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With five games left in the regular season, the playoff lineup is taking shape of a sorts. The conference boasts four really good teams that each could make it to the Superbowl, and about eight others fighting for the last two playoff spots. Well, seven, really, when you consider unlucky Miami who, at 6-5, is in the same division with the 9-2 Jets and Pats, and effectively three games behind the 8-3 Steelers with their head-to-head loss for the final wild card spot. They may have the same record as someone from the South or West Divisions that makes the playoffs, but they themselves have almost zero shot. Ah, the unfairness of the four division system.

AFC East

This is a two-horse race between the Jets and New England. Both teams sit at 9-2, with the Jets holding the tiebreaker for the moment thanks to beating the Pats earlier this season. Of all the playoff contenders in either conference, these teams play the two toughest schedules in terms of opponent’s winning percentage.

They have a titanic battle this weekend in New England, the winner of which will definitely have a leg up on the division crown, especially if it’s the Jets. After that, they play essentially the same schedule, with one minor difference. The Jets play Miami, at Pittsburgh, at Chicago and then Buffalo. New England plays at Chicago, Green Bay, at Buffalo and Miami. The real difference here is that the Jets have to visit the Steelers while the Pats host Green Bay.

If the Jets have any hope of winning the division, they simply must win this weekend. Give the Patriots the division lead with four to play and they won’t get it back. Either way, the other team is going to be a wild card and have to play a road playoff game against a team two or three games worse than them in the standings. What was that about fairness again?

As for Miami, they’re best bet is to run out and hope one of their division rivals falls apart. Preferably New England as they have a division loss (the Jets don’t as yet) and it’ll be easier to end up with a better division record for the tiebreaker.

I feel bad for the Dolphins. They’re really a good team, just not upper echelon good. Their five losses this year have been to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England, the Jets and Chicago, five of the seven best records in the entire league with a combined tally of 42-13. Still, if you can’t beat playoffs teams, what’s the point anyway?

Buffalo is a definite spoiler in this division. They have games against all three division rivals, and are playing some very competitive football right now. In particular, watch out for the next to last game of the season when New England comes to town as an upset special. It could even decide who’s got home field throughout and who’s a wild card.

AFC North

This is another two team race between the Ravens and the Steelers, with Baltimore holding the edge with an earlier win in Pittsburgh. The two play each other in Baltimore this weekend, and the Ravens must win as they can’t afford to fall behind as they have a slightly tougher schedule. A Pittsburgh win and they will not only have a one game lead, they’ll also have a better division record.

Both teams visit pesky Cleveland, and play hapless Cincinnati. Baltimore goes on the road to Houston and hosts New Orleans, where Pittsburgh hosts both the Jets and the worst team in the league, the Carolina Panthers. If the Ravens don’t win this weekend, the division is Pittsburgh’s to lose. But much like the East, whoever doesn’t win the division will likely be a wild card.

Cleveland is the spoiler here, hosting both of these teams in the last and next to last games of the season. Particularly for Baltimore, playing in Cleveland is always troublesome. Here’s betting that they hand at least one of these guys a loss.

AFC West

Okay, this is an annual broken record, but San Diego could very well run the table. They play the softest schedule of any of the playoff contenders in either conference, with only the game in two weeks when they host Kansas City as the only one that looks eminently losable. The Chiefs schedule doesn’t appear much harder, but none of the teams they play are incapable of getting a win, especially against a team that plays as close to the wire as Kansas City.

Other than the Chargers, the Chiefs play Denver, at St. Louis, Tennessee and Oakland to close out. Their one saving grace is that three of those four games are at home where the Chiefs are 5-0 this season. San Diego gets Oakland, San Francisco and closes out on the road against Cincinnati and Denver. I don’t see the Chargers losing any of those games. If Kansas City wants to hold on to the division, they have to win in San Diego. They’ll lose at least one of those other games.

Oakland, being only two games back, still has a mathematical chance but not a realistic one. They play all three division rival, both KC and San Diego on the road, visit first place Jacksonville and host Indianapolis. Like I said, not a realistic chance.

Looking for a spoiler here? It could be Oakland, but I’d say try Denver. The Broncos record may be bad, but they can score on just about anybody. The last game of the season when they host San Diego could be the difference between a division title for the Chargers or an early trip home.

AFC South

This division is a total toss-up.  All four teams are within a game of first.  Houston has struggled mightily of late, with the exception of last week, Tennessee is a trainwreck with the Jeff Fisher-Vince Young debacle, Indianapolis looks extremely vulnerable for the first time in years, and how good is Jacksonville, really?  Everyone talks about Tampa Bay, Kansas City or St. Louis as the most surprising teams this season, but I think it’s these guys.  How they’re anywhere near first place at this point in the season is beyond me.

Houston has the talent to go on a run, but they’ll have to at least win four out of five.  Being that they play at Philadelphia and host Baltimore in the next two weeks, that hope cpuld die quickly.  And don’t forget, that horrific pass defense will be sorely tested by Denver at Mile High the second to last game of the season.  Other than that, they visit Tennessee and host Jacksonville.  It looks like another lost year for the Texans.

Is Rusty Smith going to lead Tennessee to the promised land?  Uh, no.  It’s a shame Vince Young got hurt and/or unfairly dogged by his coach.  The Titans have four division games left, three of which at home, including two with a hurting Indy squad.  Ideally, they would be in the best position to make a run for the division.  Instead, thanks to the home-and-home, their dysfunction may actually help the Colts cause.  Their other game, by the way, a trip to Kansas City, who is undefeated at home.

Jacksonville has been a feel-good story so far, but inevitably, some surprise contenders always fall apart down the stretch every year.  I have the Jaguars pegged for that (dis)honor this year.  They play all three division rivals on the road, plus host Oakland and Washington, two teams capable of winning a game they’re not supposed to.  It’s great that the Jags have made things interesting this year, but blowing that lead to the Giants last week may be what starts them back to where they probably should be.

All this leave Indianapolis, who is not playing very well at the moment.  They host a somewhat resurgent Dallas team this week, play two games with the Titans and visit Oakland.  The other game on the schedule may end up being for the division.  In three weeks, they host Jacksonville.  Win that one and the Colts will likely be playing in January yet again.  I figure 9-7 will probably win this division, but if Indy doesn’t get it together, this could be an 8-8 division champion.

There isn’t really a spoiler in the division since all four teams are still in the hunt, so I say watch out for Oakland.  The Raiders have games with both Jacksonville and the Colts, and may be able to hand at least one of them a lump of coal for Christmas.

How It’s Going To Go…

The Jets are always a problem for New England, but nobody wins in Foxborough.  The Pats beat the Jets, then cruise to the division at 12-4.  The Jets split their last four games and finish up 11-5 and a wild card spot.

The Ravens top the Steelers this weekend to sweep the season series, but lose to the Saints before slipping up in Cleveland to finish 11-5.  Pittsburgh runs out after the loss to finish up 12-4.  Thanks to the head-to-head win, the Patriots get homefield throughout, and the Steelers get a bye.  Baltimore gets the other wild card.  Thanks to that 10-9 win all the way back in week one, Baltimore is the five seed and the Jets are the six.

San Diego does, in fact, run the table to reach 11-5.  The Chiefs go on to lose a couple more games to fade to 9-7.  Great season, but no playoffs.  Maybe next year.  The Chargers go in as the three seed.

And in the toss-up division, Houston loses its next two games before winning the final three to finish 8-8.  Tennessee totally collapses, losing all five games and getting Jeff Fisher fired in the process.  Jacksonville loses to the Colts, then drops a costly game to Oakland to wrap up the year at 8-8.  And Indianapolis, thanks to two wins courtesy of the Titans, and the big win over the Jaguars to reach 9-7 and the four seed.


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