There are still four weeks to go in the regular season, but the playoff watch is already well underway. And based on the way the AFC Standings look heading into Week 15, virtually every game involving AFC teams has a direct impact on playoff scenarios in the conference. Even the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans have an enormous game on Sunday, as the loser takes a big step closer to wresting away the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft from the Detroit Lions.
But we’re here to talk about teams with playoff ambitions and Super Bowl dreams. And we won’t have to wait long this week for a game that can have a seismic impact on the playoff race. Here is a look at the Week 15 lineup for the AFC and what is at stake in each game:
AFC West supremacy on the line for the Chargers and Chiefs on Thursday Night
Week 15 kicks off with an absolute gem of a showdown between the current AFC No. 3 seed, the Kansas City Chiefs and the No. 5 seed, the Los Angeles Chargers, at SoFi Stadium.
Thanks to a last-minute victory over the Chiefs in Kansas City back in Week 3, the Chargers take the field Thursday night knowing a victory puts them in first place in the AFC West, as both teams would be 9-5 with three games to go, but the Chargers would have the tie-breaker by virtue of sweeping the season series.
Conversely, the Chiefs can put a virtual stranglehold on the division with a victory, moving to 10-4, while dropping the Chargers to 8-6. In this scenario, the Chiefs would be 4-1 in the division, while the Chargers would drop to 2-2.
Both teams come into this game on winning streaks, with the Chiefs’ early-season struggles a distant memory, having won six in a row. The Chargers are on a more modest two-game winning streak, but Justin Herbert is giving Patrick Mahomes a run for his money as top quarterback in the AFC West. In the two victories, Herbert has completed 74 percent of his passes and has thrown six touchdowns against one interception. With Keenan Allen expected back off the Covid list, both teams will be healthy.
Saturday Night is all right for fighting for the top seed or Wild Card berths
The annual Saturday night doubleheader returns this week, and the league hit the jackpot with its main-event game, a game with huge seeding implications between the AFC’s current top seed, the New England Patriots and the current No. 6 seed, the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots are among three teams tied for the best record in the AFC at 9-4, but thanks to their shrewd decision to lose the majority of those four games to NFC teams, the Patriots hold a significant advantage over the other two 9-4 teams, Kansas City and the Tennessee Titans, in conference record.
While a victory not only keeps the Patriots atop the AFC standings for at least one more week, it actually has little bearing on their ability to clinch the AFC East over the Buffalo Bills (7-6). If the Patriots lose this week and the Bills win, the Patriots could still clinch the division next week by beating the Bills at Foxboro for a two-game lead and 2-0 head-to-head tiebreaker with two weeks left.
The game is of particular importance for the surging Colts, who would gain a critical conference win to move to 7-3 in the AFC. The Colts are one of five AFC teams entering this week with a 7-6 record, so the ability to secure the conference record tiebreaker over their fellow Wild Card aspirants cannot be overstated.
The Saturday undercard features one of those other 7-6 teams, the Cleveland Browns, taking on the 6-7 Las Vegas Raiders. A Browns victory essentially ends the Raiders’ season, and keeps the heat squarely on the struggling 8-5 Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North lead.
The Bengals and Broncos play the closest thing to knockout to close the Sunday window
On Sunday’s slate one game stands out above the rest. The other 7-6 team in the AFC North, the current No. 9-seed Cincinnati Bengals, face the rejuvenated No. 0 seed, the 7-6 Denver Broncos, in what is as close to a one-game playoff as we will see this weekend. Dropping to 7-7 with three games to go is going to make reaching the playoffs a Herculean task for the loser of this game.
The Broncos probably need this game a little more because of their 3-6 record in the conference. This game features two of the top offensive rookies in the game, with Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Broncos running back Javonte Williams. How these two players go, so go the fortunes of their teams.
In the early window Sunday, the Bills will look to put as disastrous seven days behind them. After losing two straight, they now sit at 7-6 and in the precarious No. 7 seed. They draw the Carolina Panthers in a game thar won’t affect their conference record, but clearly is a game they must win to stay afloat overall.
The Steelers, sitting at 6-6-1, are also in need of running the table over the final four weeks, but they face a tough task against the 9-4 Tennessee Titans. The other early game featuring a team with flickering postseason hopes finds the Dolphins (6-7) needing to take care of business against the Jets to have an outside shot of climbing the AFC ladder.
In the late window, while Cincinnati and Denver go at it, the Ravens must find a way to turn things around against the surging Packers or face the possibility of dropping out of the AFC North lead.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference