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NFL playoff picture: The AFC is crystal clear

The AFC playoff field seems almost set, and we still have half the season to play.

Yes, the AFC has become a conference of contenders and afterthoughts through the first nine weeks, and it can be broken down thusly: the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs are the favorites, while the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers are the challengers. After that, the Houston Texans appear certain to win the AFC South, while the Cincinnati Bengals, idle this week but with a 5-3 record, seem a great bet for the sixth seed.

Look, there’s no arguing that the Chiefs and Patriots are going to make the playoffs. Both teams are rolling with Kansas City at 8-1 and New England at 7-2, and although the Chiefs could still end up being a wild card team — the Chargers are 6-2 and only 1.5 games back in the West — that appears highly unlikely.

In the North, the Steelers are in great shape after beating up on the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh is 5-2-1 and on a four-game winning streak, and while the Bengals are a measly half-game back, the Steelers have already beaten them in the Queen City and have a rematch at Heinz Field.

Houston has now won six straight and is cruising to the division title many believed it would secure before the season began. It’s tough to see anybody giving the Texans a real run for their proverbial money here, with the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts all below the .500 mark.

With all that in mind, who could crash the party and make it into the playoffs overdone of the aforementioned six? The AFC East only has the Miami Dolphins to add to that conversation at 5-4, after they beat the New York Jets on Sunday. The problem for Miami is the lack of quarterback play, and its loss to the Bengals earlier in the year. To get in, the Dolphins are certainly taking the wild card path, and that means beating Cincinnati out.

In the AFC North, the only other hope is the Ravens. Baltimore has lost three straight to drop to 4-5, and the schedule isn’t favorable. It still has games with the Chiefs, Chargers and Atlanta Falcons on the road, along with a tough home date in two weeks with the Bengals. Not going to be easy to win nine or more games.

The other divisions offer nothing of note, meaning that unless the Dolphins or Ravens get hot, we already know our playoff teams out of the AFC. Most of the drama will be in the seeding, with multiple teams still legitimately vying for a bye week and home field.

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