With four weeks to go in the 2015 NFL regular season, three 10-2 teams sit atop the AFC: the Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos, and the New England Patriots. With the next best record in the conference currently resting at 7-5, it’s a virtual lock that one of these three franchises will be the top seed in the AFC playoffs, but the question is which one?
This is not an easy question to answer.
Currently, based on tiebreakers, the Bengals are the number one seed, followed by the Broncos at number two, and the Patriots at number three. This of course would mean that Cincy and Denver would secure first round byes, and that the Patriots would play the sixth seed on Wildcard Weekend, as it stands currently. This is the NFL though, and a lot can change in a few weeks. In fact, if we look at what’s been happening in New England, a lot has changed already.
Two short weeks ago, the Patriots were off to a 10-2 start, and despite some serious injury issues, many people were whispering about the possibility of a second 16-0 season for Bill Belichick and company. After a devastating overtime defeat in Denver, an injury to All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, and a stunning collapse at home versus the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pats have dropped all the way to the third seed in the conference and people are starting to panic.
But is this panic justified?
In a word, no. While the Patriots have dropped two in a row for the first time in three years, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in Foxborough. New England’s schedule down the stretch is quite favorable. With games against the 6-6 Houston Texans, the 3-9 Tennessee Titans, the 7-5 New York Jets, and the 5-7 Miami Dolphins to close out the season, the Pats have only one above .500 team to contend with. While the Texans and Jets are making a playoff push in the AFC, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Pats to win three of those four games, and quite possibly all of them.
Additionally, it would appear that the injury woes are about to be alleviated. Gronkowski has been practicing this week and while his status for Sunday Night’s match-up with the Texans is still up in the air, he’s expected to be back in the fold sooner than later. Julian Edelman, the Pats’ top receiver and Brady’s safety blanket, returned to practice on Friday as well, a huge surprise, considering he fractured his foot on November 15th, and was expected to be out for quite a while. Edelman has been ruled out for Sunday night, but the fact is, a return to the practice field is usually an indicator that a return to the lineup isn’t as far off as expected. With a favorable schedule and their two best offensive players not named Tom Brady on the mend, look for the Patriots to get back to their winning ways as the playoffs approach.
The Denver Broncos? This is definitely a different kind of Broncos team that what we’ve seen in recent years. As Peyton Manning heals up from a number of injuries, Brock Osweiler has been solid in relief, winning all three of his first career starts. However, the fact remains that Denver’s greatest strength is it’s defense, and it has been this way all year. Quite simply, the Broncos’ “D” is as dominant as any we’ve seen in recent years. While Osweiler has done a nice job running the offense in relief of Manning, I’m not sure why people are treating it like a slam dunk that he will retain the starting job when Manning returns to full health. We’ll see what happens down the stretch, but for now, look for the winning defensive formula to continue regardless of of who is under center.
The Broncos’ final four contests include three home games as well, hosting the 5-7 Oakland Raiders in Week 14, before traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the 7-5 Steelers, and finally returning home for a Week 16 tilt with the 10-2 Bengals, and closing out the year against the 3-9 San Diego Chargers. In short, in spite of the three home games, the Bronco’s schedule over the last four weeks of the season is much tougher than the Patriots’. The Steelers are fighting for their playoff lives and will provide a stiff test for the Denver defense, and the Bengals-Broncos match-up in Week 16 has huge AFC implications. It remains to be seen what this franchise will do in this situation, but it will certainly be tough sledding.
And what of the aforementioned Bengals, currently the top seed in the conference? Their final four weeks are very much a mirror of the Broncos’ as they play host to the 7-5 Steelers, before a two-game road trip to take on the 4-8 San Francisco 49ers and the 10-2 Broncos, finally closing out the season by hosting the 4-8 Baltimore Ravens. Much like Denver, the Bengals final four contests combine two winnable games with a couple of stiff challenges.
The Bengals never seem to get much respect in the media. Andy Dalton doesn’t get a fair shake, even in a breakout year like the one he’s having currently, and for whatever reason, people don’t expect this team to make waves when the games start to really matter. This could very well be the year where that perception changes. Yes, the Bengals have had their share of playoff one-and-dones, but this is probably the best Cincinnati team we’ve seen in decades. The Bengals are quite possibly the most complete team in the NFL, with talented play-makers on both sides of the football. It’s a mistake to underestimate them, and a bigger mistake to write them off.
At the end of the day, with four weeks of regular season football on the horizon, it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the race for the top seed in the AFC. If I were to offer any sort of prediction, it would be that the team that wins the Bengals-Broncos Week 16 showdown will very likely secure one of the two first round byes, but even that is pure speculation. It’s looking very much like a photo finish in the AFC. Every game is important, and none of these teams can afford a mis-step. In a way, it feels like the playoffs are already here, Enjoy the ride, folks.
CINCINNATI, OH – NOVEMBER 5: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass during the third quarter of the game against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on November 5, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)