathan Peterman to take over for veteran signal caller Tyrod Taylor, which led to horrible results. The team appears to be in shambles after being blown out by the likes of the Saints and Chargers over the past two weeks. LeSean McCoy is still dynamic and gives them a clear identity on offense, and the defense has playmakers all around. But this has not been winning franchise this past decade and without a clear signal caller to lead the way, their playoff prospects are clearly not looking as good as they were when this month started.
Miami Dolphins (4-6): The Dolphins 2017 season is going downhill fast after dropping four games in a row since opening the year 4-2. The team already got rid of a main component of their offense in running back Jay Ajayi, and while the team’s ground attack hasn’t suffered too much, the defense has been plagued by inconsistent play in the secondary with two inexperienced corners on the outside. Neither Matt Moore or Jay Cutler look like playoff quarterbacks right now and Adam Gase seems to be losing control of the team. The second AFC wild card from a year ago has so much negative momentum going for them at the moment, it seems difficult to envision them going on a run with the roster they have. There is offensive and defensive talent to build around for the future, but it’s going to take some extra magic to get this team turned in the right direction after what has transpired over this past month.
New York Jets (4-6): The Jets were a pleasant surprise early on, proving a lot of people wrong who said they were clearly tanking for a young quarterback when the season began. However, New York has come back to earth with the team showing obvious flaws, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Josh McCown has performed admirably with many unproven players that surround him, however you wouldn’t say the passing game is a real threat. The running game is inconsistent and the passing game has been mediocre apart from a few big plays per game from either Robby Anderson or Jermaine Kearse. The defense has a lot more talent, but I think much of the Jets success stems from an easy early season schedule. Their slate gets much more difficult after the bye they just had, so it’s going to be tough to hang around when you haven’t proved to be able to beat playoff caliber teams this season. It’s an encouraging year for Todd Bowles for sure, but a playoff berth does not seem likely.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-6): Despite the team looking lost at many points through the first 11 weeks of the season, the Bengals did enough to win an “elimination” game in Denver. Andy Dalton is on the better end of the QB spectrum when looking at this list and A.J. Green is still on of the best receivers in football. Joe Mixon hasn’t broken out as many thought, but he’s still a very talented runner that is getting more and more experience. The defense has been opportunistic, but isn’t a great unit. The team is really just mediocre, but that type of roster may have a place in the postseason this year because of the evident drop off in talent in the conference. Cincy has already lost to Baltimore at home, which puts them in a hole, but they have a playoff pedigree and the talent to separate themselves from the teams in the hunt.
Houston Texans (4-6): Houston looked primed for a playoff spot with the way Deshaun Watson was playing in his first stint in the NFL. Unfortunately, thanks to a knee injury, the former Clemson QB is out for the season and the team’s postseason outlook looks much worse because of it. Tom Savage led the Texans to their first win of the season since Watson went down when they beat the Cardinals today, but it’s tough to see the them consistently win games with Savage at the helm. The team has taken hits all season long in regards to injury with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Will Fuller and Watson all missing time, plus they had to deal with Duane Brown holding out early in the season. It’s a credit to Bill O’Brian for keeping them relevant at this point in the season, but without their key playmakers, it’s going to be tough to win at least the four games they need to in order to sneak into the playoffs.
Los Angeles Chargers (4-6): Philip Rivers and co. could be in a much better position if they had solved their field goal kicking problems earlier in the season, but the newly located franchise still makes a solid case for being that final AFC playoff team. Rivers’ play has dropped off in his 14 year in the NFL, but he still ranks way above most of the quarterbacks in this race. The offense also have two of the better players at their positions in Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon to go along with breakout candidates in the second half of the season like Austin Ekler and Mike Williams. The defense is led by two great pass rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram who are always capable of making a game altering type play. The offensive line and defensive backfield have their weaknesses, but the Chargers are more talented than many teams vying for this second wild card.
Oakland Raiders (4-6): Despite being blown out of Mexico City at the hands of the Patriots, the Raiders still have a path to getting to the postseason. On the glass half full side, the team has the best QB of this group in Derek Carr, who is a true playoff caliber signal caller with weapons all around. We’ve seen them put it together at times, although it’s nothing like the system they had moving in 2016. The offensive line is still a strength and Marshawn Lynch has been better in recent weeks too. The defense and schedule is the big question here. With a well below-average secondary makes it tough for the team to limit big plays, so they’re going to have to win a lot of shootouts if they hope to win this final postseason spot. The schedule is much tougher than others in the race, so upsets are going to have to be pulled, but the talent is notable and they should remain in the hunt considering the general lack of quality football that’s been played by team’s hoping to overtake them in the final six weeks of the regular season.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.