Breaking Down the AFC Playoff Hunt

Paging James Smithson...the first-ever rationally-inspired, Houston Texans-centric AFC playoff breakdown.  Only one of the four divisional races in the AFC is no longer in doubt as we head into Week 12.  Any guesses, class?

AFC East: New England (five game lead)
AFC North: Pittsburgh (leads Cleveland by one game)
AFC South: Indy (leads Jax by one game)
AFC West: Denver and San Diego (lead KC by one game)

Here's the wildcard situation through Week 11:

New England 10-0
Indy 8-2
Pittsburgh 7-3
Jacksonville 7-3
Cleveland 6-4
Tennessee 6-4
Denver 5-5
San Diego 5-5
Buffalo 5-5
Houston 5-5
Kansas City 4-6
Baltimore 4-6
Cincinnati 3-7

New England is in.  Indy has certainly struggled of late, but their only three remaining divisional games are all at home (Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee), and non-divisional games include Atlanta, Baltimore and Oakland, so I'm also comfortable naming them as the AFC South champ, though their injury situation may prove as damaging to them as the Texans' did for a handful of weeks, so who knows.  Pittsburgh already swept the season series against Cleveland, so I'm comfortable slotting them in as the AFC North champ.  Out west, it is possibly irrelevant which of San Diego, Denver or KC wins the division, as this certainly looks like a division where only the champ makes the postseason.  San Diego has the friendliest remaining schedule and is the only one of the three teams to have outscored its collective opponents year-to-date.  Reluctantly, I'm going to go with the Chargers to hold off the other two teams, despite the fact that Philip Rivers' recent play is making the decision to cut Ryan Leaf look short-sighted. I do not see either Denver or Kansas City getting to nine wins, so most likely they are out of the wildcard hunt anyway.  Taking these predictions into account, here's the remaining AFC Wildcard picture:

Jacksonville 7-3
Cleveland 6-4
Tennessee 6-4
Denver 5-5
Buffalo 5-5
Houston 5-5
Kansas City 4-6
Baltimore 4-6
Cincinnati 3-7

I think nine wins is a magic number. Realistically, ten wins will probably be necessary (detailed below), but less than nine will definitely lead directly to the golf course in January.  Get nine wins, and you've got a fighting chance at a playoff spot, right?  So let's take a look at who can realistically get there.

Start at the bottom: Cincy's schedule is relatively friendly, with only a roadie to Pittsburgh looking like a no-chance game.  That said, they have played consistently subpar all season long, and I see no way they win out to get to nine wins.  Strike them from the list.

Baltimore has been outscored by its opponents 211-168 and still has games against New England and Indy on its slate.  No chance here either.  Two down.

KC would need to win five of its last six to get to nine wins.  Sans LJ and with Brodie Croyle at the helm, that seems like a pipe dream.  They'll be lucky to finish 7-9.  Three up, three down.

The Bills have managed to get to .500 despite being outscored by their opponents by an average of eight points a week (no thanks to playing the Patriots twice, of course).  Other than a home date against the hapless Dolphins, the Bills' schedule is absolutely brutal.  No way they can go 4-2 down the stretch against the likes of the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Jags and Browns.  Another team out of the Texans' way.

Denver's schedule is more manageable, with road games to Chicago, Houston, Oakland and San Diego and home dates with Minnesota and KC.  Manageable, yes.  Likely to win four of those six?  Nope.  8-8 is as good as they can do with that slate.  

After reeling off three straight wins, the Titans have stubbed their toes in back-to-back weeks.  With a visit to Indy remaining, this week's visit to Paul Brown Stadium is nearly a must-win for them.  Home games remaining include Houston, San Diego and the Jets.  9-7 looks very possible, and 10-6 is by no means out of the question.  Without a doubt, a healthy Albert Haynesworth is a key, but I like the Titans' chances to get to nine wins.  

The Cleveland Browns have been the most surprising story in the NFL this season, with Derek Anderson emerging as a solid, if not special, quarterback for Romeo's bunch.  Who would have thought back in July that their home date against the Texans in Week 12 would have serious playoff implications?  The Browns closing run is about as friendly as it could be, with home games against Houston, Buffalo and San Fran and visits to Arizona, the Jets and the Bungles.  The Texans MUST beat the Browns this week, not just for their own win, but also because with this weak closing schedule, the Browns have a real shot at going 10-6.  The Texans definitely need to hand the Browns a loss to help themselves and hurt the Browns.  

The Jags' closing schedule is a mixed bag.  Home dates with Buffalo, Carolina and Oakland look like sure wins, but visits to Indy, Pittsburgh and Houston are coin flips at best.  Still, if Jacksonville can win those three home dates and steal one road game coming in, that would get them 11 wins and secure a wildcard berth for sure.  

The Texans have a tough, tough road to hoe ahead of them, but with Schaub and Johnson healthy, anything seems possible.  They are an entirely different team with #80 in the lineup - when he has played this year, they are 3-0 and have looked a contender.  Without him, the offense has sputtered and the team is 2-5.  Candidly, the odds of winning in Indy have to be labeled as "slim".  That puts the Texans in the position of needing to win four of their other five games to get to nine wins, a number that Jacksonville, Tennessee and Cleveland definitely appear capable of achieving.  Home games against Tampa Bay and Denver are certainly winnable, and a visit from the hated Jags is always going to come down to the wire.  The Texans' season rests on the next two weeks, visits to Cleveland and Tennessee, two of those three teams that the Texans hope to be chasing down the stretch.  To have a legit chance at a wildcard berth, the Texans must win both games.  Possible?  Absolutely.  The Browns have stopped no one all season long on defense, and no reason to think that they'll start this week.  If the Texans can get after Anderson like they did Brees last week, they have a very good chance at coming home with a "W".  If they want to break their playoff maiden this season, that's something that they're going to have to figure out how to do.  

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