NFL playoff picture, Week 13: All eyes on the AFC North

Gregory Shamus

The Patriots and Broncos are vying for the second seed in the AFC. Over in the AFC North, it's a three-team race to the finish with the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all eyeing the playoffs.

The Houston Texans are going to the playoffs. Matt Schaub, J.J. Watt and the gang clinched a playoff berth with a glorified scrimmage against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon. Barring some surprise over the next four weeks, Houston is going to have a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Beyond that, the AFC playoff picture gets a little cloudier.

New England sewed up the AFC East with a win over the Dolphins. That moved the Patriots to 9-3 and the second seed in the conference, for now. The Patriots are one of three 9-3 teams in the AFC at the moment, along with Baltimore and Denver.

Peyton Manning threw a trio of touchdown passes to beat the visiting Buccaneers. That win clinched the AFC West for the Broncos. The Ravens had a chance to be 10-2, but the Steelers pulled off the upset with Charlie Batch keeping the quarterback spot warm. Baltimore was the only one of five eligible teams that failed to clinch this week.

Here's how the seeding in the AFC looks right now:

1. Houston Texans, (11-1, AFC South)
2. New England Patriots, (9-3, AFC East)
3. Baltimore Ravens, (9-3, AFC North)
4. Denver Broncos, (9-3, AFC West)
5. Indianapolis Colts, (8-4, Wild Card)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers, (7-5, Wild Card)

Only two of the four division winners are locked in at the moment. Indianapolis' incredible season is keeping things close in the AFC South, mathematically at least. Those teams play twice in the last three weeks of the season.

Baltimore's loss keeps that division alive, and the Ravens' schedule is by far the most interesting of any. The Ravens are at Washington next week, followed by a home games against the Broncos and Giants before finishing on the road against a Bengals team with very real playoff aspirations.

The real wild card here (pun intended) is Pittsburgh. That team finally seems to be getting healthier, and Ben Roethlisberger's return date could be key to whether or not the Steelers can make a run at it. Three of Pittsburgh's last four games are at home, against the Chargers, Bengals and Browns. The Steelers are in Dallas in Week 15.

Current Wild Card Weekend Matchups

Steelers vs. Ravens - This is the game you just can't escape, destined to be replayed over and over and over again until John Harbaugh learns that a handshake is sometimes just a handshake. Prediction: Steelers, teams that lose to Charlie Batch aren't exactly Super Bowl material. The winner gets to play in Houston.

Colts vs. Broncos - Peter King already has 623 articles written about Manning versus Luck. Prediction: Broncos, Manning's team is rolling right now, and the defense might be the best kept secret in the league. The winner faces New England, which means 4,348 articles about Manning versus Brady.

Outside Looking In

Cincinnati Bengals, 7-5 - This is really the only team in the AFC with a real shot at getting into the postseason, aside from the six teams listed above. Cincinnati won its fourth straight game on Sunday, helping the Chargers beat themselves. Next week, the Bengals are at home against Dallas and off to Philadelphia after that. The real test comes in the last two weeks of the season with a trip to Pittsburgh and a home game against the Ravens to close out the regular season.

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