Evaluating the teams on the AFC playoff bubble
By MATT BARBATO
College Contributor Network
With two weeks remaining in the NFL's regular season, the AFC playoff picture is as crowded as it gets in the NFL. Three AFC North teams own the bottom three seeds in the playoff race with nine wins apiece, but there are several other teams hanging around at 8-6.
These teams have shown plenty of flaws and inconsistencies all season, but each have the chance to make the postseason with a couple of timely wins and some luck along the way. Below is a breakdown of each contender's season thus far, as well as what to expect going forward in the climax of the playoff push. The teams are listed in order of their current standing and does not include any 7-7 team.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1)
Currently 4th in AFC, 1st in AFC North
Upcoming schedule: Denver, at Pittsburgh
Cincinnati is coming off of an impressive 30-0 road victory over in-state rival Cleveland, essentially knocking the Browns out of the playoff hunt. Andy Dalton has been unspectacular in his fourth season, he's thrown for 2,891 yards and 15 touchdowns, but the Bengals' offense is led by the dynamic backfield duo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. The rookie Hill has usurped Bernard as the lead back and is in the running for rookie of the year with 877 yards and eight scores.
The Bengals defense has been underwhelming compared to years past. Cincinnati ranks 21st in passing defense and 27th against the run.
Cincinnati controls its own destiny, but plenty can go wrong with one of the tougher schedules among the playoff contenders. The struggling secondary will face a tough test against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos and their road trip to Heinz Field could decide the division.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)
Currently 5th in AFC, 2nd in AFC North
Upcoming schedule: Kansas City, Cincinnati
Pittsburgh has two crucial games to conclude its season, but fortunately for them they will both be played at Heinz Field. The Steelers' offense is considerably better at home as the unit is averaging 35 points per game in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have the most explosive offense among the playoff contenders. Ben Roethlisberger broke a franchise record with 4,415 yards in what might be the best season of his NFL career. Roethlisberger has two spectacular weapons around him in running back LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown. Bell ranks second in the league with 1,278 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, while Brown leads the NFL with 1,498 receiving yards and 11 touchdown grabs.
Pittsburgh's downside is its defense, which ranks 23rd against the pass and is down its best cornerback, Ike Taylor.
The Steelers could play their way into the third seed in the AFC with two wins and a Colts loss, but they will face two tough tests against Kansas City and Cincinnati. They would be in a better position had they not lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets earlier in the year.
Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Currently 6th in AFC, 3rd in AFC North
Upcoming schedule: at Houston, Cleveland
Baltimore moved into the sixth seed with an unconvincing 20-12 home win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens are a much better team than they displayed against the Jaguars and that's thanks to a well-balanced offense.
The loss of Ray Rice hasn't harmed the Ravens as much as many expected. Justin Forsett is having a career season with 1,128 yards and eight touchdowns. Baltimore's fourth-ranked running game has greatly improved Joe Flacco's play. Flacco is approaching career-highs in yardage and touchdowns and could throw a career-low in interceptions.
The Ravens are stout against the run, but are a mess in the secondary, as they rank 31st against the pass. However, Baltimore's defense is much stronger at home.
The Ravens get a reasonable finish to the season, but going into Houston is no easy task. The Texans virtually got knocked out of the playoff race with a loss to Indianapolis and could be starting rookie Tom Savage at quarterback. Their Week 17 matchup with the Cleveland Browns shouldn't be too challenging given the way Cleveland's offense sputtered in Johnny Manziel's first career start.
Baltimore may need to win out, because it loses tiebreakers to Cincinnati (head-to-head record), Pittsburgh (divisional record) and San Diego (Baltimore lost at home to San Diego). With Flacco playing some of the best football of his career, the Ravens should be able to get into the postseason.
Kansas City Chiefs (8-6)
Currently 7th in AFC
Upcoming schedule: at Pittsburgh, San Diego
After slogging through the first half against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs woke up and piled on a 31-13 thumping of the their division rival. Alex Smith played one of his better games of the year with 297 yards and two touchdowns.
Jamaal Charles was held to just 52 yards on 12 carries and has had a disappointing season by his standards. Charles has rushed for merely 950 yards through 14 games, but has scored nine rushing touchdowns. Kansas City lacks much firepower around Charles, as tight end Travis Kelce is the only reputable pass-catcher on the roster.
Kansas City's defense is very stingy against the run, but is equally as beatable through the air. Kansas City's front seven, led by Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and Justin Houston can change games with their tenacity.
Kansas City will likely have two play-in games against Pittsburgh and San Diego. The Chiefs would most likely get in if they win out, as they would hold tiebreakers over the Steelers and Bolts, and also have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Buffalo Bills. The Chiefs control their own destiny to their second consecutive postseason appearance.
San Diego Chargers (8-6)
Currently 8th in AFC
Upcoming schedule: at San Francisco, at Kansas City
The Chargers had two golden opportunities to score monumental wins at home against AFC favorites New England and Denver, but dropped both games in disappointing fashion. The Chargers were outscored 45-24 in both games and the offense was particularly disappointing.
Phillip Rivers was posting MVP-caliber numbers to begin the year, but fell off drastically during a three-game skid. Rivers was held to 189 yards passing against New England and only 232 yards against Denver. The Chargers go as Rivers goes and his lackluster play is a big reason the team has dropped two in a row.
The Chargers have been a much-improved unit defensively, as they ranked in the top-15 in rushing and passing defense. San Diego's poor running game could be the difference maker. San Diego averages only 84.7 yards on the ground.
San Diego takes a short road trip to a hostile environment at Levi Stadium on Saturday night. The 49ers are eliminated from playoff contention, but have plenty of pride and should put up a good fight against an intrastate rival. If they can get past the Niners, the Chargers could face a play-in game against Kansas City. San Diego will need to win out and get some help to qualify for the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills (8-6)
Currently 9th in the AFC
Upcoming schedule: at Oakland, at New England
The Bills pulled off a big upset over NFC favorite Green Bay to keep its playoff hopes alive. It was a gutsy performance from a stellar Buffalo defense, but the offense struggled to put the Packers away all afternoon.
Buffalo's defense will be the reason the Bills break their 14-year playoff drought. Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams lead the best front seven in the NFL. The Bills are fifth against the run and eighth against the pass and is arguably the best defense among the contenders.
The problem is Buffalo's lack of firepower. Kyle Orton has been a serviceable quarterback, but he hasn't won Buffalo many games, if any at all. Fred Jackson is the guy to watch in Buffalo's 25th-ranked backfield. The Bills also lack many receiving weapons besides rookie Sammy Watkins.
Buffalo could have a cake walk game on the road against Oakland next week, but the Bills could be susceptible to a let down after an emotional home victory. The Bills also lost to fellow 8-6 contenders San Diego and Kansas City. The Bills will need to win out and get a lot of help to keep their thin playoff hopes alive.
Matt Barbato is a senior at Marquette University. His favorite sport is football and is an avid New York Jets fan, for better or worse. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMattBarbato