With a look at the NFC division races in the books, it's time to turn our attention to the goings-on in the AFC.
How the Patriots Will Win It: A few consecutive weeks with Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman on the same field means Tom Brady's "inaccurate" passes start hitting receivers who actually read the defense and break when they're supposed to. Shane Vereen's return provides another moveable mismatch-generating chess piece while Stevan Ridley stays out of the doghouse by continuing the bring the ball with him on his end zone plunges. Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Devin McCourty battle Kansas City for the title of AFC's Best Secondary, and a little Belichick witchcraft keeps the run lanes plugged despite the loss of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.
How the Dolphins Could Win It: Light bulbs start appearing over peoples' heads at 347 Don Shula Drive, and Ryan Tannehill starts throwing two deep balls per half to Mike Wallace no matter what while giving 70 percent of the backfield touches to Lamar Miller. Jonathan Martin gets back on the reservation, puts Tyson Clabo back on the bench and forms a half-decent tackle tandem with Bryant McKinnie, who is strapped to a gurney Hannibal Lecter-style during the week to keep him the hell away from South Beach. Cam Wake rises up with a fury to lead a fierce pass rush while the secondary finally equals the sum of quality parts like Brent Grimes and Chris Clemons.
How the Jets Could Win It: Jets team physicians find the "good QB/dreadful QB" switch on Geno Smith's back -- the same one that accidentally got flipped down midseason at West Virginia -- and use some athletic tape to keep it locked in the "Good" position. The Chris Ivory/Bilal Powell running game is so ugly that some defenders actually have to avert their eyes from it, allowing for several 40-yard runs that take nine seconds to complete. Rex Ryan says to heck with it (OK, he probably says $** it) and lets Dee Milliner just use the Saban Shuffle rather than learning new footwork, and he immediately becomes a top-flight corner. Tom Brady actually goes on a protest hunger strike after Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins knock each other unconscious on opposed crossing routes, and in the ensuing confusion New York sneaks away with the title.
How the Bills Could Win It: Bills team doctors give C.J. Spiller a bionic ankle, and he returns to doing the "Madden on Easy" stuff he was doing down the stretch last season. Kiko Alonso tackles every single ball carrier within a yard of the line of scrimmage. The Football Gods remember how much fun it is to taunt Buffalo fans, and they guide them to an improbable division title before cruelly crushing their hopes in a last-second playoff loss.
The Critical Stat: 9 and 1
Those are the number of times that the Patriots have won the division over the last decade compared to everyone else. With history of that magnitude in hand, even a reeling champion -- and make no mistake, the Pats are reeling -- requires someone to step up with authority to knock them off. And while the other contenders have had their moments, Geno Smith's turnovers and Miami's dreadful OL and Buffalo's low-wattage passing game will prevent any of them from making up two games on the Pats down the stretch. Maybe next year.
Projected Finish: Patriots 11-5 (Division Winner), Dolphins 7-9, Jets 6-10, Bills 5-11
How the Bengals Will Win It: Andy Dalton proves that his last three games were more than one of the great all-time fantasy teases by continuing to deliver on-target throws down the field. The AFC's best tackle tandem keeps the Ginger Avenger clean while opening holes for Gio Bernard - which is a lot like opening holes for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, only Bernard actually hits the hole before the seasons turn. The Bengals' defensive front continues to rain fire on opposing passers, and Dre Kirkpatrick starts to live up to his first-round billing while replacing the criminally underrated Leon Hall.
How the Ravens Could Win It: The Ravens' run blocking rights itself, allowing Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to punish defenses and keep Baltimore ahead of the chains. Joe Flacco proves he wasn't playing over his head in last year's playoffs and turns Torrey Smith into a superweapon while coaxing chain-moving efforts from young (Marlon Brown) and old (Dallas Clark). Lardarius Webb rediscovers his game, Suggs and Dumervil keep meeting at the quarterback and the Ravens take down Cincy in Week 17 to claim the division.
How the Browns Could Win It: Unbeknownst to all of us, we've actually been living in a massive,Truman Show-style production with Jason Campbell as the star. A long-suffering audience finally gets to see their hero climb the mountaintop as the scrappy Campbell leads the Browns' offense to victory as opposing corners trip on sprinkler heads and "mysteriously" let interceptions go through their hands. In a heartwarming subplot, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo are Odd Couple-style roommates who learn to appreciate each other's differences while beheading opposing QBs.
How the Steelers Could Win It: Drawing on Pittsburgh's civic learnings from the Dark Knight Rises shoot, the Steelers lure the entire Ravens team into the sewers and trap them, and later detonate the surface of Heinz Field to send the Bengals plunging to their doom. Forced to play the remainder of their home games in one of the remote parking lots painted green, the Steelers call upon the hardscrabble legacy of Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Green to out-scrabble the Browns in Week 17.
The Critical Stat: 15.8
That's Andy Dalton's Vertical Yards per Attempt figure this season, which is good for fourth among QBs with 10 or more downfield attempts this season. Consistent downfield passing has been Dalton's bugaboo despite frequent heroics from A.J. Green. If he can even come close to maintaining that pace down the stretch, the Bengals' offense will have too much pop for anyone else in the North to stop.
Projected Finish: Bengals 12-4 (division winner), Ravens 10-6 (Wild Card), Browns 6-10, Steelers 5-11
How the Broncos Will Win It: The bye week rejuvenates Peyton Manning's right arm, and the league's most unstoppable air attack doesn't miss a beat. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball become a thunder-and-lightning backfield combo that continues to punish dishonest fronts. The return of Von Miller provides a much-needed jolt for the Denver defense, and cover men like Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie start looking a lot better once the pass rush starts getting home. The division comes down to a climactic showdown with the Chiefs. Miller rushes from everywhere, tormenting Eric Fisher and Jeff Allen and forcing quick throws from Alex Smith. Unconcerned with the deep ball, Denver keeps Duke Ihenacho close to the line of scrimmage to contain Jamaal Charles as the Broncos D chokes the life from the Chiefs to claim a narrow win.
How the Chiefs Could Win It: Jamaal Charles continues his MVP-caliber campaign, and second-half growth from RT Eric Fisher provides more running lanes and more chances to rip off more of his signature 50-yard jaunts. Andy Reid pores over his list of 10,000 passing plays and finds three or four that can allow the Chiefs to make plays of more than 20 yards in the air. Dontari Poe becomes the league's most unblockable interior force while Hali and Houston keep bringing the heat from outside. The division comes down to a climactic showdown with the Broncos. Brandon Flowers controls Wes Welker, Sean Smith provides the muscle to slow down Demaryius Thomas, and a punishing Eric Berry hit jars loose a critical fumble to win a nail-biter and return to the top of the AFC West.
How the Chargers Could Win It: Philip Rivers keeps dealing, and Keenan Allen grabs 40 balls -- and Rookie of the Year honors -- in the season's second half. Danny Woodhead keeps up his West Coast Darren Sproles act, and the fact that his head makes up a third of his body mass helps to extend numerous Charger drives with helmet-to-helmet penalties. The Chiefs and Broncos do so much damage to each other that both teams drop numerous other games down the stretch, and San Diego wins just enough Air Coryell-style shootouts to sneak out with a division title.
How the Raiders Could Win It: Like Voldemort, the evil spirit of Al Davis could only be banished from the mortal world for so long. Having manipulated the Raiders' coaching situation from beyond to place the young and vulnerable Dennis Allen in the job. Taking over Allen's body, Davis summons the dark mana so prevalent in greater Oakland and his vile magics power the Raiders to a six-game winning streak. Emerging from the broadcast booth, Jon Gruden sweeps aside his foppish locks to reveal a telltale lightning scar and battles his ancient enemy once more. Gruden ultimately banishes Davis, but with the rest of the West already transformed into newts the Raiders take the title by default.
The Critical Stat: 163
That's the total number of sacks, hits and QB pressures that Von Miller amassed during his first two seasons in the NFL. In a Broncos-Chiefs battle that's almost too close to call, his extra degree of disruption will prove to be the critical difference.
Broncos 14-2 (division winner), Chiefs 14-2 (Wild Card), Chargers
How the Colts Will Win It: Andrew Luck continues to make jaw-dropping throws and timely scrambles to keep the offense rolling. T.Y. Hilton pulls a successful Torrey Smith transition from fly route maven to all-around No. 1 receiver. Finally realizing that they actually traded a first rounder instead of a fourth rounder, the Colts front office mandates 20 touches a game for Trent Richardson and he elevates the Indy ground game from "three yards and a cloud of dust" to "FOUR yards and a cloud of those little black rubber pellet thingies in Field Turf". Someone emerges in the season's second half to complement Robert Mathis and Cory Redding on the pass rush, and Vontae Davis keeps living up to his talent and locking down No. 1 wideouts.
How the Texans Could Win It: Like any CEO concerned with short-term performance, Arian Foster is inspired by his IPO of himself and puts forth a fanatical effort to single-handedly return the Texans run game to 2011 levels. Case Keenum plays turnover-free ball thanks to hours of film study -- not of opponents, but of the white-hot rage in J.J. Watt's eyes after every Matt Schaub pick six. Fear of Watt proves an effective motivator for the defense as well, and the front seven annihilates opposing QBs before they can take apart D.J. Swearinger and (Walking D)Ed Reed at safety. Houston gets by Indy in both second-half matchups and ekes out another division title before suffering the long-awaited revenge of the Bengals in the Divisional Round.
How the Titans Could Win It: After the Bye week, Jake Locker strides onto the field wearing a pair of Rick Vaughn black horn rims and suddenly stops missing wide open receivers by five yards. Dr. James Andrews, in a groundbreaking nine-hour procedure, successfully removes Kenny Britt's head from his own backside, allowing him to live a normal life and become a devastating deep threat. In addition to providing lockdown coverage, Alterraun Verner turns out to be the evil genius that his Bond-villain name suggests. Taking a page out of the Goldfinger playbook, he rigs the pregame flyover jets with nerve gas to incapacitate the Colts in their Week 11 matchup, and the Titans ride that momentum all the way to a division title.
How the Jaguars Could Win It: After consultation with the British Prime Minister, Roger Goodell learns that merry old England couldn’t give two farthings about acquiring the Jaguars unless they actually win some games. Desperate to bring his harebrained scheme of a London franchise to fruition, Goodell reaches out to Her Majesty’s Secret Service for assistance. Q Branch outfits Chad Henne with a laser sighting system and radio-controlled football to make Shorts and Blackmon into a 21st-century Clayton and Duper. Meanwhile, Agent 007 (the down-and-dirty Daniel Craig Casino Royale version) embarks on a series of covert assassinations of key opponents. Unfortunately, Mr. Bond has to get pretty frisky with the ol’ Walther PPK to do enough damage to get the Jags into the playoffs. Jacksonville ends up taking the 2013 and 2014 Lombardi Trophies with them to London because every other roster is totally decimated. After a climactic struggle with Alterraun Verner, 007 cuddles a trio of Jaguars cheerleaders as we fade to black and the credits roll on the latest Bond blockbuster, Sort of Goldenhelmet.
The Critical Stat: 3
That's the number of wins the Colts have logged over teams that will be contending for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. While they aren't a perfect squad by any means, Andrew Luck's crew has the ability to hang with the best, and it should be enough to help them seal up the South.
Projected Finish: Colts 11-5 (division winner), Titans 8-8, Texans 7-9, Jaguars 0-16 and your 2013 Troubles for Bridgewater Award Winner