We’re down to three weeks to go in the NFL regular season, and the playoff watch is already well underway. And based on the way the AFC Standings look heading into Week 16, virtually every game involving AFC teams has a direct impact on playoff scenarios in the conference.
After 15 weeks, there are 13 teams in the AFC with a .500 record or better, with only the New York Jets, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars out of the playoff mix.
There will be games impacting AFC teams on all four nights the NFL has games scheduled this weekend, barring another Covid-related shuffling of the schedule.
Here is a look at the Week 16 lineup for the AFC and what is at stake in each game:
The Titans go out of conference Thursday needing to keep pressure on Chiefs, Patriots and Colts
The Tennessee Titans did themselves no favors in Week 15 by losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The loss dropped the Titans to 9-5 in the conference, and while they still maintain a one-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, they dropped to the No. 3 seed overall, a game behind the 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs and in a tie with the New England Patriots (9-5).
New England holds the tiebreaker over the Titans via their head-to-head victory over Tennessee back in Week 12. If the Titans want to move up, they will need some help from others. The Titans did beat the Chiefs in Week 7, so the top seed is still within reach. But they will need to beat the surging San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night to keep pace.
That a loss would not affect the Titans’ conference record is pretty much besides the point. Any loss in the final three games is going to be crippling in such a tight conference. This is the last Thursday night game of the season, and it’s a big one for both teams.
More tough NFC matchups await Browns, Colts on Saturday night
This week, the NFL will try to actually hold a Saturday doubleheader with the Cleveland Browns and Colts on the docket. The Browns-Raiders game wound up getting postponed to Monday in Week 15, and while everyone, in particular the Las Vegas Raiders, expected the Covid-ravaged Browns to gain a huge advantage from the two-day delay, it was actually the Raiders who won the game, dropping the Browns down to 12th in the conference as part of a four-way tie at 7-7.
Having to go to Green Bay to face the 11-3 Packers is not going to make the short week any easier for the Browns, who are now looking at the AFC North title as their only avenue to a playoff berth. But that is actually a scenario that could work for them in a division separated from first to last by one game — if they can find a way to upset the Packers first.
The Colts pulled off a big upset of the Patriots last Saturday night and they will try to do it again in Arizona against the reeling Cardinals, who have lost two in a row, including a terrible loss to the lowly Lions in Week 15. The Colts (8-6) are currently fifth in the AFC and trail the Titans essentially by 1½ games with three to play for the AFC South title, having lost twice to the Titans this season. Should Tennessee lose on Thursday, however, that door opens much wider with a win in Arizona.
Bengals-Ravens and Bills-Patriots the top divisional battles on the Sunday slate
Heading into Week 15, it looked like the Patriots were set up nicely for a chance to clinch the AFC East with a victory at home over the Buffalo Bills (8-6) in Week 16. And that could still happen if the Patriots win Sunday, only now it would also require the pesky Miami Dolphins (7-7) to lose on Monday night to the New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins, who beat the Patriots all the way back in Week 1, get them again in Week 18, so the Patriots control most, but not all, of their divisional destiny. The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens are both 8-6, tied for the AFC North lead. Obviously, the winner is in better shape here than the loser when Week 16 closes up shop, but the advantage for any team in this tightly-packed division is minuscule. If the Steelers can find a way to beat the Covid-19 stricken Chiefs, they enter the week a ½-game behind Baltimore and Cincinnati. This division is going down to Week 18.
The Chiefs maintain their hold on the top seed with a win over the Steelers and could wrap up the AFC West with that win and a Los Angeles Chargers loss to the Texans.
The other game with playoff implications finds Monday’s heroes, the 7-7 Raiders, taking on the 7-7 Broncos in Las Vegas in what amounts to a one-game playoff among teams on the fringe of the race.