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Posted: Sunday December 13, 2009 7:05PM; Updated: Sunday December 13, 2009 10:30PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

Updated look at the AFC wild-card contenders, more Snap Judgments

Story Highlights

All in all, it was a great Week 14 for the Ravens

You can't overestate how critical the Dolphins' win over the Jaguars was

Sunday was a big day for the diva receiver set in the NFL

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Willis McGahee (right) and the Ravens ran over the Lions to give themselves a great shot at the final AFC wild-card berth.
AP

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a compelling Week 14 that featured numerous close calls, but no real signature upsets -- at least after the lowly Browns knocked the humbled Steelers from the throne Thursday night in Cleveland ...

• As it turns out, the sunny Sunday afternoon they spent in the Sunshine State was a very productive chunk of time indeed for the AFC East wild-card contenders, with the resurgent Jets climbing back over .500 with a 26-3 win at Tampa Bay, and the Dolphins gutting out a 14-10 victory in a virtual elimination-type game at Jacksonville.

Outside of the three-team tug-of-war going on in the NFC East, the battle for what figures to the be AFC's last wild-card berth holds the most potential for intrigue in the regular season's final three weeks. Sunday at least provided some clarity, even if the four teams fighting for that one spot were still in a 7-6 clump at the end of the weekend.

In order, here's how I break down the playoff chances of the four AFC wild-card contenders:

1. Baltimore (7-6): 50 percent shot of qualifying -- All in all, it was a great Week 13 for the Ravens. The Steelers lost, the Jaguars lost, the Broncos lost, and John Harbaugh's club took out its recent frustrations by beating the Lions senseless, 48-3, in the rain at Baltimore. The Ravens likely have to win out to make the playoffs, but they own the most conducive schedule for that among the top four wild-card contenders, with three losing teams remaining: home against Chicago (5-8), at Pittsburgh (6-7), and at Oakland (4-8). True, at the Steelers will be no gimme, but winning that game doesn't sound as daunting as it once did for the Ravens, who are 6-4 in AFC play.

2. Miami (7-6): 25 percent shot of qualifying -- You can't overestimate how critical the Dolphins' win over the Jaguars was to their playoff chances, even if it only boosted their conference record to a so-so 5-4. Miami now holds any potential tiebreaker advantage over Jacksonville, and with two home games remaining in the final three weeks, the Dolphins have more of a shot to reach the playoffs than anyone ever imagined after their 0-3 start or their 3-5 mark at midseason.

The key game for Miami will be next week at Tennessee. The Titans are not your average 6-7 team, and they'll be tough. The Dolphins finish at home against Houston (6-7) and Pittsburgh (6-7), which means that Pittsburgh plays both Baltimore and Miami in the final two weeks, giving the Steelers' great spoiler potential. Pittsburgh won't be headed to the playoffs, but it may help determine the last team that is in the AFC.

3. New York Jets (7-6): 15 percent shot of qualifying -- Rex Ryan's team has some life after winning its third straight game, but I don't like their chances for a number of reasons. They've lost twice to the Dolphins, so they lose any wild-card tiebreaker to Miami. Their 5-5 record in the AFC isn't the best, and their schedule is rough, too. The Jets play at home against Atlanta (6-7), at Indianapolis (13-0), and home against Cincinnati (9-4). Could the Colts and Bengals both help them out by resting a slew of regulars? Sure. But they're still the Colts and Bengals, and they've got a combined 22 wins between them for a reason. New York's work is still mostly uphill.

4. Jacksonville (7-6): 10 percent shot of qualifying -- First, the good news. Even with the home-field loss to the Dolphins, the Jaguars are still 6-3 in the AFC, and that's a better conference record than any of the other three 7-6 wild-card contenders. But the loss to Miami was a killer, because it means the Jaguars lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with their in-state neighbors, and given Jacksonville's remaining schedule, beating the Fish was a must. The Jaguars get a visit from the Colts (13-0) this Thursday night, and then travel to frosty Foxboro in Week 16, where they've lost twice this decade to New England in the playoffs. Even a Week 17 trip to Cleveland doesn't look as soft as it did before the Browns' upset of Pittsburgh.

• Don't do it, Colts. Don't back off now that you've set the NFL record for consecutive regular season wins with 22, locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, set the league mark for wins in a decade (114), and tied the franchise's best start ever at 13-0 (also in 2005).

Four weeks is an eternity to keep your edge in the NFL, and trying to rest players and maintain momentum through three more meaningless games and then a bye week is a losing proposition. Indy only has to look at its one-and-done playoff flameouts of 2005, 2007 and 2008 to know that easing off the gas isn't the right call. The one recent year Indy didn't rest any players late in the season was 2006, and we know how things turned out for the Colts in that case.

• This undefeated season stuff is getting serious in Indianapolis and New Orleans, but having two teams instead of one attempting to do it, a la New England in 2007, has to help diffuse the pressure on both the Colts and Saints. There's no singular national spotlight falling on one team this time, like the Patriots dealt with two years ago.

Also, the feat of going 16-0 isn't as novel these days because of the Patriots having done it just 24 months ago. I'd say those reasons alone make it more probable that at least one of this year's 13-0 clubs go on to close the deal.

• What a big day for the diva receiver set in the NFL. Chad Ochocinco scored for Cincinnati. Terrell Owens scored for Buffalo. Steve Smith scored for Carolina. But nobody remotely turned in a monstrous performance to match Denver's Brandon Marshall, whose 21 catches broke Owens' league record of 20 receptions in the 49ers' 2000 season home finale against Chicago. No wonder they've long called Marshall "Baby T.O.''

Marshall had 10 catches for 109 yards in the first half alone at Indy, and his 21 receptions wound up producing 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But I would think the excitement of breaking the record for most catches in a game is lessened considerably by the fact Denver scored just 16 points on the day, and lost by a dozen points at 28-16.

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