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AFC playoff picture: Which teams can compete with the Patriots?

There are only two teams that might be able to go toe-to-toe with New England in the playoffs.

The AFC playoff picture is taking shape and, quite frankly, it would seem like only one or two seeds are still available by virtue of the AFC South and AFC North being terrible this year.

The Patriots have complete control of the AFC East and are cruising towards a bye week. The Patriots have head-to-head victories over the Texans and Steelers and will face off against the Ravens in week 14. Anything less than the #2 seed would be shocking at this point.

The Texans are leading the AFC South and are quietly mediocre. They have wins over the Chiefs, Lions, and Colts- all teams in the playoff picture- but have been thrashed by the Patriots, Vikings, and Broncos. The Colts and Titans are below .500, but could make the playoffs if Houston falters down the backstretch in their games against the Raiders, Packers, Colts, Bengals, and Titans.

The AFC North is a collective 3-13-1 dumpster fire since week 5, with two of those three wins coming against other teams in the AFC North. The lone external victory was the Steelers week 5 victory over the Jets. Way to go, Jets.

The Patriots are the only good AFC team East of the Mississippi River, but the AFC West will be fighting to defend their crown in the playoffs. The Raiders knocked off the Broncos and have 7 wins alongside the Patriots. The Chiefs beat the Raiders in week 6 and have 6 wins. The Broncos are the defending Super Bowl Champions with the best defense in the conference and also have 6 wins.

So the Texans may or may not represent the AFC South and the AFC North is still up for grabs, but you can be fairly certain that the Patriots and the AFC West will be fighting to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

1. (7-1) Patriots: New England ranks 6th in points for per game, 3rd in points against per game, and 1st in point differential per game.

2. (7-2) Raiders: The Oakland offense ranks a hair ahead of the Patriots in 5th in points for per game. The defense ranks 21st in points allowed per game, 27th in yards allowed per game, and 31st in yards allowed per play. The Patriots rank in the top half of the league in these rankings. Oakland’s defense will be its downfall.

3. (5-3) Texans: Houston has a fantastic defense that ranks 4th in the league on 3rd down and 5th in yards allowed per game; they rank 11th in points allowed per game. The Texans are the mirror image of the Raiders as they rank in the bottom two or three of most offensive stats, including points and yards per game.

4. (4-4) Ravens: Baltimore is pretty much identical to the Texans with a top 10 defense and a bottom 5 offense, but an easier schedule thus far. Neither team has a good enough defense to compensate for the weak offense, a la the 2015 Broncos.

5. (6-2) Chiefs: Kansas City boasts a top 10 defense and an average offense, putting them ahead of the rest of the Patriots conference rivals as possibly the biggest threat. Alex Smith is probably the 3rd best quarterback in the AFC playoffs, behind Tom Brady and Derek Carr. Smith doesn’t make enough plays down the field to be anything more than a game manager with exceptional running ability, but that could be enough against most AFC playoff teams.

6. (6-3) Broncos: Denver is pretty much in the same boat as the Texans and Ravens, but with a better defense and far more talent at the offensive skill positions. The Broncos could go through a quarterback change in the coming weeks as Trevor Siemian is one of the bottom 10 quarterbacks in the NFL.

In the hunt: (4-4) Dolphins, (4-4) Steelers, (4-4) Bills, (4-5) Colts, (4-5) Chargers, (4-5) Bengals.

Right now, there are three playoff teams with defenses that rank in the top 10 in points allowed per drive, with quarterbacks that rank in the bottom 10 in passer rating (Broncos, Ravens, Texans). There’s a fourth team that also ranks in the top 10 in points allowed per drive, but at least they pair it with about as average of an offense as you can get (Chiefs). You also have the reverse in a team with a top 10 offense and a bottom 10 defense (Raiders).

And then there’s the Patriots with their top 10 offense and top 10 defense, with their MVP-caliber quarterback and Hall of Fame head coach. Both the Chiefs and Raiders have claims to rosters that best compete with the Patriots. They boast ferocious defensive fronts, which is the best way to disrupt the Patriots offense, and they have complementary offenses to play 60 minute games.

But no other team in the conference is as complete as the Patriots.