NFL Playoffs 2019: AFC Wild Card a muddled mess of real and phony

CLEVELAND, OHIO - NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns delivers a pass over the defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 14, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns delivers a pass over the defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 14, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

After statement wins by nearly all of our AFC Wild Card contenders, we now have a muddled mess of real and phony teams in serious contention for spots in the NFL Playoffs. Who can we believe?

While Week 10 was a week of surprise upsets, Week 11 offered us the opposite: a week of prove-it games that were successfully proven. Now we’re left with a muddled mess of teams competing for the NFL Playoffs. This is a win-win for sure.

The Cleveland Browns, losers of four straight before a mild answer, needed to prove they were still a competitive team. They easily handled the rolling Steelers. Indianapolis dropped two straight (including once to Miami) and needed to prove it was still one of the contenders in the AFC. Cruising to a win over a division rival did that. Buffalo lost two of three with the win coming over Washington. It needed to prove it still belonged in the playoff chase. A dominating win did that.

The Saints needed to bounce back and did. The Rams needed to as well and did so. The Falcons needed to prove last week was no fluke and definitively did. The Ravens needed to prove they were the best in the AFC. They did just that.

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The Raiders proved they are AFC West contenders. With the exception of the Jets defeating the Redskins, it felt like every Week 11 game answered a major lingering question from Week 10. Or if it didn’t answer the question, it gave us further evidence.

Those fringe playoff teams who had statement wins in the AFC are most interesting. A few weeks ago, the conference looked sewn up. Now it looks more open than the NFC picture. Where do these new AFC contenders stand moving forward? Who is real and who is phony in terms of earning a spot in the NFL Playoffs?

Two brothers from New York, Dan Salem and Todd Salem, debate the NFL Playoffs in today’s NFL Sports Debate.

Todd Salem:

One of the hardest teams to get a read on is Cleveland. The Browns had such high expectations entering the year and cratered big time. Now they have two straight wins over fellow playoff contenders.

The Myles Garrett suspension hangs over the next few weeks, but is this team suddenly real again? Cleveland is currently 4-6, with a very easy remaining schedule. It can easily get to 8-8, though it doesn’t seem like that will be enough for a playoff berth. The Browns are, at the very least, still in the discussion despite their roller-coaster season.

Indianapolis is in the same boat, though two games ahead of Cleveland and currently tied for the South lead. The Colts have a much harder schedule left than the Browns. Of course, even a 3-3 finish brings them to 9-7. After two rough losses, they have gotten Jacoby Brissett back and look to be in solid shape.

Buffalo has a game advantage on Indy yet has played by far the easiest schedule in all of football. Where do the Bills truly lie? There is only one gimme win the rest of the way. The Bills could crumble from here thanks to nothing more than normalizing from the schedule. A 2-4 finish (the most likely outcome in my mind) drops them to 9-7 as well.

Then there’s Oakland. The Raiders have come out of nowhere to have a shot in the West. They are 6-4, with a reasonable shot at 10 wins looking at the schedule. Ten might not win the West depending on the head-to-head game with Kansas City, but it should make the playoffs.

Dan Salem:

I’m not a big fan of any of our AFC Wild Card contenders, but two teams will qualify for the NFL playoffs in this manner. Two teams who likely have zero shot at winning their division round matchups will face off with the also-ran division winners as Wild Cards. Then there are the Patriots, who keep winning yet also keep looking more and more vulnerable as the season winds down.

In terms of the NFL Playoffs and our AFC contenders, most are just average teams that need some help to make the postseason. Outside of Baltimore and New England, nearly every team in the AFC not named Cincinnati and Miami are average. Some are slightly above average, like Houston and Indianapolis. Kansas City might be the best of this average bunch, while the Jets are likely the worst. This makes for a muddled mess and some great fun during the final weeks of the season.

Cleveland is not a great football team and can’t seem to shake controversy. But what ultimately dooms this team is Baker Mayfield. He is currently failing to elevate the Browns’ offense and is not using his weapons. Sure, he has a nice running game, but it appears that Cleveland is trying to mask his deficiencies with it, rather than allow it to complement his arsenal.

Mayfield should be able to dominate with Odell Beckham Jr. and an improving defense. But the offensive line is weak. He is not ready to make up for such a glaring weakness. Give him time. This is not the Browns’ year.

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I actually expect Buffalo to play itself out of the playoffs because its schedule gets harder and the Bills feasted on weak opponents early. Indianapolis and Houston are best positioned to earn playoff spots, with one winning the division.

This leaves our final playoff spot to Oakland, Tennessee, or Pittsburgh. The Raiders must beat the Jets this week to maintain their playoff hopes. I want to pick the Titans to get in, but they might have the toughest schedule remaining. Let’s leave this last spot to fate. It’s going to come down to the wire.