The New England Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills on “Monday Night Football” to stay atop the AFC, meaning all four division leaders are within one game of one another.
The parity had been on display throughout the season with a handful of head-scratching upsets taking place, and continuing to take place, all the way back to Week 8.
But are all those division leaders and current playoff teams really contenders to hoist the Lamar Hunt trophy? We offered some insight into that question prior to the Week 13 slate, but there have been some developments given how the week played out.
First, here are the current AFC seedings:
1. Patriots (AFC East leader, 9-4)
2. Tennessee Titans (AFC South leader, 8-4)
3. Baltimore Ravens (AFC North leader, 8-4)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West leader, 8-4)
5. Los Angeles Chargers (first wild card, 7-5)
6. Cincinnati Bengals (second wild card, 7-5)
7. Bills (third wild card, 7-5)
In the hunt
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1)
9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
10. Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)
New England Patriots
The Patriots entered Monday night’s game against Buffalo as a contender, and further established themselves as such following the win. It’s hard to walk away from that game and not think the Patriots are for real. Quarterback Mac Jones did not have to do anything other than not turn the ball over in Buffalo, riding the rushing attack led by a dominant offensive line, lead back Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. They can win ugly, and as long as Jones doesn’t turn the ball over, it seems they’ll be in it down the stretch. It helps that the Patriots rank 20th in remaining strength of schedule.
The Titans were on a Week 13 bye.
The Ravens suffered a somewhat surprising loss to the Steelers on Sunday after head coach John Harbaugh elected to go for what would have been a game-winning two-point conversion. It dropped them out of the top spot and cut their division lead over the Bengals to just one game. Baltimore, however, suffered another key loss with the season-ending injury to All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey. It’s just the latest injury that the Ravens will have to overcome, but for some reason feels like it could be the final straw. Additionally, the Ravens still have the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams on their schedule, along with division games with the Cleveland Browns, Bengals and Steelers. Baltimore has the hardest remaining strength of schedule.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were underwhelming at the start of their season but continued to find their groove Sunday when. they notched their fifth-straight win. It’s been led not by Patrick Mahomes and Co., but the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs have allowed 14 points or less in each of their last four wins. They’ll take another step when Mahomes and the offense get it figured out and start rattling off games in which they compile 400-plus yards of offense. Kansas City ranks ninth in remaining strength of schedule with winnable games against the Raiders, Chargers, Steelers, Bengals and Broncos.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are far more talented than their record indicates, and perhaps they proved that to themselves Sunday with a win over the Bengals that was close entering the fourth quarter. It also helps that Justin Herbert and Co. have the sixth-best strength of schedule throughout the remainder of the season. Still, Los Angeles has lost a bunch of games against teams in the playoff hunt and it’s fair to think the Chargers haven’t yet proven they’ll be there when it matters.
The Bengals have the offense to run the ball effectively, but Sunday’s loss to the Chargers was a step backward. Rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase continues to slide — five receptions, 52 yards against the Chargers — and while we could see the Bengals overcoming the Ravens in the AFC North, that doesn’t mean they’ll be a true contender when the playoffs get underway.
Buffalo is reeling, losing three of its last five games including Monday’s loss to New England. While it certainly wasn’t a step forward, it would be an overreaction to say Buffalo has played itself out of contention. The Bills entered the season as arguably the best team in the conference, and still have the talent on both sides to compete. The Bills have the 11th-toughest strength of schedule here on out.