Soft schedule gives N.E. the edge
The New England Patriots are going to have home-field advantage through the playoffs. Just look at their remaining schedule. It is littered with subpar teams.
The Patriots' seven remaining opponents have a combined .328 winning percentage, the lowest in the NFL. Only one team, Buffalo, has a winning record. Since beating the Patriots in Week 3, the Bills have lost four of six games, including, most recently, consecutive blowouts to the Jets and Cowboys.
Before its regular-season finale at home against Buffalo, New England will play Kansas City, at Philadelphia, Indianapolis, at Washington, at Denver and Miami. The shaky Patriots secondary, which is giving up a league-worst 308.9 passing yards per game, isn't exactly going to be facing Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger.
This weekend, the Chiefs will debut Tyler Palko, who before taking over for the injured Matt Cassel this week was better known for beating out Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh -- in 2005. The Patriots might not see Michael Vick, who broke two ribs in a loss to Arizona on Sunday. The Colts are winless without Peyton Manning. The Redskins have a quarterback crisis. The Broncos have Tim Tebow, who completed two passes in a win Sunday. And Miami's Matt Moore has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions in six games.
The Patriots lead the league with 326 passing yards per game and are second with 431.9 total yards per game. They will not have to be great to win any of those games. They will just have to be good.
Of the other four AFC teams with three losses, Houston has the easiest remaining schedule (.381) but will have to face it without quarterback Matt Schaub. Cincinnati has the toughest (.523). At 7-3, Pittsburgh has a half-game lead over Baltimore (6-3) in the standings but will have to win the AFC North outright after losing twice to the Ravens. Baltimore's remaining opponents have a .469 winning percentage, while Pittsburgh's have a .481. Both have to play 8-1 San Francisco, although the Ravens at least get the 49ers at home.
New England has its flaws, but it has the easiest road to the No. 1 seed.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
12 wins should do it for Baltimore
Determining the top seed in the AFC playoffs is a roll of the dice right now. There really isn't a clear No. 1 at this stage.
The New England Patriots were the front-runners until they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants and showed their problems against man-to-man coverage schemes. The Baltimore Ravens appeared to have the edge when they swept the Steelers, but they came back to lay an egg against the Seattle Seahawks, their third unexplainable road loss this season. The Houston Texans climbed the mountain Sunday with a 7-3 record, but face an avalanche since learning quarterback Matt Schaub may be done for the season because of a foot injury.
With no conviction, I'm going to go with the Ravens only because they have a tiebreaker edge over the Steelers. I'd go with the Patriots, but they would lose the tiebreaker to the Steelers because of their Week 8 loss to them at Heinz Field.
If you examine the schedule, you will see there's going to be a three-way race for the No. 1 seed that features Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New England. I'd throw in Houston, but the Texans will have to adjust with Matt Leinart at quarterback and that could hurt their chances.
As long as the Ravens sweep the Cincinnati Bengals in their meetings Sunday and Jan. 1, they have the best chance. First, they play the Bengals at home Sunday. Then, on a short week, John Harbaugh has to host his brother, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, in a potentially winnable Thanksgiving night game. After that, they face the Browns twice, the Colts and Chargers before the finale against the Bengals.
If they beat the Bengals on Sunday, the Ravens should go 5-1 or 4-2 over the next six weeks, giving them 10 or 11 wins heading into the Bengals game Jan. 1. They should finish 12-4 or 11-5.
The Steelers have to travel to San Francisco. Other than the 49ers, the Steelers have only one other game against a team with a winning record, a Dec. 4 home game against the Bengals. They'll finish 11-5 or 12-4.
The Patriots have the league's easiest closing schedule (.328, facing teams with combined records of 21-43). The only team with a winning record they face is the regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills. Still, with their struggling defense, they could lose one or two games. The Nov. 27 game at Philadelphia could be a problem.
I think the Ravens will get to 12-4 and if that's the case, I'll give them the No. 1 seed. I do it, though, without conviction.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.