After a great slate of Christmas Eve/Christmas Day games, NFL fanatics have a better understanding of which teams they will see run out of the tunnel come playoff time. This weekend, four teams. including the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, and Houston Texans punched their ticket for the NFL playoffs and the AFC playoff picture as a whole is set.
The Kansas City Chiefs were able to defeat the Denver Broncos last night on Sunday Night Football, which ensured a spot in the playoffs for the Miami Dolphins, but were already in because the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to defeat the Baltimore Ravens in a fantastic AFC North matchup between two divisional rivals. The Houston Texans, behind the arm of Tom Savage, were able to take down the Cincinnati Bengals and clinch the AFC South, as well.
However, many of these teams are trending in different directions and could either make some noise in the playoffs or go quietly into the night after a first-round exit. So, this is the AFC Playoff picture right now...
1. New England Patriots (13-2)
The New England Patriots are the best team in all of football. Sure, you can make a case for the Dallas Cowboys, but I have a feeling they may get popped off by the Detroit Lions tonight. The Patriots are the most complete team in all of football. They now feature the best scoring defense in the NFL, have an elite group of special teamers, and have the greatest quarterback to ever live under center playing the best football of his career. A trip to Houston is all but certain unless the Patriots drastically underperform or a critical injury happens next week against the Miami Dolphins.
2. Oakland Raiders (12-3)
The Oakland Raiders need a little help from the Miami Dolphins this week if they want to clinch the top spot in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, they have much bigger issues on their mind after Derek Carr broke his fibula last week and is out indefinitely. I hear people saying Carr could come back in a month, which I think is insane, but even if he does, will he be the same player? I think not. The Raiders will need some magic to happen for them to punch a ticket to Houston but, considering the direction this franchise has been heading towards for the past decade, they should just be happy to play meaningful football.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5)
In a thrilling AFC North game against the Baltimore Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger was able to mount a comeback and ensure the Steelers will be playing in the playoffs. This is the one team in the AFC that scares me as a Patriots fan. Sure, they aren't on the same level as the Patriots nor do I think they could come into Gillette Stadium and win a playoff game, but they have an offense that can keep up with Tom Brady and company. However, in order to make it to the Super Bowl and win the whole thing, the Patriots are going to need to beat solid teams like the Steelers. Don't be surprised if we see a Patriots vs. Steelers AFC Championship Game.
4. Houston Texans (9-6)
The Texans are beneficiaries of playing in one of the worst divisions in all of professional football. I thought the Indianapolis Colts were going to be able to find a way to sneak in here, but the Bill O'Brien-led Texans are going playoff dancing for the second consecutive year. Like the Oakland Raiders, the Texans are facing an identity crisis at the quarterback position. After paying Brock Osweiler an exorbitant amount of money in the offseason, O'Brien subsequently benched his "franchise quarterback" for rookie Tom Savage. Lord only knows how far this team will go in the playoffs.
Wild Card Teams
5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
Similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs keep me up at night as a Patriots fan. I feel extremely confident the Patriots would be able to take care of the Chiefs with relative ease, but they are probably the third best team in the AFC as it is currently constituted. The Chiefs can still claim the AFC West crown by defeating the San Diego Chargers next week, while hoping for a Raiders loss against the Denver Broncos. Similar to many teams on this list, the Chiefs continue to have problems at quarterback, as Alex Smith simply isn't that good and doesn't have anyone to throw to.
6. Miami Dolphins (10-5)
Well, well, well! Look who it is! The Miami Dolphins started the season 1-4, but have won nine of their past 10 games. Unfortunately, in what appears to be a reoccurring theme, the Miami Dolphins have had to play backup Matt Moore at quarterback, as Ryan Tannehill suffered a knee injury December 11. The good news is Tannehill has reportedly removed his cast and is day-to-day. The bad news is there is no timetable for his return and it remains to be seen how mobile and effective he could be if he returns for the playoffs. Like the Raiders, the Dolphins should just be happy to be in the playoffs. No one expected them to be this good this early.
Like I've said from the beginning of the year, this is the Patriots' championship to lose. Out of the six AFC playoff quarterbacks, there are 35 wins among them. Tom Brady has 22 wins, Big Ben has 11, and Alex Smith has 2. Matt McGloin, whoever the hell he is, Tom Savage, and Matt Moore have ZERO. In this league, experience and talent trump all, and I truly believe the Patriots are the most talented team in the NFL.