The AFC Playoff Picture: Almost Wrapped Up

AFC division leaders and what they have to look out for.

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The American Football Conference, unlike its counterpart, the National Football Conference, appears to be all but decided except for one comprising division – the AFC South.

With the New England Patriots’ near-spotless record (having lost in overtime to the Denver Broncos on Sunday), they are leaving AFC East division rivals in the dust, with the second-place New York Jets posting a record of 6-5, and the third-place Buffalo Bills at 5-6. The Miami Dolphins round out the division at 4-7. Despite not having primary yard accumulators Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman, the Pats have been the team to beat in the AFC East, with quarterback Tom Brady looking as sharp as ever. Two years shy of 40, Brady continues to wow fans with pinpoint accuracy and making plays that seemed doomed from the start. However, the well-fought war of attrition against the Denver Broncos on Sunday saw the exit of star tight end Rob Gronkowski due to a knee injury, and concluded with an overtime Denver touchdown, leaving the score 30-24. The Patriots are looking to improve their record to 11-1 against the struggling Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

The AFC North is a very different picture. The Cincinnati Bengals lead the division with a formidable 9-2 record, with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the hunt at 6-5. The Bengals clobbered the St. Louis Rams 31-7, with Andy ‘The Red Rifle’ Dalton throwing three touchdown passes, two of which reached wide receiver A.J. Green, and the third making its way to tight end Tyler Eifert, who has the most touchdown catches for the position in the NFL. The Bengals are slated to face the division trailers in the 2-9 Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Meanwhile, Big Ben and the Steelers could not muster what they needed to overcome the Seattle Seahawks this past Sunday, being defeated 39-30.

The 9-2 Denver Broncos, who narrowly defeated New England on the weekend in overtime, lead the AFC West. With an offense led by the 25-year-old Brock Osweiler, throwing in lieu of the injured Peyton Manning, the Broncos found the end zone through running back C.J. Anderson in overtime to serve New England their first loss of the season. Meanwhile, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs (6-5), and Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders (5-6) are jockeying for the position of second in the division. The San Diego Chargers, who will face the Broncos on Sunday, trail the division with a distant 3-8 record.

The AFC South is the closest division in the Conference. The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans are tied for first at 6-5. With the Colts’ starting quarterback Andrew Luck out until at least mid-December with a kidney laceration, stand-in Matt Hasselbeck threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns while kicker Adam Vinatieri made four field goals making the score 25-12 over possibly the youngest team in the league, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Houston Texans pummeled the New Orleans Saints 24-6, with recent pickup Brian Hoyer throwing for just over 200 yards and making two touchdown passes. The vaunted Texans defense kept Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense under wraps, with J.J. Watt adding a pair of sacks to his resume and holding the Saints without a touchdown for the first time since 2005. The Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7) are third in the division, and the Tennessee Titans (2-9) make up the fourth-place spot.

The AFC South is certainly the division to watch, with a tie for first and another team in the hunt for the playoffs. There is no dominant team that runs the show in this division.

It should be noted that Tom Brady and the New England offense, despite being partially neutralized without Edelman, Amendola, and Lewis will find a way to put points on the board. Tight end Scott Chandler of the New England Patriots may be a player to watch while Brandon LaFell can expect more action with Edelman absent. Danny Amendola is expected to return this week.

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Without Peyton Manning and with a lackluster performance by top wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos offense still managed to muster what was required to give the Patriots their first loss. We can expect C.J. Anderson to make some big plays while backup running back Ronnie Hillman can be counted on similarly.

Perhaps most notably, Matt Hasselbeck is capable of putting up big points for the Colts. While Andrew Luck is considered an elite quarterback in the NFL, his stand-in seems to be doing the job just fine. Fantasy moguls should note that Andrew Luck is expected to return as starting quarterback for the Colts. However, they can reap rewards with Hasselbeck as a QB for the time being.

Observers and avid fans alike should definitely stay tuned to see how the AFC picture continues to develop as the season unfolds.