Don't look now, but here comes the AFC South. The AFC North's gotten most of the buzz when it comes to sneaking three teams into the postseason, but the South is a better candidate given how things have gone recently with the teams inside this division.
The Texans squared off against Denver in what amounted to a loser leaves town type of match: Sportsline's projection model had a greater than 40% swing for both teams in terms of playoff odds. And Houston once again came out on top, with the defense making some massive plays late in the game, recording a trio of second-half interceptions off Russell Wilson to seal a 22-17 victory that puts them in prime position to secure a playoff spot in the coming weeks.
Houston is 7-5 now, a shocking record considering the Texans won a total of 11 games the previous three years combined. But maybe it shouldn't be so surprising -- the Texans landed C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson with the No. 2 and No. 3 picks, respectively, and both have been very good for Houston so far this season.
Sunday might not have been Stroud's best game of the year, but that's not an insult. Stroud made some really nice throws against a stout Denver defense, he didn't turn the ball over (although he did fumble once) and despite losing Tank Dell to injury early in the game, managed to produce another 20+ point effort and a victory for Houston.
Anderson recorded a pair of sacks and second-year cornerback Derek Stingley, who's coming on like gangbusters right now, recorded one of the picks. The Texans young defense is tantalizing from a long-term perspective but they're also intriguing at the moment, despite getting involved in a slew of shootouts this season.
In theory there should be some rookie wall coming for Stroud at some point but it sure hasn't materialized in any firm fashion, and we're already through Week 13. At this point it just stands to reason he's freaking awesome. The odds back it up, with Stroud having settled in at -10000 to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. You never want to say anything is over after seeing how Ja'Marr Chase Uno Reversed Mac Jones two years ago, but it stands to reason the race for that award ended several weeks ago given the Texans record, Stroud's position and his performance.
Houston's got a MASSIVE matchup against the Colts in Week 18 looming and it's possible that's yet another play-in playoff game, thanks to the Colts also finding an impressive level of success under first-year coach Shane Steichen.
Indy winning -- the Colts are now 7-5 as well -- is all the more impressive considering the Colts lost rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson to season-ending surgery early in the year. Forced to turn to Gardner Minshew, the Colts are currently on a four-game winning streak, beating up on some bad competition to position themselves for a spot in the postseason.
The Colts are now just under 70% to make the playoffs with very winnable games against the Bengals and the Steelers on deck. Both Cincy and Pittsburgh will be rolling out backup quarterbacks for those matchups -- two more wins and the Colts could virtually guarantee themselves a wild-card berth.
Like the Texans, Indy's getting it done with a lot of injuries -- Jonathan Taylor was missing on Sunday -- and with a rookie head coach. Zach Moss carried the run game at times this year, but they couldn't move the ball on the ground against the Titans. Fortunately, Minshew and Michael Pittman, along with deep threat Alec Pierce, were capable of producing enough offense through the air to propel the Colts to a victory.
The Jaguars didn't play Sunday, but they look like a strong bet to win as a nine-point favorite against the Bengals in Jacksonville's first home "Monday Night Football" game since 2011 and they'll have a chance to really cement South > North with a win on Monday and a matchup against the Browns the following week. Two Jacksonville wins would completely flip the odds for everyone involved, with Cleveland struggling mightily since Deshaun Watson went down.
For years, the AFC South has been the laughingstock of the NFL. Don't be surprised if the division produces three playoffs teams this year.
Go East, Young Man!
Elsewhere in the AFC, we might have gotten some finality in the East. The Bills are on bye this week which makes this a pretty simple discussion about this division: the Miami Dolphins moved to 9-3, a full three games ahead of Buffalo, blowing out the Commanders in a game that Mike White took some snaps because things got so out of hand.
The Dolphins would win 45-15, with Washington's only two scores coming on Sam Howell rushing touchdowns. But the game was never, ever close. Tyreek Hill did what Tyreek Hill does, pulling in two long touchdowns, a first quarter 78-yard touchdown bomb from Tua Tagovailoa before scoring on a 60-yard catch in the second quarter. Tyreek has a legitimate MVP case, but will simply end up netting OPOY.
I'm still not 100% sure what to do with the Dolphins. They absolutely bludgeon the living hell out of bad football teams on a weekly basis. If they draw a bad team, they beat the snot out of them. But Miami doesn't really have a good win either. I tend to believe they'll be able to hang in the postseason regardless, mostly because Mike McDaniel nearly upset the Bills on the road with Skylar Thompson last year but it's a tricky proposition considering how they've fared against better competition. They've just got so much speed in Tyreek and guys like Raheem Mostert and De'Von Achane, it would be impossible to completely count them out.
This division is also notable for negative reasons. The Patriots benched Mac Jones for Bailey Zappe ahead of a home matchup against the Chargers and the results weren't great! New England was a 5.5-point underdog, gave up six points to Justin Herbert ... and failed to cover. In case you can't do the math, the Patriots didn't score any points. It's pretty hard to imagine things going *well* this offseason in New England. Bill Belichick's job status has been a point of discussion for months now and the Patriots haven't improved at all under the microscope. If anything, they've gotten worse. Giving up only two field goals and losing is something else. We're going to spend the whole offseason unpacking what the Pats will do, it just feels like every single week is a step closer to a shocking ending to Belichick's time with the Pats.
Aaron Rodgers can probably kick the can down the road as well. There was a ton of buzz over the last few weeks about Rodgers coming back to the Jets this season, despite tearing his Achilles in Week 1. It was always unlikely, but it's fine to commend Rodgers' attempts at motivating his teammates. Plus with the Pack's weak schedule in the final stretch of the season, if they went 2-1 from Weeks 13-15 it would've been a viable playoff push. We can probably quash that now. The Jets are 4-8, they have less than a one percent chance of making the playoffs and rumors were already circulating on Sunday morning how. This will ultimately be for the best: the Jets can net a quality draft pick to put around Rodgers, he can get fully healthy and the team can focus on 2024.
Everything in the AFC East could look very different within the next calendar year.