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The Patriots put the capper on a wild week in the AFC with a 14-10 win over the Bills on Monday in Buffalo. Quarterback Mac Jones set a franchise record for fewest pass attempts in a game, the wind was so out-of-control they had to readjust the goal posts, and the Bills’ offense got nothing from two red-zone trips. It all added up to a New England win, and left the Patriots — along with the Steelers, Chargers, and Titans — among the big movers. Meanwhile, the Ravens, Bengals, and Bills all took a tumble.
Keeping in mind there are seven available playoff spots this season, here’s a snapshot of all of the teams above .500 in the AFC and their respective playoff chances. (Not all teams have had their bye week yet, which makes for some uneven records.)
1. Patriots (9-4) Up one from last week
Remaining schedule: at Colts (7-6), Bills (7-5), Jaguars (2-10), at Dolphins (5-7).
Opponents’ record: 21-28 (.429)
The skinny: Mac Jones had three pass attempts. Three! That’s like winning a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back. The Buffalo defense knew what was coming all night long, and it still couldn’t stop it. (Former Globie Paul Harber emailed after the game noting the 2001 Patriots had a similarly wild 12-3 win over the Bills in Buffalo in the first week of December.) There’s still work to be done — namely, the next two games against the Colts and a return date with the Bills. And a late-season game in Miami screams trouble. But right now, as long as they stay healthy, there’s a path to 13 wins, which would mean an 11-game win streak to end the season. Whoa.
2. Titans (8-4) Up one from last week
Remaining schedule: Jaguars (2-10), at Steelers (6-5-1), Niners (6-6), Dolphins (6-7), at Texans (2-10).
Opponents’ record: 22-38-1 (.361)
The skinny: If the Patriots stumble, there’s still a chance for Tennessee to take advantage. The Titans are getting healthy at the right time, they have the easiest slate of any of the AFC contenders the rest of the way, and three of their five games are at home. Look for Tennessee to keep the heat on New England down the stretch.
3. Ravens (8-4) Down two from last week
Remaining schedule: at Browns (6-6), Packers (9-3), at Bengals (7-5), Rams (8-4), Steelers (6-5-1).
Opponents’ record: 36-23-1 (.600)
The skinny: Are we going to remember the fact that the Ravens failed to convert on that two-point attempt at the end of their loss to the Steelers as one of the turning points of the 2021 season? Right now, it’s hard to see a single play that could end up having more of an impact on the playoff chase. It’s worth noting that despite their lofty status, if you are judging by current strength of schedule, Baltimore has the toughest route the rest of the way of anyone else on this list.
4. Chiefs (8-4) No change from last week
Remaining schedule: Raiders (6-6), at Chargers (7-5), Steelers (6-5-1), at Bengals (7-5), at Broncos (6-6).
Opponents’ record: 32-27-1 (.533)
The skinny: The 2015 Chiefs started 1-5, won 10 straight to close out the season, and made it all the way to the divisional round of the playoffs, where they lost to the Patriots. I’m not sure this team is going to be able to replicate that run, but climbing out of that 3-4 hole — against that slate of opponents — and getting to 8-4 isn’t too far removed. In a year where no one else seems to want to win the AFC West, it’s theirs for the taking.
5. Chargers (7-5) Up two from last week
Remaining schedule: Giants (4-8), Chiefs (8-4), at Texans (2-10), Broncos (6-6), at Raiders (6-6)
Opponents’ record: 26-34 (.433)
The skinny: My unpopular hot take: I kind of like this team. They have at least four winnable games left on a relatively soft schedule. They have difference makers at all sorts of key positions, making them just talented enough to be dangerous. And for all their faults, they’re still just a game behind the Chiefs for first place in the division. In a wild year like this one, a Patriots-Chargers AFC title game in Foxborough isn’t the craziest thing in the world. Is it?
6. Bengals (7-5) Down one from last week
Remaining schedule: Niners (6-6), at Broncos (6-6), Ravens (8-4), Chiefs (8-4), at Browns (6-6).
Opponents’ record: 34-26 (.567)
The skinny: With home games left against Baltimore and Kansas City, the Bengals will have a chance to prove their bona fides as an AFC playoff contender. But based on their performance Sunday against the Chargers — at home — I put little faith in Cincinnati’s chances at least at this stage of their development.
7. Bills (7-5) Down one from last week
Remaining schedule: at Buccaneers (9-3), Panthers (5-7), at Patriots (9-4), Falcons (5-7), Jets (3-9).
Opponents’ record: 31-30 (.508)
The skinny: I will be fascinated to see how the Bills respond to what happened to them Monday night, particularly next week against the Bucs and in their return date with the Patriots in Foxborough. (Early returns are not great, based on the way they behaved after the loss.) But after a year where they were crowned as the Next Big Thing in the AFC East, their playoff fate is very much in doubt heading into the last month of the regular season.
ON THE BUBBLE
*8. Steelers (6-5-1) Up four from last week
Remaining schedule: at Vikings (5-7), Titans (8-4), at Chiefs (8-4), Browns (6-6), at Ravens (8-4).
Opponents’ record: 35-25 (.583)
The skinny: Did their win over Baltimore on Sunday say more about the Ravens and their potential shortcomings or the Steelers and their character? Is this the beginning of Ben Roethlisberger’s last stand in the Steel City? I’m willing to say more of the former than the latter, at least right now.
9. Colts (7-6) Up one from last week
Remaining schedule: Patriots (9-4), at Cardinals (10-2), Raiders (6-6), at Jaguars (2-10)
Opponents’ record: 27-22 (.551)
The skinny: I can see a scenario where the Colts lose all four games. I can also talk myself into a scenario where they win at least three and head into the final week of the regular season with a shot at that No. 7 playoff spot. (I am nothing if not easily suggestible.) The bottom line is that if you can run the ball and get a few stops like the Colts seem capable of doing on a consistent basis, that should be enough to get you into the postseason. Or at least separate you from the rest of the AFC playoff pretenders.
*played Thursday night
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.