With one week left in the regular season, all six of the AFC playoff teams have been determined. But the jockeying for seeding position continues among the four division winners, with the No. 1 slot unexpectedly very much in play for the Broncos and Patriots.
Not long after the loss to San Francisco made it seem as if a bye would be out of reach, the Patriots now could be seeded anywhere from 1 through 4.
The Texans’ poor performance in a 23-6 home loss to the Vikings Sunday altered the landscape, and has put Houston (12-3) essentially in a must-win position against the Colts if it wants to maintain the No. 1 seed.
As things stand, Denver (12-3) is the 2 seed, New England (11-4) is 3, Baltimore (10-5) is 4, Indianapolis (10-5) is 5, and Cincinnati (9-6) is 6.
The conference’s two wild-card teams, the Colts and Bengals, are locked into their spots. But there could be movement among the top four.
While the Colts have nothing to gain by winning, they have been playing off emotion for much of the season, inspired by first-year head coach Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis in late September and the fight he has waged over the weeks.
It was tremendous news for both the organization and the league that Pagano got the green light from doctors to return to work Monday and is expected to be on the sidelines for Sunday’s game. Having him back will provide even more inspiration.
As much as Houston has improved in recent years, it has yet to win in Indianapolis in its decade of play.
And with the Houston-Indianapolis game set for a 1 p.m. kickoff, and the NFL announcing Sunday night that the Patriots-Dolphins finale has been flexed to a 4:25 p.m. start, New England will know the result of that game by the time its game begins.
If the Texans win, they get the top seed.
But if the Texans lose, they could fall as far as the third seed. A Houston loss combined with wins by the Broncos and Patriots means the Texans would have to play on wild-card weekend — just a few weeks after holding a two-game hold on the No. 1 spot.
In that scenario, the Patriots would move up to the No. 2 seed.
The other scenario that would give New England the No. 2 seed is highly unlikely, though of course not impossible. The Broncos host the Chiefs, and a Houston win plus a Denver loss would mean the Patriots would be seeded second.
For the Patriots to jump to the No. 1 spot, both the Texans and Broncos would have to lose. Again, unlikely — though stranger things have happened.
And if the Patriots lose to the Dolphins while the Texans, Broncos, and Ravens all win, New England would slip to the fourth seed.
In the same way the Patriots’ wins over Houston and Denver could allow them to ascend to the top seed, the Ravens’ win against New England Sept. 23 would let Baltimore jump over the Patriots.
As things stand, the Patriots, the third seed, would host the Bengals in the wild-card round.
Cincinnati clinched its playoff berth and ended the postseason hopes of the division rival Steelers with a last-second 13-10 win Sunday.
Statistically, the Bengals have one of the best defenses in the NFL, ranked sixth overall — eighth against the run (100.6 yards per game) and 10th against the pass (216.9). They have rebounded well from a four-game October losing streak that dropped them to 3-5; since then, Cincinnati is 6-1.