With five games to go in the season, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
In the AFC, there are a few frontrunners emerging from the pack; the Patriots, Broncos and Bengals have all put themselves in a very strong position to win their respective divisions and qualify for post-season football.
Despite a slight setback losing to the Broncos last weekend, New England is still by far the most impressive team in this conference, even with the potential loss of Gronkowski over the next few weeks.
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Denver has been riding their impressive defence thus far this season, and a confidence boosting victory for Peyton Manning’s replacement Brock Osweiler should imbue this offence with enough momentum to see them top the western division.
Meanwhile, the Bengals sit in a strong position in the AFC North. Largely untouched by injuries, if they overcome the challenge of Pittsburgh in week 14 that should assure their playoff position.
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Of the rest of the pack in the AFC, the Texans, Colts and the shambles that is the AFC South make for the most intriguing reading.
AFC South struggles
If the season ended today, the Colts would claim the division and the Texans a wildcard spot.
Both teams are riding winning streaks going into week 13 with relatively easy schedules looking down the final stretch. Despite early struggles, these two teams look set to finish the season strongly and enter the playoffs full of momentum and confidence.
In the East, it’s hard to see any team rivalling New England’s dominance.
The Jets or the Bills may sneak a wildcard berth but both look fairly uninspiring. If Roethlisberger can stay fit, the Steelers have a good chance of taking a wildcard spot away from the Chiefs and the Texans.
They’re a traditionally strong cold weather team built for these games in December and January. I’d expect Pittsburgh to finish strong and be challenging for a spot come the end of the season.
Jacksonville are still alive at 4-7 due to the poor records of the two teams above them in the AFC South.
Although the Jaguars have made significant strides forwards this year (the play of quarterback Bortles and his wideouts Hurns and Robinson has been particularly impressive), their defence is suspect and their run game non-existent. It would be a surprise to see them feature much after Christmas.
Best of the West
Kansas City continues their remarkable 5-game winning streak to 6-5 in the AFC West, nudging themselves just past Oakland at 5-6.
The Chiefs have been quietly going about their business all year, even navigating the loss of star back Jamaal Charles with relative ease.
A subsequent injury to his replacement Charcandrick West has put some strain on the Chiefs’ running game and will ask questions of the teams’ depth if they are to force their way into playoff contention.
Derek Carr and the Raiders have been something of a revelation, putting the Raiders into the playoff discussion for the first time in a decade. This season it may be too much to ask for this young and inexperienced Oakland team but expect big things from them in the future.
Of the other teams left – Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tennessee and San Diego – the season is essentially over.
The Ravens have been decimated by injuries and struggled to defend the pass, Cleveland has done as the Browns usually do and contrived to lose games in ever more imaginative ways.
San Diego and Miami have struggled despite some pre-season hype and Tennessee have been using this season to bed in rookie quarterback Mariota who has looked impressive in flashes this season.
The Patriots, Broncos and Bengals seem to have their respective divisions in their control for the time-being.
The AFC South could go anywhere but considering their relatively weak schedules, I’d expect the division to come down to a straight shootout between the Texans and the Colts.
From the rest of the pack, Kansas could be in with a good chance of a wildcard berth if they can keep up their momentum through a notably weak set of opponents down the home stretch.
Pittsburgh will be challenging too, otherwise no other team looks particular poised to make a run.
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