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AFC playoff picture isn't clear, but Patriots are in driver's seat to say 'bye'

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  November 25, 2013 09:35 AM

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So, what does it all mean?

Yes, your New England Patriots are now 8-3 on the season, on the heels of Sunday nightís epic come-from-behind win over the Denver Broncos. New Englandís 34-31 overtime win puts it firmly in place as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, particularly after Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts vomited all over themselves in Arizona. As it stands now, with five weeks remaining in the NFL season, the Broncos and the Patriots own the top two seeds in the conference, are well on their ways to first-round playoff byes, and perhaps a sequel of the drama that unfolded in frigid Foxborough.

The Texans, Browns, Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills remain for Bill Belichick and Co., a schedule that gives the Patriots opponents with a combined 20-35 mark on the season. The Broncosí opponents (Chiefs, Titans, Chargers, Texans, and Raiders) are a combined 25-29. If the season ended today, both would wait at home as the Chiefs and Bengals and Titans and Colts faced off in the wild card showdowns. But only the Colts, Chiefs, and Bengals seem to have a legitimate inside track on the playoffs right now. The remainder of the AFC is a complete mess.

At 5-6, the Steelers, Ravens, Chargers, Jets, and Dolphins all remain in play for the final wild card slot. It was only three years ago that we witnessed the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks ďearnĒ a playoff spot (and as it turned out, a postseason win over the New Orleans Saints), and the possibility that we could have another sub-.500 team playing in January remains a distinct possibility again.

Heck, even the 2-9 Texans arenít officially eliminated yet, and they have the parity on top of them to thank for it.

The Titans' schedule still has games at Indy, at Denver, and home against the Arizona Cardinals, all of a sudden in the NFC playoff picture, so letís not exactly mark their spot in ink just yet. In reality, the final playoff spot should come down to Baltimore or Pittsburgh (slated to face off Thanksgiving night), or the Chargers, who solidified their presence with a final-drive win over the Chiefs, who have their own pivotal game coming up Sunday afternoon against the Broncos. By the time the weekend is over, the Patriots could be 9-3, with a win over the Texans, while one of the Chiefs or Broncos will improve to 10-2 and the other will fall to 9-3.

The Broncos, Patriots, and Chiefs all play three of their final five games on the road. But the Chiefs can theoretically go from a five-seed to the No. 1 seed by beating Denver Sunday, which could put the Broncos on the road for a possible divisional playoff game. In that scenario, the No. 6 seed would have to take down the likes of the Colts or Bengals in the AFC wild card game in order for the game to be played in Foxborough, as the Chiefs would get the lowest-remaining seed with the No. 1 spot. If Denver hangs onto the No. 1 seed, and the Patriots maintain No. 2, a rematch wonít be possible until the AFC title game in Colorado.

Or, if the Pats can leapfrog both the Chiefs and Broncos for the No. 1 spot, the AFC Championship could be back in Foxborough for a second third straight year.

The Patriots could lose their final five games and probably still make the playoffs with an 8-8 mark based on the vanilla contenders. Perhaps only the Ravens and Dolphins remain as serious challenges. The Texans, Browns, and Bills are all last-place teams and are a combined 10-23.

And think, had Monday night in Carolina turned out differently, the Patriots are 9-2 this morning, with the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

It still might happen, with plenty of football left to play.

But thatís really all we know.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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