We’re down to two weeks to go in the NFL regular season, and the playoff watch is now in full force.
We didn’t get a whole lot of clarity in the AFC last weekend, with the Buffalo Bills’ victory over the New England Patriots putting the AFC East up for grabs and the AFC North is still as wide open as it has been for several weeks.
With 13 teams still mathematically alive for either the top seed, a division title or a Wild Card berth heading into Week 17, virtually every game involving AFC teams has a direct impact on playoff scenarios in the conference.
And two of the teams that are out of the race in the AFC, the New York Jets and Houston Texans, have a chance to play spoiler against NFC opponents this week, so every game featuring an AFC team matters to someone, somewhere.
Unlike the past two weeks, there are no Thursday or Saturday games this weekend. It’s all Sunday and a huge AFC contest on Monday night.
Here is a look at the Week 17 lineup for the AFC and what is at stake in each game:
The Chiefs and Titans are in a two-team race for the No. 1 seed, but others are lurking
The Kansas City Chiefs are currently alone atop the AFC Standings courtesy of an eight-game winning streak to raise their record to 11-4. But they are still one stumble away from giving back the top spot to the Tennessee Titans (10-5), who were the last team to beat the Chiefs, back in Week 7, and by virtue of that victory own the tiebreaker over Kansas City should the two teams end the season with identical records.
But the Titans are not the only team with designs on making a last-ditch bid to wrest control of the top seed from the Chiefs. The Cincinnati Bengals (9-6), the current leader in the AFC South after blowing out the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16, take on the Chiefs on Sunday with an enormous opportunity to take a shot at the No. 1 seed.
A victory at home over the Chiefs would put the Bengals just one game behind Kansas City in the overall standings, but would give the Bengals the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage should the two teams finish the season tied at 11-6. And the Bengals would also emerge as the top seed if Cincinnati, Kansas City and Tennessee all finished at 11-6 based on conference record.
The Titans host the Dolphins on Sunday. And while the implications in the race for the overall seed will be at play in that game, the stakes for the Dolphins are just as high.
The AFC North and East Division races are completely up for grabs
The New England Patriots had a chance last week to put the finishing touches on the AFC East, but instead saw the division become a three-team race to the finish after their loss to the Buffalo Bills and Miami’s Monday night win in New Orleans. Now the Patriots and Bills are tied with 9-6 records while the Dolphins lurk at 8-7.
Nothing can be resolved here this weekend. Because all three teams play division games in Week 18, with the Patriots and Dolphins squaring off against each other, it will come down to head-to-head or divisional tiebreakers to determine a champion.
The teams are so close together now that the only outcome of note is that the Dolphins could be eliminated from division title contention with a loss against the Titans and a victory by either Buffalo against Atlanta or the Patriots against Jacksonville.
But if the Patriots and Bills lose and the Dolphins win, the three teams enter the final week in a three-way tie and we will likely wait all day until Sunday night to see Miami face off against the Pats.
The AFC North is really wild, with two games separating Cincinnati (9-6) at the top from Cleveland (7-8) at the bottom, but the Bengals can clinch the division this week with a win over the Chiefs or a loss by the Baltimore Ravens, who hope to have Lamar Jackson (ankle) back this week, but have their hands full with the 11-4 Los Angeles Rams.
The Steelers (7-7-1) and Browns (7-8) are on the bubble, and one will be eliminated from the division race when they face each other on Monday night. But should the Bengals stumble against the Chiefs, the winner of the Monday night game is right back in the mix. A Steelers win and a Bengals loss puts Pittsburgh a half-game back with one to play and a Browns win/Bengals loss would leave them a full-game back, but Cleveland would overtake the Bengals with a win over them in Week 18 by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Incredibly, it’s still anybody’s division.
The Wild Card races are just as interesting as the division fights
The only division that’s been clinched is the AFC West, with the Chiefs pulling away on the strength of their eight-game winning streak. But the other three West teams are still alive in the Wild Card race, although the Los Angeles Chargers (8-7), Las Vegas Raiders (8-7) and Denver Broncos (7-8) are all looking up at No. 7 seed Miami and its 8-7 record.
The Raiders are actually looking at No. 5 seed Indianapolis Colts (9-6), as the two teams face off in Indianapolis this week. The Colts have loftier goals, as they still have an outside chance of catching Tennessee for the AFC South title. Two Colts wins and two Titans losses would do the trick.
For the Raiders, a win would thrust them right back into the thick of the Wild Card race. They would also benefit greatly from a Broncos victory over the Chargers, which would put both division rivals at 8-8 and likely prevent either from claiming a Wild Card slot.