AFC Playoff Picture: Steelers stumble against Chargers, Texans refuse to go away

Dec 2, 2018; Houston, TX: Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson signals for a first down during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
Dec 2, 2018; Houston, TX: Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson signals for a first down during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The teams that threaten the Patriots the most for the top seed in the AFC seem to change every week.

Assuming the Kansas City Chiefs win out (that's a pretty big assumption), they'll remain easily the biggest roadblock to the Pats getting back to the Super Bowl due to their one-game lead. It's still hard to feel the Patriots wouldn't at least get a supremely tough challenge if they have to go to Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC Championship Game. But the Chiefs have a very hard slate over the next three games: Ravens at home, Chargers at home, Seahawks on the road. If they can win all of those games, that would truly be a well-earned No. 1 seed for them.

The Patriots still have a better chance than the Chiefs of winning out, mainly due to their schedule and that they typically elevate themselves in December while other teams fall apart around them.

And that's also because their toughest remaining opponent by far, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are faltering at the worst possible time.

In case you missed the end of the Steelers' 33-30 loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football, it was a tour de force of undisciplined, unfocused football. They gave Chargers kicker Mike Badgley three chances to kick the game-winning field goal, because they committed three straight offside penalties, two by cornerback Artie Burns and the other by Joe Haden.

Dec 2, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns blocks a field goal attempt by Los Angeles Chargers kicker Mike Badgley with no time left on the clock at Heinz Field. Burns was ruled offsides on the play and Badlgley converted his next attempt to defeat the Steelers 33-30. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Dec 2, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns blocks a field goal attempt by Los Angeles Chargers kicker Mike Badgley with no time left on the clock at Heinz Field. Burns was ruled offsides on the play and Badlgley converted his next attempt to defeat the Steelers 33-30. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Not to mention, the Steelers had a 23-7 lead at halftime. The Chargers outscored them 26-7 in the second half, partly because Pittsburgh continued to employ some mind-boggling defensive schemes. Like consistently putting a linebacker on No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen. According to Next Gen Stats, Allen caught 7-of-9 targets for 70 yards when against a linebacker, including a catch on the final drive that helped set up the Chargers' game-winning kick.

If there's one thing that the Steelers have become known for in their games against the Patriots, it's mind-boggling defensive schemes. So if they can't turn that narrative around in a hurry, it could be yet another home disappointment for them when these teams square off in Week 15.

The Chargers always emerge as a team to watch in the conference, but for whatever reason can't ever seem to get to that next level. On paper they have a team that could theoretically give the Patriots trouble, with a very good quarterback, a good pass rush, and one of the best young safeties in the league in rookie Derwin James. But it would be hard to give the Chargers a legitimate shot of upending the Patriots in the playoffs, unless they can overtake the Chiefs for the AFC West crown and take the No. 1 seed themselves.

However, the potential Patriots opponent that's getting the most attention lately is the Houston Texans, mainly because they've won nine games in a row after a 29-13 win over the Browns. Especially on offense with a much-improved Deshaun Watson and the recently added Demaryius Thomas, Houston has looked like a different team that came to Foxboro in Week 1 and lost 27-20 in a game that wasn't as competitive as the score indicated.

In his last five games, Watson has completed 73.2 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,094 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions - an outstanding 123.5 passer rating. The kid might very well be proving that his excellent-but-injury-shortened rookie year was no fluke.

Dec 2, 2018; Houston, TX: Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson attempts a pass during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
Dec 2, 2018; Houston, TX: Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson attempts a pass during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

The Texans continue to put pressure on the Patriots to keep winning by refusing to lose that fourth game. New England holds the head-to-head tiebreaker for now, but the Texans look like they'll be a tough out in January either way. Especially if it turns out that the Pats have to go to Houston. They've already proven to be able to give Tom Brady trouble on defense at times, and now they have a quarterback to boot.

Welp, there's your rundown. Have a quick look below at how the AFC looks heading into Week 14.

AFC Playoff Picture:

1. Chiefs (10-2)
2. Patriots (9-3) *Hold head-to-head tiebreaker over Chiefs, Texans
3. Texans (9-3)
4. Steelers (7-4-1)
5. Chargers (9-3) *Wild card
6. Ravens (7-5)

In the hunt:

7. Dolphins (6-6)
8. Colts (6-6)
9. Broncos (6-6)
10. Titans (6-6)

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].