It's tempting to view the mosh pit of mediocrity that has formed in the race for the AFC's second wild-card berth as only a curious little side show and dismiss it in terms of real relevance for the NFL's 12-team playoff field. That's the way our sports-watching brains are wired, we instinctively think: Get to .500 first, then we'll pay attention. Until then it's just a collection of bad football teams taking turns gulping oxygen as they share the same life-support system.
But that mindset is short-sighted and mistaken because as recent history has proven more than once, a wild-card qualifier can make a real impact in January. Three times in the past eight seasons, wild-card teams have overcome the lack of creature comforts (a home playoff game, division title or first-round bye) to win the Super Bowl: the No. 6 seed Packers in 2010, the No. 5 seed Giants in '07 and the No. 6 seed Steelers in '05. True, all three of those champions compiled a regular-season record of at least 10-6, a mark that may be beyond this year's second AFC wild-card entrant. But a ticket to the dance is a ticket to the dance.
So fight the urge to focus on the upper crust of the league and keep an eye on that fascinating six-deep clot of 5-6 teams that currently pass as fringe playoff contenders in the AFC. That's because the final five weeks of the NFL season are all about building mojo, and somebody's going to come out of that sloppy bunch with a healthy head of momentum and new life in January. Everyone would do well to recall Rex Ryan and his 2009 Jets about now. The first-year Jets coach himself tried to concede defeat in the playoff chase after a Week 15 loss to Atlanta dropped his club to 7-7, only to wind up leading his team into the AFC title game five weeks later.
As noted football philosopher Bill Belichick offered on Monday, it's what unfolds from here on out that really matters.
"What happens this year will be determined by what happens in the next five weeks," Belichick said, hours after his Patriots scored 31 consecutive points as part of a miraculous 34-31 overtime defeat of Denver on Sunday night. "This is where this team and every other team will define itself. We've seen plenty of teams in the past have great regular-season records and not end up in the winner's circle. We've seen other teams be 9-7, 10-6, whatever it is and end up at the right place at the end of the year.
"In this league, you can't take yourself out of the race by having such a poor start that you just have too much ground to make up. But it's really the teams that play well in November, December and January, and those are the teams that are standing in the end. That's what we're going to try to do.''
Bill is talking about building mojo, of course, and we're listening. Belichick's teams haven't had to worry too much about the AFC wild-card race in his 14-year tenure in New England, but the battle royale for the AFC's No. 6 seed figures to be where the most interesting machinations play out in the coming five weeks. Try as they might, the half dozen 5-6 teams in the AFC couldn't quite eliminate themselves from contention even with dreadful starts, or serious midseason slumps. So now there's still time to make up ground and make a playoff run.
Before it fully unfolds and becomes obvious, we're attempting to read and rank the mojo factor among the six AFC teams that enter Week 13 at 5-6, knotted up for the final wild-card slot before tiebreakers are applied. With a nod to Jesse Jackson's calling card line, we'll call them the "Keep Hope Alive Club,'' and assess their likelihood of being part of the festivities when the playoffs open in five-plus weeks.
1. Pittsburgh -- Current seed (with tiebreakers applied): 7th. Mojo Factor: 7.5 on a scale of 10.
The Steelers have already had a near-death experience this season, starting 0-4 and 2-6, so they're loving life right now at 5-6 and on a three-game winning streak. It's not a stretch whatsoever to think that 5-6 feels better in Pittsburgh right now than it does anywhere else. The Steelers have outscored their opponents 87-48 in the past three games, and the defense is starting to dominate games when it matters, with young playmakers like defensive end Cam Heyward and outside linebacker Jason Worilds emerging into dependable cogs. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has got his guys on the rebound.
The Steelers also have the most proven quarterback of the 5-6 pack of stragglers, with Ben Roethlisberger and his two Super Bowl rings comfortably leading the way on that front. Relying on his big-game experience and receiver Antonio Brown's fantastic season (league-best 80 catches, for 1,044 yards) is a pretty good base to start with on offense in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also have three home games remaining, against Miami, Cincinnati and Cleveland. But those may not matter as much as Pittsburgh would like if the Steelers can't find a way to win Thursday night in Baltimore, in what shapes up as a virtual elimination game for those two AFC North rivals. Beating the Ravens would give the Steelers the series sweep, and the boost of getting to .500, and being on a four-game winning streak could carry Pittsburgh a long way.
2. San Diego -- Current seed (with tiebreakers applied): 9th. Mojo Factor: 6.5.
The Chargers have always been a streaky team, and if you're counting on consistency from San Diego you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment. But still, the Chargers snapped a three-game losing streak with that resilient 41-38 upset at Kansas City on Sunday, and that's the kind of performance that can really spring board a team onto bigger things. Quarterback Philip Rivers and the offense are clicking, and even without Tamba Hali and Justin Houston playing in the second half at Kansas City, hanging up 41 points against the Chiefs stout defense is an impressive feat.
San Diego is just 1-2 in its division and 3-5 in the AFC, but the Chargers do have a league-high four home games remaining in the coming five weeks (talk about your back-loaded schedules). It's not an easy closing run, with home games against Cincinnati, Kansas City and a trip to Denver mixed in, but it gives San Diego hope and something to build on. It's crucial that San Diego gets to break even this week with a win over the Bengals, who are 7-4 overall and in first place in the AFC North, but just 2-4 away from Paul Brown Stadium.
3. Baltimore -- Current seed (with tiebreakers applied): 8th. Mojo Factor: 6.
On the plus side, the defending Super Bowl champions played some serious defense on Sunday against the Jets, forcing three turnovers and limiting New York to three points, 220 yards of offense, and 1-of-12 success on third downs. It was the lowest point total for a Ravens opponent since December 2009. That's the kind of defense that could get it done, even with Baltimore's ineffective offense, between now and January.
But on the downside, it was the Jets and Geno Smith that Baltimore dominated. You have to grade that one on a curve if you're being honest. And the Ravens' closing schedule is very challenging, with three games remaining against winning teams (at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati) and this week's Thursday night showdown with visiting Pittsburgh. Baltimore owns just one two-game winning streak this season.
Still, if they beat the streaking Steelers, the Ravens might be everyone's pick to earn the No. 6 seed or maybe even run down the Bengals for the division title. But a loss makes the road considerably tougher for Baltimore. John Harbaugh's team is resilient, as last year's survival despite a 1-4 record in December showed us. But I'm not convinced the same elements are in place again this season for another memorable run, and a sixth consecutive playoff berth for the Ravens.
4. Tennessee -- Current seed (with tiebreakers applied): 6th. Mojo Factor: 4.
The Titans have lost five of their past seven games after their hopeful 3-1 start, are winless at 0-3 in the AFC South (which features the two worst teams in the AFC in 2-9 Jacksonville and 2-9 Houston) and will have to make due for the rest of the season with their backup quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ladies and gentlemen, your AFC sixth seed at the moment, the Tennessee Titans!
Give them credit for this much: The Titans have won the right games so far this season, with early wins over fellow AFC 5-6 wild-card hopefuls Pittsburgh, San Diego and the Jets, giving them the tiebreaker advantage over those clubs, and Sunday's 23-19 road conquest of the Raiders making Tennessee the No. 6 seed rather than Oakland.
But Tennessee's time on stage might be brief, given it faces at Indianapolis and at Denver in the coming two weeks, plus still has to play Arizona (7-4) and at Jacksonville, with the Jaguars having proven they own the Titans in recent years. No matter how you view it, it likely doesn't add up to a return to the postseason in Nashville.
5. Miami -- Current seed (with tiebreakers applied): 11th. Mojo Factor: 2.5.
I realize putting the word mojo and Miami in the same sentence could pass as a sight gag, but the Dolphins are still in this race, despite all sense of logic and reasoning. But what a crushing loss to Carolina at home on Sunday. The Dolphins were less than a minute away from improving to 6-5 and climbing into the No. 6 seed slot with a third win in the four weeks they've played without offensive tackle Jonathan Martin.
Then it all fell apart in the Dolphins' fifth second-half collapse of the season, and now Miami faces a must-win this week at the Jets, in a game that should serve to winnow the AFC wild-card race by one team.
Miami just doesn't have enough offense to get this job done. It is the only team in the NFL that hasn't scored 27 points at least once this season, and after the 3-0 start, the scandal-plagued Dolphins are 2-6, having alternated losses and wins since Week 8.
Miami has four of its last five games in the AFC East, with two meetings against the Jets, a home date with New England and a Christmas week trip to Buffalo. Throw in a challenging Week 14 game at Pittsburgh, and these Fish are basically fried. They're not winning three cold-weather games in December, and they're not going back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
6. New York Jets -- Current seed (with tiebreakers applied): 10th. Mojo Factor: 1.0.
There's hitting the rookie wall, and then there's the impact left by Jets quarterback Geno Smith in his past six games: One touchdown pass and 10 interceptions. Geno's right. He's no Mark Sanchez. Even Sanchez was never that anemic. To get hot and make the playoffs the Jets will need a streak of some kind, and of course New York had been streak-less this season until Week 12's 19-3 loss at Baltimore, alternating wins and losses every game until dropping its past two.
If only the Jets could be eligible for the NFC playoffs. New York is 3-0 against the NFC South this season, and just 2-6 in the AFC. The Jets have four of their remaining five games against losing teams -- including two facing Miami -- but a Week 15 trip to Carolina looks like a sure loss, and it's tough to find reason to believe that the offense could crack 20 points against anyone it faces in December. Smith has gone four consecutive games without a touchdown pass, and this week's game against visiting Miami shapes up as New York's last stand in what had been a surprising good season until the Jets took their Week 10 bye.