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Steelers’ loss is Patriots’ gain in AFC playoff race

Shelby Harris’s (96) interception in the end zone gave the Broncos a 24-17 victory over the Steelers.
Shelby Harris’s (96) interception in the end zone gave the Broncos a 24-17 victory over the Steelers.jack dempsey/Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Patriots got better cooperation from the Steelers on Sunday in the AFC playoff race.

The Patriots’ win over the Jets, combined with the Steelers’ loss to the Broncos, vaulted the 8-3 Patriots into the No. 2 seed, ahead of the 7-3-1 Steelers.

Pittsburgh pulled off a big fourth-quarter comeback last week to beat Jacksonville and maintain their grip on the second seed, but didn’t have the magic this time in Denver. Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone in the final minutes of the Steelers’ 24-17 loss.

The idle Chiefs still hold the No. 1 seed, but the race for the top spot is still wide open for the top five teams.

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The 9-2 Chiefs, who were on their bye, now hold just a one-game lead over the Patriots for the top spot, but the Patriots own the tiebreaker with the head-to-head victory. The Chiefs still have two games with the Raiders and a visit from the Ravens in two weeks, but tough games vs. the Chargers in Week 15 and at Seattle in Week 16.

The Patriots have earned a first-round bye eight straight years, and have never reached a Super Bowl under Bill Belichick without a playoff bye. They have the Vikings, at Dolphins and at Steelers the next three weeks before finishing at home with the Bills and Jets.

The 7-3 Texans, winners of seven straight, temporarily hold the No. 3 seed before they face the Titans on Monday night. The Patriots also own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans, thanks to their Week 1 win. The Texans have four of their final six games at home – visits from the Titans, Browns, Colts and Jaguars – and manageable road games at the Jets and Eagles.

The Steelers drop all the way to No. 4 thanks to the loss (and their Week 1 tie with Cleveland), and have the toughest closing stretch of all the contenders. They have a huge game this week against the surging Chargers, a Week 15 visit from the Patriots and a Week 16 trip to New Orleans.

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The 8-3 Chargers currently hold the first wild-card spot, but don’t count them out for the No. 1 seed yet. They sit just one game behind the Chiefs for the AFC West lead after crushing the Cardinals, 45-10. But the Chargers have a daunting closing stretch, with road games at Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Denver, and home visits from the Bengals and Ravens.

The 6-5 Ravens are still clinging to the No. 6 seed after beating the Raiders at home, 34-17. Baltimore has a better conference record than 6-5 Indianapolis, which squeaked past the Dolphins at home, 27-24.

The Titans sit at 5-5 entering Monday’s game at Houston, and the Dolphins, Bengals and Broncos are all 5-6.