4 teams, 2 spots: The AFC playoff race is on

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The Las Vegas Raiders picked a very bad day to have a very bad day.

This is a team that has reached the postseason once in the past 18 years, a team that had an inside edge on the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC. And yet, at the exact moment they needed to win, against an opponent in Atlanta they should have woodshedded, the Raiders turned in a historically inept performance, and fumbled away exactly what they needed the most: any margin for error.

We’re nearing the final stretch of the NFL season, and while we’re not at the elimination-game stage of the proceedings, we’re within sight. If a team isn’t taking advantage of favorable matchups — like being a 3.5-point favorite on the road — then it’s going to be watching the playoffs on TV like the rest of us.

The new seven-team playoff format is doing exactly what it’s supposed to, open the door for more teams to jump in the pool. The stocked AFC, in particular, is still going to send a couple very good teams home.

How loaded is the AFC? The Browns — the Browns! — would slot in right behind the first-place Saints in the NFC. The chum fighting for the final playoff spot in the NFC (Chicago, San Francisco, Minnesota) would’ve been forgotten weeks ago in the AFC.

In other words: no more room for bad days.

If this were golf, we’d say the cut line is currently at seven wins. Unlike golf, there’s a maximum number of contestants who’ll get into this particular club. At the moment, four teams sit on, or within a game, of the cut line; only two will make it in. (This assumes the fifth-seeded Browns at 8-3 don’t collapse and the 10th-seeded Patriots at 5-6 don’t catch fire, neither of which is a bet-the-mortgage assumption.)

Let’s run down our challengers, in order of playoff ranking:

6. Miami Dolphins (7-4)

Key games remaining: Las Vegas (Week 16), Buffalo (Week 17)

Outlook: The Dolphins have a rough run ahead, with Kansas City also on the slate, and a somehow resurgent New England still burbling around a couple games back. The Dolphins have to beat Vegas to hold onto a wild-card spot, but if things break their way over the next few weeks, that season finale against Buffalo (8-3) could be for a division championship. It’d be just like Bill Belichick to ruin Miami’s season with a Week 15 upset, though.

7. Indianapolis Colts (7-4)

Key games remaining: Las Vegas (Week 14), Houston (Weeks 13 and 15)

Outlook: The AFC South is so tight that the Colts went from division leader to seventh seed with a single loss Sunday to Tennessee. Unfortunately for the Colts, there are no more dates remaining with the Titans. So the Colts need to win the winnable games (we’re penciling them in for a W against Jacksonville in the season finale, and a loss against Pittsburgh wouldn’t kill them). This is a take-care-of-your-business schedule.

8. Baltimore Ravens (6-4)

Key games remaining: Pittsburgh (Week 12), Cleveland (Week 14)

Outlook: On paper (or whatever), the Ravens ought to sail into the playoffs, with four all-but-guaranteed wins still on the schedule, plus those two divisional matchups above. If this were 2019, you’d say the Ravens could go 5-of-6, or even sweep. But this is 2020, and the COVID-ridden Ravens facility is as good a metaphor for this year as any. Baltimore has the ability to fight its way into the playoffs. Does it have the personnel?

9. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)

Key games remaining: Indianapolis (Week 14), Miami (Week 16)

Outlook: Though a division championship is out of reach — the Raiders ain’t catching the Chiefs — Las Vegas has the scheduling benefit of being able to focus on picking off the teams above it in the wild-card hunt. Until Sunday, you’d have said this was a team that could run the table. But glaring deficiencies like the Raiders showed against Atlanta could add another year to that playoff drought.

The prediction here is that Baltimore and Indianapolis will end up on the high side and Miami and Las Vegas will miss out. Given the levels of over- and underachievement at play in the middle of the AFC this season, no two-team combination of those four would be a surprise.

The reward for that seventh spot is an opening-weekend matchup against the Chiefs or Steelers, so teams won’t have much time to celebrate. But hey, a berth is a berth. Even a blowout at the hands of Patrick Mahomes or Ben Roethlisberger beats the alternative.

The Raiders' playoff hopes are tumbling to the turf. (David John Griffin/Getty Images)
The Raiders' playoff hopes are tumbling to the turf. (David John Griffin/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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