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Checking in on the Race for AFC’s No. 1 Seed

December 2, 2015 • Joe Messineo • AFC, Features, Front Page

Last week, the New England Patriots were one of the last two undefeated teams in the NFL. This week, only one is left – and it isn’t the Patriots. Only the Carolina Panthers remain undefeated, and they’re over in the NFC. In the AFC, no teams are undefeated, and the race for the number one playoff seed is getting very interesting.

Here’s how the top teams in the AFC stack up right now:

New England 10-1
Cincinnati 9-2
Denver 9-2
Five others 6-5

Cincinnati remains a step ahead of Denver right now because of the second tiebreaking procedure (record in the conference). But you can forget about that, because the Broncos and Bengals play each other in a few weeks, which will put the first tiebreaker into effect (head-to-head record). Thanks to their win over the Pats, the Broncos will hold the tiebreaker over New England if they manage to tie their record.

The Road Ahead

Let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for each of these teams.

New England Patriots remaining games

vs.Philadelphia Eagles
@ Houston Texans
vs. Tennessee Titans
@ New York Jets
@ Miami Dolphins

The Patriots enjoy by far the easiest remaining schedule of the three top AFC squads. They’ll get to face the hapless Eagles, the terrible Titans, and a couple of borderline playoff contenders from their own conference. The Jets and Texans will be the toughest games, as both of those teams play the kind of solid defense that has given the Pats a little trouble this year.

Cincinnati Bengals remaining games

@ Cleveland Browns
vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
@ San Francisco 49ers
@ Denver Broncos
vs. Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati’s road is tougher than New England’s, though it’s still fairly manageable. A couple of weak conference foes (Baltimore and Cleveland) and a terrible 49ers team should combine to give the Bengals three relatively easy wins. Pittsburgh could be tough, as they seem like a strong candidate to take one of the Wild Card spots. The Denver game, of course, is the one to circle. Whichever team wins that matchup has the best chance to challenge New England for the number one seed – and Cincy gets to play it at home.

Denver Broncos remaining games

@ San Diego Chargers
vs. Oakland Raiders
@ Pittsburgh Steelers
vs. Cincinnati Bengals
vs. San Diego Chargers

The Broncos remaining schedule also features the Pittsburgh Steelers, which could be very interesting. The Steelers just lit up the strong Seattle secondary in a losing effort – can they do something similar to the Broncos’ vaunted defense? As for their in-division opponents, the Broncos should be able to take care of both the Chargers (twice) and Raiders – though the Raiders are a respectable 5-6 squad that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The crucial game, of course, is the head-to-head with the Bengals.

Other Factors

Two issues stand out for the top three AFC teams. One is the absence of Peyton Manning from the Broncos. Backup QB Brock Osweiler has performed well in his first two starts, but can he keep up that level of play consistently?

The second issue is the general injury woes that the Patriots have faced. Their receiving corps is severely depleted, and that could be a problem for them in the coming games.

Our Thoughts

With New England’s injury problems, we suspect they’ll lose at least one more game – probably to either the Texans or the Jets, both of whom are good at stopping the passing game. But we’re not sure that either Denver or Cincinnati is poised to take advantage. At least one of them has to lose a game as well, thanks to their head-to-head matchup. Will the winner of the head-to-head manage to avoid a loss elsewhere on the remaining schedule? Pittsburgh will get a crack at both, and divisional matchups abound for each team at the end of their schedules. We’re predicting one more loss for all three of these teams, with Denver taking the head-to-head against Cincy. That gives New England the top seed, has Denver leapfrog into the second, and leaves Cincinnati with the third.

Photo: Andrew Weber/Getty Images

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