The NFL season is heating up just as the weather begins to cool and several teams in the AFC are battling to ensure they prolong their campaign into January.
Each team has just five games left to try and shape their own destiny. Apart from the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, every team still has a mathematical chance to make the playoffs.
With 11 teams in the AFC and seven in the NFC with a winning record it's not an easy path ahead for any team, but any of those 18 teams (plus all four in the NFC South) winning out would all but assure them of a place.
I don't remember the last time the playoff scenario was this wide open so late on in the season, but I'm going to put my neck on the line and make my predictions for the AFC.
#1 - New England Patriots (13-3)
Would anyone really be surprised if they found out that Rob Gronkowski was actually a robot? Even triple teams aren't guaranteed to slow him down; if they do, Belichick's smart decision #9103 (aka Tim Wright) is laughing all the way to the endzone.
Everyone thought that the Patriots had found a star in Jonas Grey after burning the Colts for 201 yards and 4 TDs. However, he was late to training, so Belichick benched him in favour of LeGarrette Blount (who'd just been cut by the Steelers) who picked up 78 yards and two TDs last week
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After their next two games against the Packers and the Chargers the Patriots finish with games against each of their divisional opponents. It's looking increasingly likely that the Patriots will be competing for the Superbowl come January, but a win in their game against the Packers this weekend would make the #1 seed theirs to lose.
#2 - Denver Broncos (12-4)
While I don't think we'll see a rematch of last year's AFC Championship game, the Broncos and Patriots are just a cut above everyone else at the moment. The Broncos slipped a little in the last two weeks after being shocked 22-7 by the Rams and then narrowly beating the Dolphins 39-36.
You don't always blow teams out in the NFL, and a field goal win against a (very good) opponent counts just the same as a 50 point win. They could easily take the first spot from the Patriots, but the emergence of C.J. Anderson just makes the Broncos too strong for me to push them any lower down than this.
#3 - Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1)
At the moment the Bengals lead the AFC North with a 7-3-1 record. The three other teams are all sitting on 7-4. Divisional games are crucial, as the Bengals play the Steelers twice and the Browns, who also play the Ravens.
The Steelers are too maddeningly inconsistent to do better than split the Bengals, which means a win over the Browns and Buccs would all but secure the Bengals a playoff place, regardless of whether they win in Denver or not. I don't particularly like Andy Dalton, but he's no worse than Brian Hoyer or Joe Flacco.
Ben Roethlisberger is far and away the best QB in the division, but a tough schedule sees them take on the Saints, Falcons and Chiefs, as well as the Bengals twice. Three or four wins are possible there, but I just can't put my faith in a team who've lost to the Bucs and the Jets. I have the Ravens at 10-6, just half a game behind the Bengals, with the Browns and Steelers at 9-7 (which would easily be good enough to win the NFC South). Who knew that ties could be useful?
#4 - Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Some tricky matchups against the Browns, Texans and Cowboys are the only thing stopping me from having the Colts ranked as the #3 seed.
That, and Trent Richardson and Dan "Boom/Fumble" Herron being their best options at HB. While the Colts are all but certain of a playoff place, it looks like it'll be down to Andrew Luck to carry them throughout the playoffs if they want to go far.
I think Luck's a good QB, but I definitely don't think he's anywhere near as good as the media are making him out to be. I can't forget about his 7 interceptions in their two playoff games last year, which makes me think that they may not win a playoff game this year either.
#5 - Miami Dolphins (10-6)
That loss to the Broncos hurt the Dolphins. Badly. For them to have any realistic chance of making the playoffs, they'll have to go 4-1 in their remaining 5 games. If you don't see them beating the Patriots, that's 4-0 against the Ravens, Vikings and Jets twice.
I'm not sure if they will beat the Patriots, but going 1-1 against the Patriots and Ravens is entirely conceivable. However, a win over the Patriots is far less helpful, as the matchup against the Ravens is really a must-win for both teams. In my scenario, a Ravens win sees them take the division at 11-5, with the Bengals slipping to the 5th seed at 10-5-1 and the Dolphins out of the playoffs all together. Essentially, that game is most likely a playoff eliminator - especially if my next prediction proves to be right.
#6 - San Diego Chargers (10-6)
The Chargers take on the Ravens this week, in which I have the Chargers coming out of Baltimore with the win. They kind of need to, as a loss against the Ravens sees them at 7-5 before taking on the Patriots, the Broncos, the 49ers and then the Chiefs.
As if that wasn't hard enough, they've already lost to the Dolphins and Chiefs, meaning they aren't doing all that great in terms of tiebreakers. If they lose this, they'll need to either find 3 wins in their last 4 games and get a little luck from other teams or even sweep their remaining schedule.
As a Charger fan, that sounds do-able to me. But, more realistically, I see a win over the Ravens pushing them to 8-4, with them needing to go 2-2 in their last 4 to give themselves a good chance at making the playoffs. Again, it's not that easy, as a loss to the Chiefs would essentially do the same for them as a loss to the Ravens.
It's not going to be easy for the Chargers to make the playoffs, but a healthy (for now) Ryan Mathews just adds so much to their offence. In his first game back he had 105 yards and a TD at an astounding 8.8 yards per carry. Philip Rivers had a little slip before their bye week, but he looks to be back on track with a wide array of targets to throw to.
The Chargers O-Line might be on their fourth center of the year, but rookie Chris Watt showed enough in the Rams game to make me think he's got what it takes to help keep Rivers upright. CB Shareece Wright will need to be on form after Jason Verrett was placed on IR last week. The good news is that the crucial game could be against the Chiefs, who have literally no WR's.
I love Albert Wilson but his 2 catches against the Raiders tied for second most amongst their WR's. Travis Kelce is having a breakout year, but I don't think he's quite good enough to paper over the massive flaws at WR.
If things go the way I see them (which they probably won't) then there are two key games for that 6th seed - Chargers at Ravens this week, and Chargers at Chiefs week 17. If the Ravens win they'll become the third seed, with Cincinnati going to #5 and the Dolphins clinging on at #6.
If the Chiefs beat the Chargers they replace the Chargers as the 5th seed. If the Chargers lose both the Ravens are at #3, the Bengals at #5 and the Chiefs at #6, with the Dolphins losing out by tiebreaker.
I'm fairly sure that my predictions will be completely messed up by this week's games anyway, as a loss by any AFC team still in contention completely shifts the entire standings. For example, if the Jets were to beat the Dolphins this week they'd almost certainly be eliminated from contention, despite the fact that I've predicted them to be the #5 seed come January.
Fans need to start hoping for their rivals to drop games, so lets go Jets.
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