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Steelers lose again, drop a spot in AFC playoff race

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have lost two straight games and are now fourth in the AFC playoff race.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have lost two straight games and are now fourth in the AFC playoff race.(Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

That Week 15 showdown between the Patriots and Steelers we’ve been waiting for this season? It might not be as important as we previously thought.

The Patriots had a big win over the Vikings on Sunday to strengthen their position in the AFC playoff race. And almost every other AFC contender also won on Sunday.

But for the second straight week, the Steelers stumbled. They lost to the Chargers at home, 33-30, dropping their record to 7-4-1, 1½ games behind the Patriots. The Patriots now have to worry less about the Steelers, and more about the Chiefs and the surging Texans.

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The Chiefs improved to 10-2 and remain one game ahead of the Patriots for the No. 1 seed after holding on for a 40-33 win over the Raiders. The Patriots own the head-to-head advantage over the Chiefs, but the Chiefs have a favorable closing schedule. Three of their four games are at home, where they are 5-0 this season. They have the Ravens and Chargers at home the next two weeks, a tough road game at Seattle in Week 16, and a finale against the Raiders at home.

The Patriots had a strong defensive performance for the second game in a row to improve to 9-3, and now face the biggest test of their schedule, consecutive road games at the Dolphins and Steelers. If they can sweep these two, the Patriots close with home games against the Bills and Jets, making them a near certainty for a first-round bye and giving them a stronger shot at home-field advantage.

A loss in the next two weeks may not hurt the Patriots with the Steelers, but it might against the Texans, who kept pace with the Patriots by dismantling Baker Mayfield and the Browns, 29-13, to improve to 9-3. The Texans have the No. 3 seed due to their Week 1 loss in Foxborough, but the Texans have a manageable closing stretch: vs. Colts, at Jets, at Eagles, vs. Jaguars. The Texans keep winning, and keep putting pressure on the Patriots.

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The Steelers still own the No. 4 seed, but are just a half-game ahead of the Ravens in the division. They blew a 23-7 lead at home on Sunday night, and now have little shot of getting a first-round bye. In addition to a big game against the Patriots in Week 15, they play at New Orleans in Week 16.

The Chargers are still a wild-card team in the No. 5 spot, but look like one of the AFC’s top contenders after Sunday’s big comeback win. The Chargers are just one game behind the Chiefs for the AFC West lead, and could still finish anywhere from the No. 1 to the No. 5 seed. Their closing stretch isn’t the easiest: vs. Bengals, at Chiefs, vs. Ravens, at Broncos.

And the Ravens still hold the final wild-card spot after thrashing the Falcons, 26-16. The Ravens have now won three in a row under Lamar Jackson, and their 6-3 conference record will help them win tiebreakers for the final playoff spot. But their closing stretch is tough: at Chiefs, vs. Bucs, at Chargers, vs. Browns.

Four teams sit one game behind the Ravens with a 6-6 record. The Dolphins beat the Bills on Sunday and hold the No. 7 seed due to their 5-4 conference record. The Colts lost to the Jaguars, and are No. 8 because they are 5-5 in conference. The Broncos are No. 9 after beating the Bengals, and the Titans, who rallied to beat the Jets, are No. 10 with their 4-6 conference record.

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin