It may not feel like it, but with every team playing ten or eleven games, the NFL season is in the back nine.
It certainly has been a chaotic season, in which most teams in the AFC have had some “this team is playoff contender” moment.
In the NFC, the top-caliber teams have indeed separated themselves from the rest, but recently they have taken a stumble while some teams who struggled early on are making a push for the wildcard.
So, with every team having a sizeable body of work, I will project all of the division winners, and as a bonus, I will add in my picks to get the wildcard spots.
I do plan on diving into the NFC, but I will save that for my column next week.
Early on in the season, this division felt like an absolute lock for the Buffalo Bills. Their offense was rolling, and their defense was suffocating. However, in the past few weeks, the Bills have looked mortal.
A loss to the Titans in a close game was not alarming by any means, but a 6-9 loss to the Jaguars and then losing to the Colts 41-15 most certainly is.
My projections system, ZLO, had had the Bills as an at worst 11-6 team that clinched the AFC East, going on average 4.5-1.5. At best, they were a 13-4 team that clinched the AFC East and the AFC playoff bye.
They indeed have fallen off by those preseason standards, and I currently have them finishing at 11-6 or 10-7 and clinching a wildcard spot.
The main reason for that? Mac Jones. Both the Patriots’ offense and defense seemed to struggle early on, but recently the two units have looked like they may be among the best in the AFC.
The Patriots’ defense is certainly looking like it did during the Tom Brady days, and the offense is efficiently not turning the ball over. That is all they need.
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
This division felt nearly impossible to predict at the beginning of the season. You could pick the Ravens, Steelers, or Browns and make a compelling case for all of them.
It has only gotten harder to predict the division, as now the Bengals have become a legitimate threat to win the division. Besides the AFC West, it is the only division to boast teams with records above .500 for all of its teams.
At the beginning of the season, my model had picked the Steelers to win the division, which I thought was a bad pick (I had taken the Ravens).
And as of right now, the division could fall to any of the teams, but right now, I am inclined to give it to the Ravens. Not only do they have a game on the next closest team, but I think that they are the only team without a major flaw.
The Bengals have struggled to defend the pass in pivotal games this season. Baker Mayfield looks like a shell of his best self because of injury. And the Steelers have the same weakness as last year, their offense.
AFC North Champion: Baltimore Ravens
I thought this was a two-team race in the offseason, and I have been proven right on that. The Texans and Jaguars have been downright horrible at the worst of times, and the fact that they have won games feels like a lie at times.
The Titans, meanwhile, have performed about where I thought they would. I was higher than most on their defense, improving from last season, and I thought Julio would help this offense.
I liked the Colts too and thought that if Carson Wentz could merely be good, not even great, this could be a dangerous team come to the playoffs.
What I did not see coming was that the Colts would start the season 1-4. They are now 6-5, with their only loss coming to the Titans in OT. Talk about a turnaround.
In the offseason, ZLO had the Titans winning the division by a game. And I was so sure that ZLO would have the Titans lose the division because they are likely to struggle down the road without Henry.
All while the Colts have found running back extraordinaire Johnathon Taylor, who should be placed in the MVP conversation immediately.
Yet, because the Titans swept the series early on in the season (and still have games against the Texans and Jaguars left), ZLO is still firm in its prediction.
AFC South Champion: Tennessee Titans
All I can say is what a rollercoaster of a division.
The current division leaders, the Kansas City Chiefs, once 3-4 are now 7-4 with wins over the Packers and Cowboys.
The young LA Chargers are on their heels, sitting at 6-4 with a head-to-head win over the Chiefs and Raiders.
And a challenging and painful season for the Raiders has left the team struggling in their last few games, losing to the Giants and then being blown out by the Chiefs and Bengals.
And don’t forget! The Broncos are certainly hanging around at 5-5.
As much as I want to say the Chiefs have finally put together a great Spags defense, and Mahomes has figured out all his problems, the Model is much less forgiving.
It still favors the Chargers, having them ahead by (on average) half of a game in each NFL simulation.
Unless either team has some (more) unexpected bumps in the road, the two squads will face down in Week 15, and the odds are good; the winner will emerge with the division crowns.
AFC West Champion: Los Angeles Chargers
This feels crazy to put into print, but right now, my projections system has the wildcard team order going like this: Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, and the Buffalo Bills.
That honestly would not be a sentence I would ever have expected to write way back in Week 1.
And yet, that does not seem like the craziest possibility.
I still expect the Chiefs to win their division, which would likely send the Chargers to the wildcard spot.
And I could be 100% wrong on the Patriots being the best team in the AFC East, so maybe we see the Patriots in the playoffs, but on the road.
But I do genuinely think that these are the seven teams. Maybe the Bengals surprise me and sneak in over the Colts, but I like this lineup out of the AFC.