Sharing some AFC playoff thoughts

Another week of AFC football is in the books, and it's another week in which the teams ahead of the Patriots keep them at arm's length.

Let’s break it down, with a look to the future.

The Texans (10-1) have had back-to-back close calls, against the Jaguars and Lions, so they're not winning in the "style points" category. But they're winning and that's what truly counts.

Depending on the viewpoint, the Texans are either a team that has lost some momentum and is hanging on, or a team that simply knows how to win. I haven't seen enough of them to pick one side convincingly, but if forced to choose, I'd lean toward the latter.

They have an unusual finish to the season, playing the in-the-playoff-hunt Colts in two of the final three weeks, which could present some problems. But no game is bigger than the Dec. 10 tilt at New England, their third road game in a row. I see potential for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to pick on their secondary if given the time.

Texans remaining schedule

Dec. 2 -- at Titans

Dec. 10 -- at Patriots

Dec. 16 -- vs. Colts

Dec. 23 -- vs. Vikings

Dec. 30 -- at Colts

Like the Texans, the 9-2 Ravens haven't won with authority the last two weeks. They had to go to overtime to beat the host Chargers on Sunday, but there is no arguing with the bottom-line results.

Their worst performance this season was against the Texans in a blowout loss, so they'd lose any head-to-head tiebreaker with Houston. The Ravens, who I think the Patriots match up with well in any type of rematch scenario, have arguably the toughest remaining schedule of the top teams in the AFC.

Ravens remaining schedule

Dec. 2 -- vs. Steelers

Dec. 9 -- at Redskins

Dec. 16 -- vs. Broncos

Dec. 23 -- vs. Giants

Dec. 30 -- at Bengals

If choosing one team the Patriots should avoid if possible, the view from here is that it’s the 8-3 Broncos, solely because of the “Peyton Manning Factor.” Yes, the Patriots beat the Broncos on Oct. 7 (and thus win any potential head-to-head tiebreaker), but Denver is a different team now and with Manning anything is possible. They have a softer schedule down the homestretch as well.

The Broncos, like the Texans and Ravens, didn’t put forth a dominating performance in Sunday’s road win over the Chiefs. They really just got by. But I’m not reading too much into that when it comes to a potential playoff matchup. Right now I'd still pick the Patriots, who are playing as well as anyone, but Manning is the one quarterback in the AFC who I think has the potential to match Brady.

Broncos remaining schedule

Dec. 2 -- vs. Buccaneers

Dec. 6 -- at Raiders

Dec. 16 -- at Ravens

Dec. 23 -- vs. Browns

Dec. 30 -- vs. Chiefs

As for the 8-3 Patriots, these next three games are the iron. The Dolphins still have a playoff pulse after Sunday’s home win over the Seahawks, which adds another challenging layer to the team’s Sunday visit to South Florida, traditionally a tough spot for them to win.

Then the Houston/San Francisco back-to-back set, in a span of six days, looks lethal. Some might say these are the best three teams in the NFL right now. One benefit for the Patriots is that both games are at home, and they figure to provide a solid measuring stick as to where the team stands among the NFL’s elite (Steve Mariucci of NFL Network, for one, calls the Patriots the team to beat).

Patriots remaining schedule

Dec. 2 -- at Miami

Dec. 10 -- vs. Houston

Dec. 16 -- vs. San Francisco

Dec. 23 -- at Jaguars

Dec. 30 -- vs. Dolphins