CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 27: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs the ball during a play against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on November 27, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Tyler Barrick/Getty Images)
The AFC North is still dominating the conference as the only division that would send three teams to the playoffs if the season were to end today. Now that the Lions have falled out of the playoff picture in the NFC, the AFC North is actually the only division in the entire league that would send three teams to the playoffs.
If the season were to end today, the Houston Texans, without Matt Schaub or Matt Leinart, would have the conference's No. 1 seed which brings a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It is hard to see them staying in this spot due to the fact that they are now working with their third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates.
In the second seed would be the New England Patriots, who would also get a first-round bye and home-field advantage (unless they played the Texans in the AFC Championship game). If the Texans begin to falter with Yates behind center, it's not hard to see the Patriots taking over the top seed in the AFC in the coming weeks, especially considering their schedule only contains one more team with a winning record.
The Baltimore Ravens sit in the third seed with an 8-3 record. They are undefeated in the division after sweeping the Steelers and beating the Bengals in Week 11 and like the Patriots, they could move up if the Texans take a nose dive after losing their first and second-string quarterbacks. They would not get a first-round bye but would have home-field advantage in their first game.
In the fourth seed sits the Oakland Raiders. Led by Carson Palmer, the Raiders have taken control of a weak AFC West conference with a 7-4 record and it's hard to see them getting knocked out of the playoffs as a division winner. They've already split with the Broncos and the only two division games they have left are against the Chiefs and the spiraling Chargers. They would not get a first-round bye but like the Ravens, they would get at least one home game.
Then comes the two wildcard teams.
First, with the fifth seed, are the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers' best hope at going to the playoffs are as a wildcard team, especially since they've already been swept by the Ravens. They have an 8-3 record as well and have a decent schedule ahead. They play the Bengals and the 49ers still but after them, they play the Rams and the Browns twice. The Steelers would play their first playoff game in Oakland against the Raiders and a very familiar quarterback in Palmer.
Then, with the last seed, sit the Cincinnati Bengals with a 7-4 record. The Bengals still have the Steelers and the Ravens left on their schedule but their non-division schedule isn't so bad. They have Texans, now led by Yates, the Rams and the Cardinals, which are all winnable games. If the season ended today, the Bengals would play their playoff game in Baltimore against the Ravens.
Right behind the Bengals are the Denver Broncos, who have been on a hot streak since Tim Tebow took over as starting quarterback. The Broncos beat the Bengals in Week 2 and hold the tie breaker if the Bengals begin to falter and the Broncos continue to win. The Jets and the Titans also have 6-5 records. The Jets still have a couple of tough games on their schedule and the Bengals hold a tie breaker over the Titans.
There are still five more games left to be played and the Bengals will likely need to win at least three of them if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. If they don't, their fate could be tied into what the Broncos or the Jets do for the rest of the season.