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Postseason picture is still very fuzzy

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 13, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - It’s that time of year in the NFL when the postseason picture starts to come into focus.

In the NFC, the picture is already 50 percent set, with three playoff berths clinched - by the Packers, Saints, and 49ers.

Undefeated Green Bay already has clinched the NFC North, a division that was supposed to be stacked when the season began, with the Lions a hot choice to go deep into the postseason and the Bears coming off an appearance in the NFC Championship game.

San Francisco has already claimed the West in what may be the weakest division in the NFL.

But in the AFC, only one team has punched its postseason ticket, and it’s a first-timer: the Texans. Houston lost starting quarterback Matt Schaub to a season-ending foot injury last month, then lost backup Matt Leinart in his first start when he went down with a broken collarbone.

So the franchise hitched its wagon to rookie T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina.

Yates finished the game against Jacksonville when Leinart was hurt, and has started the last two games, both wins.

His numbers aren’t particularly impressive - he’s completed 55 percent of his passes, with three touchdowns and an interception - but Yates is aided by the Texans’ second-ranked ground game, and a defense that Wade Phillips has transformed into one of the league’s best.

On Sunday, they clinched the AFC South and their first playoff berth since joining the league in 2002.

Houston is one of four AFC teams at 10-3, and if the playoffs started today, the Texans would be the top seed by virtue of their 8-2 conference record.

Baltimore would be the second seed, followed by the Patriots.

The Ravens get the nod based on the next tiebreaker, strength of victory - the combined record of teams Baltimore has beaten is better than that of the teams the Patriots have defeated.

The fourth 10-3 team, the Steelers, would be seeded fifth - Pittsburgh has lost twice to the Ravens, their AFC North rivals, giving Baltimore the head-to-head matchup, which is the first tiebreaker for a division title.

AFC West leader Denver, New England’s opponent Sunday, is currently the fourth seed.

So who would be the sixth and final seed if the postseason were upon us?

The Jets. And that means Gang Green, Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez & Co. would head to Foxborough for yet another matchup, their third this season and the fourth playoff showdown between the rivals.

Things can certainly change - a week ago New England was the No. 1 seed.

The Jets might not be the dream matchup Patriots fans would be looking for, though Ryan, never one to shy from a good quote, told the New York Daily News last week that he’d welcome another chance to face the Patriots.

“I feel we’re going to play them again, and I’m excited about that,’’ he said. “Even when we got our doors blown off, 45-3, last season, I wanted to play ’em again. I meant it then, I mean it now. We want to play them. No question we want to play them.’’

New York came into Gillette Stadium last year a few weeks after that 45-3 blowout and knocked the Patriots out of the postseason.

On Sunday morning, the Jets (8-5) woke up on the outside of the playoff picture, but put themselves in it with their win over Kansas City. Tennessee, Cincinnati, and Oakland all lost Sunday and at 7-6 are on the outside looking in.

If the Texans, Ravens, and Patriots win out, Baltimore and New England will leapfrog Houston for the top two seeds.

Unfortunately for Houston, with division opponent Indianapolis winless, it counts twice in the Texans’ strength of victory mark and brings down that percentage.

The playoff picture is starting to come into focus, but in the AFC, there’s plenty left to settle.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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