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NFL playoff picture: Where the Patriots and the other AFC contenders stand with 4 games left

Related: NFL playoff picture: How the Patriots can clinch a postseason berth this weekend

Syndication: USA TODAY Jamie Germano / USA TODAY NETWORK

A lot has changed in the AFC playoff picture since I last wrote about it three weeks ago. Now that all the teams have had their bye weeks, let’s take a look at how the rest of the season might play out.

The New England Patriots, of course, own the top seed in the AFC currently, sharing a 9-4 record with two others:

  1. New England Patriots (9-4)
  2. Tennessee Titans (9-4)
  3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)
  4. Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
  5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-5)
  6. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
  7. Buffalo Bills (7-6)

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos are all 7-6 as well, and the next clubs down the line; the Pittsburgh Steelers are tied with all those teams in the loss column at 6-6-1.

Just like before, I’m also going to include the Miami Dolphins, because, as I predicted a few weeks ago, they are on the verge of getting back to .500 and being right in the mix for the playoffs.

New England Patriots (9-4)

Remaining schedule: at Indianapolis Colts, vs. Buffalo Bills, vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, at Miami Dolphins

The Patriots are back in their rightful spot, atop the AFC. They certainly don’t have an easy road ahead, but unlike every other team in the conference, they control their own destiny. This weekend’s game in Indianapolis is going to be huge, though, and a win next week against the Bills at home would clinch the division, regardless of the outcome of either teams’ games this weekend.

That all doesn’t mean much, as they are more than likely going to have to win out to get the top seed, and only bye, in the conference. It’s going to be a tough road for the Patriots, but they have continuously answered the bell during their seven-game winning streak, beating against some very good teams along the way and winning in different ways.

A few tests still remain, though, and there is hope that they will pass them as well. Whatever the final outcome, the Patriots have established themselves as a powerhouse in the AFC again after only one season away. That is something that most people simply did not see coming, and, as great as it is for Patriots fans, it must be even worse for fans of other teams.

As a fanbase who lives off the tears of the haters, however, it’s a wonderful time in Pats Nation.

Tennessee Titans (9-4)

Remaining schedule: at Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. San Francisco 49ers, vs. Miami Dolphins, at Houston Texans

The Titans still have a two-game lead in their division, and since they beat the Colts twice this season already, it seems very unlikely that they will lose the top spot at this point. Leading up to the final game against the Texans, however, are three fairly tough games.

The Steelers have been playing better the last few weeks, and could give them a challenge, especially in Pittsburgh. The 49ers offense has been struggling, but George Kittle is finally back healthy and is destroying teams right now. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are on a hot streak at the moment.

The Titans should probably win those three games, but they are going to be tough matchups, especially with the team still banged up. A.J. Brown was placed on injured reserve, and will be eligible to return against the 49ers, and it seems that he might be ready to do that. It also looks like Derrick Henry will be back for the playoffs, if not before.

The Titans getting everyone back healthy would be huge for them, and, although they may not end up with the highest seed because of the injuries, they will be awfully tough to beat once they get into the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)

Remaining schedule: at Los Angeles Chargers, vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, at Cincinnati Bengals, at Denver Broncos

The Chiefs seem to have finally figured things out. Their defense has been killing it lately, and the offense is just starting to round into form. Just like the last few years, they look like they might be the team to beat in the AFC this season. If their defense continues playing this way, they are going to cruise into the playoffs, and be extremely tough to beat.

Now, they have some tough matchups coming up to finish the season, starting tonight in L.A. against the Chargers. If they lose that game, the Chargers will overtake them as the top team in the AFC West, since they already beat the Chiefs in their first matchup.

If the Chiefs can win on the road tonight, they will face off against three teams fighting for the playoffs, in the Steelers, Bengals, and Broncos. Kansas City is a popular pick as the best team in football right now, but the team can’t afford to take any missteps the rest of the way because the Chargers are right there on their heels.

Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. Green Bay Packers, at Cincinnati Bengals, vs. Los Angeles Rams, vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Ravens might be in some trouble here. Not only are all of the teams in their division at .500 or better, but Lamar Jackson went down last week with an injury as well. There is no clear timetable on how long he will be out, but any length of time will be disastrous for the Ravens, especially considering the schedule they have to finish the season.

They face the NFC’s top-seeded Packers this week, then play in Cincinnati, and then host the Rams and Steelers to end the season. That’s two of the best teams in the NFC, and two divisional games. It doesn’t get much more difficult than that.

The Ravens are going to need to steal a game in case Jackson is out, and also knock off at least one of the Packers or Rams to have a real shot at winning the division. If that doesn’t happen, there is a good chance that they might not only lose the AFC North title, but miss the playoffs entirely.

Los Angeles Chargers (8-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. Kansas City Chiefs, at Houston Texans, vs. Denver Broncos, at Las Vegas Raiders

The Chargers are sitting behind the Chiefs right now, but they have a chance to change this tonight. With a win over the Chiefs, they will wrestle first place away from Kansas City, and put themselves in the driver’s seat to win the division, since the rest of their schedule is pretty easy (I know that the Raiders aren’t technically out of it, but they definitely aren’t good, and the Chargers should beat them).

If they can knock off the Chiefs, then they control their own destiny, and the only other tough game left is against the Broncos. Even if L.A. can’t beat Kansas City, it would be a big surprise if the team did not at least make the playoffs. Once they are there, they should be a tough team to beat.

Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. New England Patriots, at Arizona Cardinals, vs. Las Vegas Raiders, at Jacksonville Jaguars

The Colts are very similar to the Patriots. Both teams have been dominating with a great running game and good defense, and both teams started the season slowly. Indy began 1-4, but has been playing well lately, putting itself in position to get a playoff spot. Winning the division is a long-shot at this point, though: they are down two games, lost both matchups to the Titans, and will play the Patriots and Cardinals the next two weeks.

Just because the division is out of reach, however, does not mean that they can’t make the playoffs — and some noise once there. To do that, however, they are going to have to at least split the next two games. A win against the Patriots will put them in great position the rest of the way, but a loss on Saturday will make the road to the postseason a difficult one, even though they end against the Raiders and Jaguars.

Missing the playoffs would mean that they are sending a top-20 pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Carson Wentz trade, and that will be a tough pill to swallow. Expect the Patriots to get their best shot on Saturday night.

Buffalo Bills (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Carolina Panthers, at New Orleans Saints, vs. Atlanta Falcons, vs. New York Jets

Let’s start with some good news for Bills fans: their team is almost a lock to make the playoffs. The Bills have, by far, the easiest remaining schedule, facing off against the Panthers, Falcons, and Jets. Those three should all be easy wins, and the Bills should cruise into the playoffs.

Now, onto the bad news. The Bills used to be in control of their destiny. At 5-2 they were one of the best teams in the conference, and playing the Jaguars. They have lost four of their last six games, including an embarrassing loss to those very Jags. Now, they need to win out to have a real shot at winning the division, and a loss next weekend in New England would officially clinch it for the Patriots.

The Bills looked like their season was going to nosedive in the first half last week, as they were getting blown out by the Buccaneers. The fight that they showed in the second half might have saved their season, but there is no telling how far they are really going to go. They need to get right this week against the Falcons, and then figure out a way to beat the Patriots in Foxborough to give themselves a chance to make some noise in January.

It’s a bleak outlook from where we were just a few weeks ago, but they can still salvage what looked to be an incredibly impressive season.

Cleveland Browns (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Las Vegas Raiders, at Green Bay Packers, at Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The Browns are in a tough spot. They are 7-6, and a significant portion of their team is out on the Covid-19 list — including Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, and head coach Kevin Stefanski all out. Their matchup this week is against the Raiders, who I don’t think are very good, but good enough to beat a decimated team like the Browns.

This is the second time this year the Browns have been hamstrung, dealing with injuries to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (who will be out again this week) for good chunks of the season. It might just not be their year, especially since they have to go on the road and play the Packers next week, and finish the season with the Steelers and Bengals.

You’d have to think they are going to lose at least two of their remaining games, and that should be enough to knock them out of the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)

Remaining schedule: at Denver Broncos, vs. Baltimore Ravens, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, at Cleveland Browns

The Bengals have come a long way from the top seed in the conference. They have lost four of six, including a tough overtime defeat against the 49ers this past weekend. Luckily, they are still only a game behind in the AFC North, and have a real shot at taking the division

They beat the Ravens the first time they played, and there is a good chance that Lamar Jackson won’t be ready — or at least won’t be 100 percent — when they play again next weekend. If the Bengals can win that game, it will put them in the driver’s seat to win the division. The Chiefs game will obviously be tough, but the season might come down to Week 18 on the road against the Browns.

It’s very possible that the winner of that game will win the AFC North.

Denver Broncos (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Cincinnati Bengals, at Las Vegas Raiders, at Los Angeles Chargers, vs. Kansas City Chiefs

The Broncos have one of the more difficult roads to the playoffs. They are currently on the outside looking in, and they play four teams that are all fighting for a playoff spot. It certainly seems like the Bengals, Chargers, and Chiefs are all much better than the Broncos, and so those can definitely be losses. What they have in their favor is that they run the ball extremely well. That could give the Chargers some serious problems, for example, as they are notoriously bad at stopping the run.

The Broncos have maybe the worst QB situation out of all the teams left in the playoff hunt, and that certainly limits their upside. With that being said, because they play three teams currently ahead of them in the standings, if their defense and run game can step up, they have a real chance at sneaking into the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Tennessee Titans, at Kansas City Chiefs, vs. Cleveland Browns, at Baltimore Ravens

The Steelers are just barely hanging on right now, and these next two weeks are going to decide their season. Facing off against the Titans and the Chiefs in back-to-back weeks, followed by games versus the Browns and Ravens — who will both be fighting for their playoff lives — is going to be extremely difficult.

Ben Roethlisberger has played a little bit better the last two weeks, but he has been a mess most of the season, and the Steelers’ record reflects that. If they can somehow make a run, they are going to shake up the entire conference, since they play the second and third seeds in two straight weeks.

I would assume that they will be out of the playoffs soon, but there is still a chance, and, at the very least, the Patriots should be rooting for the Steelers to give them some breathing room at the top of the conference.

Miami Dolphins (6-7)

Remaining schedule: vs. New York Jets, at New Orleans Saints, at Tennessee Titans, vs. New England Patriots

Just as I predicted a few weeks ago, the Dolphins are on the verge of breaking even on the season. With a win against the Jets this week, they will have gone from 1-7 to 7-7, thanks to an impressive six-game winning streak.

The chance of them making the playoffs is still small, but if they can knock off the Saints and Titans, the Week 18 matchup against the Patriots could very well decide whether or not they make the tournament. Regardless of their final result, what they have been able to accomplish this season after starting so terribly has been impressive. Now they just need to decide what they are going to do at the quarterback position moving forward.

Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.