That was just the start. The Texans, winners of nine in a row, lost at home to the Colts, who one week earlier managed zero points against the Jaguars. The Broncos, a surging wild card contender, slipped up in San Francisco. The Chargers took care of business against a subpar opponent, which made them unique among AFC favorites.
The craziness in the AFC reset the playoff picture for the final three weeks of the season while providing little clarity about how it might shake out. Here’s a look at where things stand with one week left.
The Chiefs solidified their grip on the AFC’s top seed. The Ravens had nearly secured a defining victory when Patrick Mahomes dropped back with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, facing that do-or-die fourth and nine in his own territory. Then Mahomes darted out of the pocket, circled to his right and heaved a pass down the middle of the field to Tyreek Hill. Four plays later, Damien Williams scored a game-tying touchdown. The Chiefs kicked a field goal in overtime, then held on for a 27-24 lead.
The Chiefs wouldn’t let it happen, and the rest of the day only made their victory matter more. As the Patriots lost in Miami on a last-second slice of insanity, Kansas City took a two-game lead in the race for the first overall seed over both New England and Houston, which saw its nine-game winning streak snapped in a loss at home to Indianapolis.
The top seed may mean even more this season than it usually does. Kansas City is 6-0 at Arrowhead Stadium, and the Patriots, AFC championship game participants for the past seven seasons who now hold the No. 2 seed, are 3-4 on the road.
The Chiefs have a difficult finish, hosting the Chargers on Thursday night before playing at Seattle. But if they can win one of those games, they’ll almost certainly claim the top seed in the AFC.
The Steelers have spun out, and they’re in trouble. Pittsburgh has lost three in a row after falling, 24-21, to the 10-loss Raiders in Oakland. They’re lucky it’s not a four-game skid, having trailed the Jaguars by 10 late in the fourth quarter of a Week 11 game before staging a comeback. In dropping to 7-5-1, they have played down to lesser competition, blown leads and looked nothing like the powerhouse that blew out the Panthers on a Thursday night in Week 10.
“We all need to look in the mirror and figure out what’s going on,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told reporters. “Each individual needs to look inside first.”
They need to pull out of their malaise with a diminished quarterback. Roethlisberger missed time in the third quarter with what Coach Mike Tomlin called a rib injury, apparently sustained on a big hit in the second quarter. Even with Roethlisberger at full health, they face a difficult task. Pittsburgh’s next two games are home for New England and at the Saints.
The Ravens lost a heartbreaker, yet they have reason to feel optimistic about not only making the playoffs, but also winning the division and hosting a postseason game. As this Sunday proved for the millionth time, it’s foolish to assume any outcome in the NFL. But it doesn’t take an unrealistic scenario to see Baltimore toppling the Steelers in the AFC North.
If the Ravens beat the Bucs and Browns at home, they can lose at the Chargers in Week 16 and still finish 9-7. If the Steelers lose at home against the Patriots this week and in New Orleans in Week 16, they’ll finish 8-7-1 at best. The Steelers have the talent of a Super Bowl aspirant, especially on offense. Right now, they’re not a safe bet to make the playoffs.
The last wild card is in chaos. The 10-3 Chargers have not mathematically clinched a playoff spot, but effectively they have. They could displace the Chiefs in the AFC West, but given the tiebreakers and remaining schedules, it’s a long shot even if Los Angeles wins at Arrowhead on Thursday night.
But the other wild-card spot? Good luck sorting that one out. Upsets by the Dolphins and Colts turned it into a logjam. The Ravens, Colts, Dolphins and Titans all stand 7-6, with the Broncos — who lost to the woeful 49ers late Sunday afternoon — hanging around at 6-7.
The Ravens hold the tiebreaker, but as noted above, they might win the division. The Titans rank fourth among the quartet in tiebreakers, but based on schedule they might have the best chance to finish 3-0. A Week 17 meeting between Tennessee and Indianapolis may serve as an elimination game before the playoffs start. Here’s a look at the schedules of the four 7-6 teams:
Ravens: Buccaneers, at Chargers, Browns
Dolphins: at Vikings, Jaguars, at Bills
Colts: Cowboys, Giants, at Titans
Titans: at Giants, Redskins, Colts
It’s tempting to study those schedules and plot out wins and losses and take a stab at which team will emerge. But as this week proved, there’s no point in guessing what’s going to happen next.