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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 10:00 PM

Yesterday we discussed the crowded NFC Wildcard race. There are fewer teams in the AFC’s race for the last two playoff spots. And, Indianapolis may already be a virtual lock given their two-game lead and the fact that Kansas City is still ahead on the schedule. But, there are no sure things in football, particularly when you’re talking about rookie quarterbacks and sandwich game potential! Let’s outline the AFC race that sports bettors will be dealing with from now through the holidays.

AFC WILDCARD RACE (top 2 qualify)

Indianapolis 9-4 (6-3 in the AFC)

Pittsburgh 7-6 (beat Cincy, but 4-6 in the AFC)

Cincinnati 7-6 (lost to Pittsburgh, but 5-5 in the AFC)

NY Jets 6-7 (4-5 in the AFC)

Note that Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland, and San Diego are all 5-8, and have a mathematical chance to chase down the #6 spot (#5 is out of reach) if they win out for 8-8 AND everyone in front of them collapses. This is such a longshot now that we won’t deal with it until we need to. Remember that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati still have to play each other one more time, and they both can’t lose THAT game! Buffalo should have been in the discussion, but they couldn’t hold a late home lead vs. St. Louis this past Sunday.

Indianapolis is in great shape obviously, leading by two games with three to go…and having tie-break edges over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (but not the Jets because of a road loss). You’ll see in a moment that two of their last three games are against AFC powerhouse Houston…and a trip to Kansas City looms as a potentially troublesome sandwich spot for Andrew Luck.

Were the worst to happen from the Colts perspective:

*They could lose out for a 9-7 finish

*That 9-7 finish would contain a 6-6 mark in the AFC

*Which would enable them to be caught or passed by the winner of Pittsburgh-Cincinnati

*And enable them to be caught by the Jets at 9-7

So, the Colts COULD still miss the playoffs. If they beat Kansas City as a road favorite (vs. a team that may be trying to lose to lock in the #1 draft pick!), that’s 10 wins with at least 7 in the AFC…which would be safe because the Jets and the loser of Pittsburgh/Cincinnati can’t get to 10 wins. Will the Colts blow off this week’s game at Houston to make sure they’re ready for a clincher in Kansas City? Something for handicappers to consider this weekend.

Here’s what the four clearest Wildcard threats have ahead of them.

INDIANAPOLIS: at Houston, at Kansas City, vs. Houston

We’ve outlined this already. The Colts are in great shape, and will probably be a #5 seed that plays on the road at the #4 seed during the opening weekend of the postseason. Currently, that’s looking like the loser of this Sunday’s Denver-Baltimore game but there’s time for flip-flops after that. Odds favor Andrew Luck playing a road playoff game as a medium-sized underdog with nothing to lose.

PITTSBURGH: at Dallas, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Cleveland

The Steelers had a little margin of error heading into the San Diego game that they mostly gave away last Sunday. They could still lose in Dallas then beat Cincinnati…which would probably have both the Steelers and Bengals at 8-7 through 15 games with the tie-breaker going to the Steelers because of a season sweep. Talk about cutting it close! Note that beating Dallas but losing to Cincinnati would put the Bengals in control. That sequence would mean 1-1 head-to-head, 2-3 in the AFC North for both, but the superior conference record for Cincinnati. So, as we see with Indy, it’s actually NEXT week’s game that looms largest in terms of postseason hopes. 

CINCINNATI: at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, vs. Baltimore

The Baltimore season finale may or may not matter. This Thursday’s game doesn’t matter at all to the Eagles beyond playing for pride (which they did a very good job of in Tampa Bay this past Sunday!). Clearly, there’s no room to get cute. You can’t lose to Philly because you hope Baltimore will be resting its starters for the playoffs. Baltimore may be fighting for a #2 seed because they own a tie-breaker over New England. One step at a time, and the playoffs are within reach. That reach grew longer with the last second loss to Dallas.

NY JETS: at Tennessee, vs. San Diego, at Buffalo

This would be some story. The mainstream media mentioned often this past weekend that the Jets had the easiest schedule left of the AFC Wildcard contenders. None of those are sure things…because there are never sure things when Mark Sanchez is your quarterback! But, the Jets will know where they stand before kickoff Monday after seeing what happened to the teams in front of them. They also won’t be playing any wars against opponents fighting for survival. Cincinnati-Pittsburgh will be a war! Tennessee isn’t scary. San Diego will be making ANOTHER trip to the Northeast just two weeks after visiting Pittsburgh. Buffalo players should be ready for a vacation by the time late December rolls around. The Jets will be favored to win out…which would put them at 9-7 in the final standings and 7-5 in the AFC. They own a two-team tie-breaker over Indy, but lose a two-team tie-breaker to Pittsburgh because of a heads-up loss. 

Early lines this week for games involving AFC Wildcard contenders.

*Cincinnati at Philadelphia (Thursday Night): Cincinnati opened as a field goal favorite, as the Eagles are starting to get some market respect after two straight covers.

*Indianapolis at Houston: Houston opened at more than a touchdown, because the Colts have had such big turnover problems on the road vs. good teams this season.

*Pittsburgh at Dallas: This game opened near pick-em, with a pair of teams who are known for their volatility when it comes to big game performances.

*NY Jets at Tennessee (Monday Night): This game opened near pick-em as well. You have to wonder if media coverage about the Jets will encourage the public to beat Sanchez and Company in a must-win situation before kickoff.

This is shaping up as one of the most memorable regular season weekends in YEARS! Not only are the Wildcard contenders playing important games…but we also have the NY Giants at Atlanta in a battle of NFC divisional leaders, Denver at Baltimore in a battle of AFC divisional leaders, and San Francisco at New England in a possible Super Bowl preview in the Sunday Night game on NBC. We’ll talk more about the divisional leaders later in the week…and we’ll have our standard expanded coverage of the prime time games here in the NOTEBOOK.

Don’t forget that the BOWLS start this Saturday! You can sign up for our “end of season” package right here at the website with your credit card. Build your bankrolls for the coming football extravaganza with daily basketball. Tonight’s highlights include Golden State at Miami, Dallas at Boston, and San Antonio at Utah in the NBA. We’ll also be taking a look at Wisconsin-Green Bay at Wisconsin on the Big 10 Network in the colleges. If you have any questions call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

BIG, JUICY WINNERS are always just a few clicks away…and the handicapping juggernaut embodied by JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK is ready to make you a fortune!

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