Of the four teams most likely competing for the AFC's two first round byes, Denver has by far the easiest schedule the rest of the way, with only one game coming against a potential playoff team, the Ravens.
Patriots: Texans (11-1), 49ers (8-3-1), @ Jaguars (2-10), Dolphins (5-7)
Texans: @ Patriots (9-3), Colts (8-4), Vikings (6-6), @ Colts (8-4)
Ravens: @ Redskins (6-6), Broncos (9-3), Giants (7-5), @ Bengals (7-5)
Broncos: @ Raiders (3-9), @ Ravens (9-3), Browns (4-8), Chiefs (2-10)
It's hard to see the Broncos losing against the Raiders, Browns, or Chiefs. Therefore, they should end up with 12-13 wins depending on who comes out on top in the critical game against Baltimore. The Patriots have beaten them head to head and currently hold the better conference record.
The Ravens were favorites to get a first round bye going into week 13 but after losing to superman Charlie Batch and the Pittsburg Steelers as well as suffering another key defensive injury to DE Terrell Suggs, the Ravens are slipping. Baltimore has an extremely hard schedule the rest of the way as they play all four of their remaining games against teams in the playoff hunt. Baltimore should be happy if they are able to go 3-1 the rest of the way. However, given their strength of schedule, recent performance, and defensive injuries to Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Lardarius Webb I think it is more likely they end up winning half of their games in the final quarter of the season and finish at 11-5.
The Texans must also play four teams that are in the playoff hunt including the New England Patriots in Foxboro this week. The Patriots are the hottest team in the NFL right now, winners of six straight by an average of 19.8 points, while the Texans despite also winning six in a row have looked beatable as they were taken to overtime in two straight weeks against the inferior Lions and Jaguars. The Lions could have won the Thanksgiving game had head coach Jim Schwartz not thrown a challenge flag on a Houston touchdown, automatically negating the automatic replay review. The replay would have clearly shown that the Houston player stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone. Despite this, I can't see the Texans losing more than two of their upcoming games, which would give them 13 wins at minimum and in good shape to get a first round bye. The Monday night matchup against the Patriots is key as a win will put Houston out of reach for the Patriots, while a loss will give the Patriots the tie breaker and only a one game deficit for the conference lead.
New England has two tough games at home followed by two easy conference games. Belichick and company should beat inferior opponents Jacksonville and Miami to close out the season meaning that wins against both Houston and San Francisco would likely give them a first round bye. A win in one of those two games would put them in a probable tie for second and two losses would probably have them sitting at third or fourth in the conference. They currently hold the tiebreaker over Denver having beaten them head to head but lost against Baltimore. They are playing well but injuries are a concern. The offensive line is hurting and the Dolphins were able to sack Tom Brady four times on Sunday. Superior pass rushes from excellent San Francisco and Houston defenses could cause problems.
1. Houston Texans (13-3): The Texans lose to the Patriots but take care of business in their remaining games opting to play all of their starters against the Colts in the final week to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
2. New England Patriots (13-3): The Patriots continue their second half magic of recent years and finish the season having won ten consecutive games.
3. Denver Broncos (12-4): Denver loses to the Ravens but win their other three games to finish at 12-4.
4. Ravens (11-5): Baltimore comes out fired up and beats the Broncos at home, however, they falter at the end of the season and lose to the Bengals in Cincinnati as well as RG3 and the Redskins.Tags: AFC, broncos, byes, Football, home field advantage, New England, New England Patriots, NFL, ravens, remaining games, Texans, tiebreaker