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By Thomas Nielsen

If the playoffs ended after Week 13, the New England Patriots would be rewarded with the number one overall spot in the AFC. The Pats have earned the top seed without a doubt. New England started the year 2-2 and that’s when the critics came out. People called for quarterback Tom Brady to be benched. They said the Brady-Belichick era was over. But they showed everyone wrong. Since those first four games, the Pats have gone 7-1 with their only loss this past week against the only team as hot as them, the Green Bay Packers. New England has four games remaining, three against divisional opponents and they will be favored in all of them. The Patriots are without a doubt the favorites in the AFC and if they can secure home-field advantage, they will have a much easier road to the Super Bowl.


The second ranked team in the conference, who would also get a bye, is the Denver Broncos. Denver is 9-3 along with New England, but one of those three losses came at the hands of Tom Brady and the Patriots. Peyton Manning has been playing extremely well but it pales in comparison to the unimaginable stats he put up last season. Manning leads the league with 36 touchdown passes thrown and he’s on pace to throw for 48 touchdowns. The Broncos haven’t been blowing teams out in spectacular fashion, but they have been playing well. Denver will finish the season with three of four games against teams with playoff aspirations.


The Cincinnati Bengals have played well and currently sit in the third seed in the playoff standings. Their season has had highs and lows. Cincy may bethe most inconsistent team that would make the playoffs. Quarterback Andy Dalton has played mediocre. When running back Gio Bernard went down with an injury, Jeremy Hill stepped up and played extremely well. Bengals’ top receiver A.J. Green went down early in the season but has come back and played well. He has four games this over 100 receiving yards. Green has two touchdown receptions in his last three games. The Bengals have an extremely tough remaining season. First they play Pittsburgh, then the Browns (which isn’t an easy game), then the Broncos followed by another game against the Steelers.


The AFC South division leader is the Indianapolis Colts. Led by quarterback Andrew Luck, the team has played very well this season. They have won a lot of games although not all of those wins were pretty. Luck has thrown for over 3700 yards and has thrown for over 300 yards in all but two games. Luck has also thrown for 32 touchdowns, which is one of the tops in the league. On the other side of the ball, the defense has not played particularly well. They have allowed a lot of points but got stops when necessary. The Colts finish the season with games against Cleveland, Houston, Dallas and Tennessee. The Colts realistically could pull within the third seed.


The first wildcard spot is currently being held by the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have been very streaky this season. The team lost its first game, won its next five, lost three and currently has a three game win streak. All four of the Chargers came against teams competing for a playoff spot (Arizona, Kansas City, Denver and Miami). When this team has played well, they have shown major strides in comparison to last year. Quarterback Philip Rivers started off hot but has cooled off as of late. He has thrown 25 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. The Chargers end the season with a very tough schedule. They play the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and they end with Kansas City.


The second and final wildcard spot belongs to the Miami Dolphins. Miami is 7-5 (along with six other teams) and the team has not played very consistently. They have not won back-to-back games since weeks 8 and 9. The third year quarterback, Ryan Tannehill has taken tremendous strides this season. He finally looks comfortable in the pocket. Tannehill is making big time throws. The quarterback from Texas A&M has thrown for 19 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He has thrown two picks in the past two games. The Dolphins run game has also been good, led by Lamar Miller. It takes the pressure off of Tannehill. On the other hand, the defense has actually played very well. It is one of the best pass defenses in the league. They will finish the season with two tough games, one against Baltimore and one against New England, before two easier games against Minnesota and the New York Jets.


There are a ton of teams fighting for Miami’s spot and it will not be easy. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City, Buffalo and Cleveland are all tied with Miami going into this week. As each team plays every Sunday, this spot will continually change but it’s only a matter of time before the men separate from the boys.
So this is how I see the AFC Playoff picture looking after Week 17…
1) New England Patriots (13-3)
2) Denver Broncos (13-3)
3) Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
4) Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
5) Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
6) San Diego Chargers (9-7)