AFC is historically tight as NFL calendar turns to December

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During the Colts’ bye in Week 11, coach Shane Steichen sat at home and flipped through the slate of games on NFL Sunday Ticket. He couldn’t help but notice how close many of the games were. How the gap between teams across the league seemed so small. 

And how his Colts, then 5-5, were right in the mix of it all. 

“Obviously in the AFC, there’s a lot of teams right there in the middle,” Steichen said on Nov. 20. “There’s a few that have a couple more wins than others but there is a lot of parity.”

It has created what’s shaping to be one of the most fascinating finishes in a conference we’ve seen in recent NFL memory. 

All four AFC division leaders are neck-and-neck for the No. 1 overall seed, each with just three losses entering Week 13 — the east-leading Dolphins (8-3), north-leading Ravens (9-3), south-leading Jaguars (8-3) and west-leading Chiefs (8-3). 

The last time all four AFC division leaders had the same number of losses through the first 12 weeks was in 2002, the first season of the AFC South’s existence. That year, the Steelers (AFC North), Colts (AFC South), Dolphins (AFC East) and Raiders/Chargers/Broncos (AFC West) all had four losses. Since going to four divisions in the same year, the NFC has never had an instance of each division leader having the same number of losses through 12 weeks. 

Ahead of Week 13, 15 of the 16 teams in the AFC have seven losses or fewer – four more than the NFC. Since the AFC added a 16th team in the 1999 season, the conference has never seen another instance of 15 teams with seven or fewer losses this late in the year (last season, 14 of the AFC’s 16 teams had seven or fewer losses through the first 12 weeks of the season). 

According to the New York Times’ NFL playoffs simulator, 10 teams have at least a 68% chance of making the playoffs. Six of them are in the AFC (Chiefs, Dolphins, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers, Browns). 

49ers, Ravens have ‘Super Bowl Ceiling’ & Chiefs top Nick’s Week 13 Tiers

49ers, Ravens have 'Super Bowl Ceiling' & Chiefs top Nick's Week 13 Tiers

Entering this season, many NFL observers expected a tight race in the AFC, which has the lion’s share of the league’s top quarterback talent. But few could have anticipated just how close it’s been and the way it’s become so close. 

Five teams have lost their starting quarterbacks for the year (this excludes the Jets’ Aaron Rodgers, who appears determined to make a shocking return this season from an Achilles tear suffered in September. He was designated to return to practice from injured reserve earlier this week), including three in the AFC — the Bengals (Joe Burrow), Browns (Deshaun Watson) and Colts (Anthony Richardson). 

Yet all three of them still have realistic playoff aspirations with backup quarterbacks. The Browns (7-4) and Colts (6-5) currently hold the final two AFC wild-card spots as the No. 6 and 7 respectively, while the Bengals (5-6) are 11th. 

All four AFC North teams are in the playoff picture as we enter December, even though Baltimore is the only squad with great quarterback play. And maybe most shocking is that the Josh Allen-led Bills (6-6) are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in with six weeks left in the regular season. 

Lamar Jackson or Ravens defense more responsible for their success?

Lamar Jackson or Ravens defense more responsible for their success?

The resurgent Texans (6-5), one of the league’s worst teams in the previous three years, have also become a playoff threat led by rookie No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud, who’s already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Houston is currently the eighth seed, a spot outside the playoffs.

And the Broncos (6-5) — who had a nightmarish start to the year with a 1-5 record, punctuated by a humiliating 70-20 loss to the Dolphins in Week 3 — have transformed into a playoff contender, riding a five-game winning streak, tied with the Eagles for the league’s longest winning streak.  Denver is currently the No. 9 seed, two spots outside a playoff spot. 

The AFC’s parity could make for an entering finish to 2023. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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