The AFC playoff picture is starting to feel pretty dramatic! The Tennessee Titans may blow their lead in the AFC South, the Cincinnati Bengals have taken over as kings in the AFC North and the Los Angeles Chargers are rising as a wild card in the West. We also have some drama in the AFC East, as the New England Patriots and New York Jets are fighting to join the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins in the playoff picture.
These next three weeks are going to decide who gets in and who doesn't. Let's talk about this playoff picture as it stands now. Below, we will list the current AFC division leaders, then rank the current wild card contenders.
Current AFC division leaders
These can change, but here are the top four seeds at the moment:
- Buffalo Bills (11-3)
- Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
- Cincinnati Bengals (10-4)
- Tennessee Titans (7-7)
AFC wild card contenders, ranked
1. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
The Ravens lost in a gross matchup to the Cleveland Browns on Saturday, but this may be the time to buy Baltimore stock. The rival Bengals look like one of the hottest teams in the NFL, but the Ravens are making the playoffs. They can even clinch this week if a few things go their way.
The Ravens are expected to return Lamar Jackson to the starting lineup this week. He's 8-4 as the starter this year. He's capable of bringing this offense back to life, and fans have to be excited to see him back with J.K. Dobbins. The running back rushed for a season-high 125 yards against the Browns, making it the first time he's ever rushed for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games. Baltimore's defense has allowed just 14.6 points per game since Week 8, which ranks second-best in the NFL in that span. The Ravens defense hasn't allowed more than 14 points in three straight games now, which is a positive this late in the season. I don't know how legitimate of contenders the Ravens really are, but I bet Jackson returns to the lineup motivated.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)
The Chargers needed a game-winning drive to defeat the Titans' practice-squad defense Sunday, but a win is a win, and there are positive things to take away from the 17-14 victory. Justin Herbert threw two interceptions in a single game for the first time since Dec. 26 last year, but shook off his mistakes to lead an impressive drive to set up the game-winning field goal. That's good to see from your young quarterback.
The Chargers have a great chance at making the playoffs for the first time in the Herbert era, as they have now won two straight and finish the year with the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Rams and Denver Broncos. I would be more intrigued with this team, but they have suffered so many injuries on both sides of the ball. Still, you can't sleep on an offense with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler.
3. Miami Dolphins (8-6)
The Dolphins are a weird team. I want to jump on the bandwagon and label them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but at the same time, the defense has been bad and Tua Tagovailoa has struggled as of late. Maybe next year.
Miami has been streaking all season. It won its first three games, lost its next three, then won five straight, followed by three straight losses. Maybe a winning streak is coming at the end of the regular season? The Dolphins could win out, as they have the Green Bay Packers, Patriots and Jets to finish out the year. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 72% chance of making the playoffs.
Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are epic weapons to have, and Raheem Mostert surprised people with 136 rushing yards against the Bills stout defense. If Tagovailoa can revert to his early-season self, that will make things interesting. He's completed less than 60% of his passes in three straight games, and Miami dropped all three contests. Even if Tua improves, you probably aren't winning a Super Bowl with a defense that ranks in the bottom 10 in both total yards allowed and points allowed.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-8)
Out of the three teams on this list that are currently on the outside looking in on the AFC playoff picture, the Jaguars statistically have the best chance of making the postseason. What's funny, however, is that they have the worst record of the six teams we will talk about. Jacksonville isn't battling for a wild-card spot; it's battling for the AFC South.
The Titans are on a four-game skid, which matches their longest losing streak since 2015, and the longest losing streak of the Mike Vrabel era. Injuries are mounting on both sides of the ball for Tennessee, and the Week 18 matchup between the Titans and Jaguars could decide a playoff spot. Jacksonville has been inconsistent all year, but maybe Doug Pederson's crew is about to play their best ball. The Jags have won four out of their last six games, and Trevor Lawrence is balling. He's thrown at least three touchdowns in back-to-back games, and has a 14-1 TD-INT ratio over the past six games. The former No. 1 overall pick has already doubled his win total and passing touchdown total from his tumultuous rookie season under Urban Meyer. Zay Jones looks like a great pickup, too, as he caught three touchdowns Sunday. The Jaguars' defense isn't elite, but it plays aggressive ball and can force turnovers, as we saw last week against the Dallas Cowboys. This is an interesting team that's on the right track, but losing left tackle Cam Robinson is tough.
5. New York Jets (7-7)
It appears it's Zach Wilson's team for at least the next week. The former No. 2 overall pick wasn't too bad in his first start since the Patriots disaster. He threw for 317 yards and two touchdowns, but had an interception, a couple would-be interceptions and missed some throws. He wasn't the main reason why the Jets lost to the Detroit Lions, but fans probably wonder what would have happened if Mike White were healthy.
What was a bit confusing about the Jets' most recent loss was Robert Saleh's clock management, the defense giving up a couple big plays, and then the absence of the run game. Zonovan Knight looked great over the past few weeks, but managed just 23 yards on 13 carries against the Lions defense. Very weird. Like the Jaguars, the Jets are on the right track as a franchise, but they aren't contenders right now. The potential Wilson vs. Lawrence matchup Thursday night should be interesting.
6. New England Patriots (7-7)
With Jakobi Meyers' lateral, the Patriots' playoff chances fell to 19%. I won't spend too much time on that one play, but New England just doesn't look good right now. The offense scored as many touchdowns as the defense did against the Las Vegas Raiders, and Mac Jones completed just 13-of-31 passes for 112 yards. That 41.9% completion rate is the second-lowest by any quarterback in the last two seasons with a minimum of 30 passing attempts. I have no idea where this offense would be without Rhamondre Stevenson, who rushed for 172 yards and one touchdown. With the Bengals, Dolphins and Bills next up on the schedule for New England, I can say it was nice meeting the Patriots. See you next year, Bill Belichick.
Not quite good enough
These teams are not "dead" just yet, but may be soon.
- Las Vegas Raiders (6-8)
- Cleveland Browns (6-8)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8)
- Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1)
Eliminated from playoff contention
Better luck in 2023.
- Houston Texans (1-12-1)
- Denver Broncos (4-10)