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AFC Playoff Picture: Down to the wire

Posted Dec 24, 2013

With one week to go, the AFC Playoff Picture remains a mystery wrapped in a riddle.

Five of the six participants are set, but where they'll be seeded come January remains anyone's guess.  With plenty to unpack this week, let's waste no time:

Party invites in the mail

So who's in? Here's what we know:
 
» The Broncos (12-3) have sealed up the AFC West and clinched a first-round bye.
 
» The Patriots (11-4) have won the AFC East, the Bengals (10-5) have taken the AFC North and the AFC South goes to the Colts (10-5).
 
» The Chiefs (11-4) are locked into the fifth-seed, but Week 17 -- nothing less than a Roger Goodell-inspired fever dream -- will decide where all five remaining playoff teams are slotted.
 
The chase for No. 1
 
Denver would need to crater hard to miss out on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
 
The Broncos on Sunday face a rudderless Raiders squad that, barring disaster, won't stop Denver from controlling the AFC's road to MetLife.
 
We don't see it happening, but if Terrelle Pryor and the Raiders pull off the impossible -- and the Patriots knock off the Bills -- New England is your No. 1 seed.
 
The league has wisely slated both games for 4:25 ET kickoffs.
 
In play for the bye
 
With nothing to play for Sunday, the Chiefs might sit their starters. The Patriots, obviously, can't follow suit.
 
If New England stumbles, and the Bengals top the Ravens at home, Cincinnati would earn the conference's second seed.
 
The only other team alive for the bye? The Colts.
 
If Indy beats the Jaguars and the Patriots and Bengals implode, the Colts land at No. 2.
 
That would amount to a wacky finish for Indy -- a maddening squad -- but nothing feels impossible after seeing what Buffalo did to Miami on Sunday and weighing how dominant Cincy has been at home.
 
Patriots puzzle
 
New England can finish anywhere from first to fourth.
 
We've talked about the scenario for No. 1, but the Patriots could wind up in the No. 4 spot by losing to Buffalo combined with wins for Cincy and Indy. That maze of events would notch the Bengals at No. 2 and the Colts at No. 3.
 
We don't blame you, dear reader, if your head is spinning.
 
Sixth seed still up for grabs
 
Four teams are alive for the conference's final wild-card spot.
 
Our friends at Football Outsiders give the Dolphins an overwhelming 59 percent shot at the sixth spot. If the Dolphins (8-7) take care of business Sunday against the Jets, they're in at No. 6 if the Ravens (8-7), Chargers (8-7) and Steelers (7-8) win.
 
Miami also gets in if they prevail, and either the Ravens lose, or San Diego wins.
 
The Ravens, however, would win a two-team tie breaker with the Dolphins because of Baltimore's regular-season win over Miami.
 
The Dolphins and Ravens both hold head-to-head tie breakers with the Chargers, but if San Diego knocks off the Chiefs -- and the Dolphins and Ravens lose -- the Bolts are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
 
Steel City miracle?
 
It won't be easy, but if the Steelers (with an 8.9 percent shot) beat the Browns -- and the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers all collapse -- Pittsburgh is your sixth seed.
 
Chatter around the newsroom suggested the Bengals, pounded by the Steelers a week ago, might be wise to mail it in against the Ravens to keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. That's nonsense considering how close Cincy is to earning the bye.
 
And that's the beauty of where we sit heading into Week 17. Outside of the Chiefs, not a single team in the AFC can mail it in come Sunday.
 
This one's going down to the wire.