This is how the AFC playoff picture currently looks, heading into the final week of the regular season:
1. New England 12-3 (home-field advantage, first-round bye): This was clinched in week 16, plays the winner of 4 vs. 5.
2. Denver 11-4 (first-round bye): Can clinch with a win week 17 hosting the Raiders, if they lose and the Bengals win, they drop to the 3 seed.
3. Cincinnati 10-4-1 (wildcard round home game): Plays at Pittsburgh, winner gets 3rd seed and a home game, loser is 5th and travels to Indianapolis.
4. Indianapolis 10-5 (wildcard round home game): Locked into the 4th seed and a home game, hosting the 5th seed.
5. Pittsburgh 10-5 (wildcard): Can snag the 3rd seed from the Bengals or stays here and plays at the Colts.
6. San Diego 9-6 (wildcard): Win at Kansas City in week 17 and they’re in, playing at Cincy.
In the hunt for the last wildcard spot, currently held by the Chargers:
7. Baltimore 9-6: A home win against the Browns, along with a Chargers loss, sneaks them in to play the Bengals/Steelers for a 3rd time in 2014.
8. Houston 8-7: Hosting Jacksonville in the final game, they need a win, and both the Chargers and Ravens to go down.
9. Kansas City 8-7: Not only do they need to beat San Diego at home but they need the Ravens and Texans to both lose.
SNF: Cincinnati at Pittsbrugh
The clash for the AFC North takes place on Sunday Night Football. The first time around was about a month ago, where the Steelers went into Cincy and double them up 42-21. Coming off some dominant defense and winning 7 of 9, that shows the resilience of a banged-up Bengals team that left Indy without a point 27-0. The usually Steel-Curtain defense has been anything but that, shifting the strength to their big three of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. The stud trio ranks among the best around the league.
These rivals are keeping alive old-school, traditional offense. Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton have the ability to scramble for yards, but they are less mobile than NFC West quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. The emergence of young running backs, Bell, Jeremy Hill, and Giovani Bernard, has opened more plays down the field to star receivers, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green. These teams pride themselves in using their tight ends traditionally, Heath Miler and Jermaine Gresham, so they will get that chance to make a crucial plays in crunch time. Mohammed Sanu provided career-highs for Cincy, between Sanu and Gresham they found a way to make up for the injured Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. I would say Cincy has a top-12 O-line while Pittsburgh ranks in the bottom half and need Big Ben’s mobility. The Bengals are also better defensively across the board. The special teams edge goes to them as well, they are good in every aspect, from kicking and punting to coverage and returning.
Cincy is the better team, Pittsburgh has the star-power to rack up yardage. They’re both in the playoffs already, but this is for the 3rd seed and a home game. It should be a close on prime time. Playoff defenses would much rather face Andy Dalton and company, as opposed to Pittsburgh’s big three, and I’m going with those playmakers in this game at home.
San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs
Let’s keep this game simple. Yes, it really hurts the Bolts that Philip Rivers has a back issue, Keenan Allen’s season is over, and Ryan Mathews probably played his last game for them. The thing is, the Chiefs will be without Alex Smith at the helm, due to a lacerated spleen. Facing an already limited and conservative offense, even the short-handed Chargers should be able to escape Arrowhead Stadium by validating their playoff ticket. I do recall the Chiefs benching their starters against San Diego in the final week, to rest for a playoff game after clinching a spot, and the backups lost by a field goal at the end. There are no morale victories when the bottom line is to win in the NFL, and the Chiefs will find it challenging to find success on Sunday.