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Chargers Poised For Second-Half Surge: Dissecting The AFC Wild Card Race

Sam Spiegelman breaks down the complicated AFC Wild Card race and which teams fans can expect to see in the playoffs based on schedule.

Philip Rivers

The muddled playoff picture in the AFC  gives five teams currently sitting outside of the top six seeds in the conference a decent chance at playing beyond Week 17.

As of today, with nine weeks in the books, New England, Denver, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis currently sit as the Nos. 1-4 seeds, respectively, with Pittsburgh and Kansas City in the No. 5 and 6 spots as Wild Card teams.

Cleveland, Buffalo, and Miami are all on the outside looking in with 5-3 records, followed by 5-4 teams in San Diego and Baltimore. No, Houston, you’re officially being forked as you contemplate making a quarterback change during your bye week. Rarely do playoff teams switch quarterbacks at Week 10 and still make the big dance.

While the Patriots, Broncos, and Colts seem to have a clear path toward division titles, the AFC North race between the Bengals and Steelers still looks to be up in the air.

Cincinnati (5-2-1) and Pittsburgh (6-3) are both riding win streaks. The Bengals have finally found a rhythm since their 3-0 start, which was followed with a devastating blow dealt by New England and a tie with Carolina. No offense in the NFL has been as hot as the Steelers’, which not surprisingly has coincided with a three-game win streak.

Of course, both Cleveland and Baltimore are theoretically in contention for an AFC North crown. But the Ravens dropped both games against the Bengals this season, and more recently they were defeated by 20 points against the Steelers. While Cleveland sits at 5-3 and No. 7 overall in the conference, can we really trust the Brian Hoyer-led Browns to overcome these two teams in this division?

The Bengals are about to embark on a difficult second half, beginning with those Browns before road games at New Orleans and Houston. Then they get a second round with Cleveland, a showdown with Denver, and both of this seasons’ meetings with the Steelers. Who’s to say that 4-4 isn’t in the cards for Cincinnati, and this team finishes 9-6-1.

The Steelers’ soft second half begins with the lowly Jets and Titans. Following their Week 12 bye, the Steelers host New Orleans before games against Atlanta, Kansas City, and two meetings with the Bengals. If Pittsburgh splits with Cincinnati, they can still manage a 5-2 or 6-1 mark down the stretch, which would elevate the team over the Bengals for first place with a 11-5 or 12-4 record.

If the Steelers and Bengals are 11- and 9-win teams, respectively, should Baltimore and Cleveland automatically be considered out of the Wild Card race? If those teams earn those marks, it means the Browns fared terribly in those divisional games. The Ravens need to travel to New Orleans, Miami, and Houston, and also go head to head with San Diego. In addition to two games against Cincy and one more with Pittsburgh, the Browns have to travel to Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, and Baltimore, and host both the Colts and Texans.

Both Cleveland and Baltimore are out of the playoff race.

Now what about those pesky AFC East squads? Obviously New England is the clear frontrunner in the division; what else is new? But both the Bills and Dolphins have continued to hang around. Both teams are 5-3 and sit No. 8 and 9, respectively, in the conference standings.

There’s no doubting Kyle Orton has given life to the Buffalo offense, and the Bills are a different team since making that quarterback switch. Coming off their bye week, the Bills host Kansas City then take on those Dolphins in what could be a de-facto winner-moves-on type of game. Afterwards, they get the Jets and Browns before tough games at Denver and against Green Bay before ending the season at Oakland and at New England. Even in a best-case scenario, the Bills finish 5-3 and eventually 10-6, and that’s assuming they take down Miami Week 11.

From a Dolphins perspective, the schedule appears equally as difficult. Miami has a tough road contest at Detroit in Week 10, but follows with that showdown with Buffalo before Denver, the Jets, Baltimore, New England before ending their year against the Vikings and Jets. Like Buffalo, 5-3 is an ideal finish.

Again, the winner of the Bills-Dolphins Week 11 showdown will have the upper hand in the Wild Card race between those two teams. Let’s be honest, three AFC East teams in the playoffs — that’s pure insanity!

Onto the AFC West, where the Chargers were once very much in the race to be the division champs and now sit third behind the red-hot Chiefs in the standings and four spots behind them in the Wild Card standings.

Kansas City has been one of the league’s biggest surprises. We pronounced them dead in the offseason after losing the bulk of their offensive line in free agency, but since their Week 6 bye they have reeled off three straight wins and regardless will have a say in the playoff picture. The Chiefs travel to Orchard Park to take on Wild Card hopeful Buffalo before games against Seattle, Oakland, Denver, Arizona, and Oakland. As if that wasn’t tough enough, they travel to Pittsburgh then host San Diego to end the year. That amounts to — at best — 3-5 or 4-4 to end the year, which would result in a 9-7 or 8-8 record.

The Chargers are clearly ailing right now, but they are the team that defeated the defending champs and had us all believing in them at the end of September. They’ve hit a wall, culminating in a devastating shutout loss to the Dolphins in Week 9. They have a Week 10 bye to straighten things out before taking on Oakland, St. Louis, and Baltimore out of the gate. Then the team has difficult games in Baltimore, New England, and Denver before finishing the season at San Francisco and at Kansas City. That could be as good as 5-2 or as bad as 3-4, depending on that regular-season finale against the Chiefs. It all depends on which Chargers team shows up in this second half, and if they can take down the Chiefs Week 17.

On paper, there’s no doubt we’d put our faith in one-time MVP frontrunner Philip Rivers and the Bolts over Alex Smith and the Chiefs, a team we didn’t expect to even be hanging around in November.

Week 10 projections:

1. Broncos

2. Colts

3. Patriots

4. Steelers

5. Chargers

6. Bengals

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