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Thursday, December 12, 2013
Who will be the final AFC playoff team?

By ESPN.com staff

The Kansas City Chiefs are all but a lock to take the first wild-card spot in the AFC. Four teams are competing for the sixth and final AFC playoff bid. Which team has the best chance to get in? Our team reporters make the case for, or against, the Ravens, Dolphins, Jets and Chargers.

Baltimore Ravens (7-6)

Remaining games: at Lions, vs. Patriots, at Bengals

Don't count out the Baltimore Ravens, even though it's easy to do when looking at their remaining schedule. Of the contenders for that second AFC wild-card spot, the Ravens have the most difficult final three weeks of the regular season, facing three division leaders, including two on the road. Despite the odds stacked against them and the fact that they're 1-5 on the road, the Ravens will make the playoffs because they're hitting their stride at the right time. It's games like this past Sunday's historic finish against the Minnesota Vikings that make you think the defending Super Bowl champions have regained their magic.

All three phases are starting to click for the Ravens. On offense, Joe Flacco is starting to stretch the field again, and his favorite target, tight end Dennis Pitta, has returned after dislocating his hip in late July. Defensively, the Ravens have allowed the eighth-fewest points in the league in addition to ranking in the top three on third down and in the red zone. On special teams, the Ravens have the NFL’s most consistent kicker in Justin Tucker and an explosive returner in Jacoby Jones.

The ability to make plays late is why the Ravens look like a postseason team again. The Ravens struggled early this season because they couldn’t win the close games. Baltimore was 1-3 in games decided by three or fewer points in September and October. Now, the Ravens are 3-1 in such games in November and December.

Plus, their final stretch isn’t as daunting as it seems. The Lions have lost three of their past four games, and running back Reggie Bush aggravated a calf injury Sunday. The Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending injury, and they may not have as much at stake when they play the Ravens because New England can clinch the AFC East on Sunday. And the Ravens beat the Bengals earlier this season. In fact, there is a still a chance that the Ravens could be playing for the AFC North title, and not a wild-card berth, in the season finale in Cincinnati.

-- Jamison Hensley, ESPN.com Ravens reporter

Miami Dolphins (7-6)

Remaining games: vs. Patriots, at Bills, vs. Jets

A month ago, the playoff prospects of the Miami Dolphins seemed iffy at best. This was a group that couldn’t finish in the fourth quarter and was distracted by off-the-field issues involving the bullying scandal with offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.

But something clicked with Miami at just the right time. The Dolphins have won three of their past four -- which includes two straight road games in December -- and that's enough to make me believe they can make the postseason for the first time since 2008.

The Dolphins are not only the hottest of the four remaining teams competing for the AFC's final wild card, they're the most resilient. No team has gone through the adversity and distractions Miami faced during the Martin-Incognito scandal. The Dolphins had NFL investigators at their training facility interviewing every player, coach and key executives. The media scrutiny was intense. Both took time and energy away from their preparation.

Still, Dolphins second-year coach Joe Philbin did a good job keeping the team focused with recent wins over the San Diego Chargers (6-7), New York Jets (6-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8). The victories over the Chargers and Jets, in particular, provide key head-to-head tiebreakers that could pay dividends. Those are two of the teams Miami is battling for the final wild card in the AFC.

Miami's biggest concern is the Ravens, who beat Miami in Week 5. However, Baltimore has a tougher remaining schedule. The Ravens will play at the Detroit Lions (7-6), the New England Patriots (10-3) and at the Cincinnati Bengals (9-4). Baltimore’s opponent winning percentage is .667. The Ravens could slip up at any moment. Miami has an opponent winning percentage of .512 and will be favored in at least two of its final three games.

Considering all that has transpired this year in Miami, the Dolphins would be a phenomenal story if they made the playoffs.

-- James Walker, ESPN.com Dolphins reporter

New York Jets (6-7)

Remaining games: at Panthers, vs. Browns, at Dolphins

The Jets will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. If you're living in a vacuum, that might be a disappointing, considering they were 5-4 at their bye week. But remember the big picture: This is a rebuilding season under first-year general manager John Idzik. The Jets are starting five rookies, including quarterback Geno Smith. They're too young and too inconsistent to win their final three games, which probably is what it will take to have a chance at a wild-card spot. Remember, they haven't won two in a row all season, and there's no reason to think they can start now.

The offensively challenged Jets will have a hard time scoring points against the Carolina Panthers. When they can't run the ball and have to rely on Smith, it usually doesn't end well. Smith has talent, but he has thrown 20 interceptions, making poor decisions and trying to force the issue when adversity strikes -- typical rookie stuff. His supporting cast is highly suspect. You could argue that the only skill-position player meeting expectations is running back Chris Ivory. No doubt, the offense is headed for an overhaul in the offseason -- and that may include the quarterback position. At best, Smith remains a question mark.

Rex Ryan relied on his defense in most of the wins, but the unit appears to be wearing down. The Jets have allowed 838 total yards in the past two games, the highest back-to-back total in the Ryan era. If fatigue is a factor, it's understandable, considering how long the defense has been on the field. The once-formidable secondary, hurt by poor cornerback play, is allowing too many big plays. There's no telling how many yards the Jets will surrender to Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. The recent addition of future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed hasn't helped much.

Unfortunately for the Jets, they still have two games on the road. They're a terrible road team -- a 1-5 record, having been outscored 105-26 in the past three.

The Jets still are playing hard for Ryan, evidenced by last week's 37-27 win over the Oakland Raiders, but they simply don't have the talent or consistency to make a strong and late push for a wild-card spot. Even if they do make it interesting, their awful conference record (3-7) will doom them in applicable tiebreaker scenarios. The bigger suspense is whether Ryan will return. He has only one year remaining on his contract, and his record over the past three years is 20-25.

-- Rich Cimini, ESPN.com Jets reporter

San Diego Chargers (6-7)

Remaining games: at Broncos, vs. Raiders, vs. Chiefs

San Diego played its best game of the season this past Sunday in a 37-14 rout of the New York Giants to get to 6-7. However, the Chargers dug themselves too much of a hole to climb out of in the last three games to make a postseason run.

Even though they play two of their final three games at home, the Chargers face teams with a combined record of 25-14.

Miami already holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Chargers because they defeated San Diego earlier in the year. And San Diego has a worse conference record (3-6) than the Dolphins (6-3) and the Ravens (6-4), so the Chargers would have to finish a game ahead of both of those teams.

The Chargers also have been inconsistent, winning two games in a row only one time this season, so the likelihood of this team stringing three wins together, including a victory against the Broncos, who are undefeated at home, isn’t good.

However, one thing giving San Diego a glimmer of hope is quarterback Philip Rivers. He's playing the best football of his career right now and is 27-6 in the month of December since taking over as the team's starter in 2006. Rivers also is 5-2 at Denver over that time. Having a franchise quarterback playing at a high level can help mask some of the mistakes this young team makes on a weekly basis.

Even with the fleeting playoff hopes, San Diego coach Mike McCoy said his team is focused on getting a win in Denver on Thursday.

"We are not worried about how we are going to feel next week or at the end of this year or what this does for next year," McCoy said. "We are trying to win every game we can -- the next game and that's all we are worried about. We are not worried about the future. The future is now."

-- Eric D. Williams, ESPN.com Chargers reporter