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NFL playoffs projection: Patriots return to No. 1 spot in AFC

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Remember the panic that beset New England Patriots fans just one week ago? It turns out that the Patriots didn't even have to wait for the Week 16 Broncos-Bengals matchup to watch their main competitors for the AFC title lose another game. With Denver and Cincinnati each now at 10-3, the 11-2 Patriots are back in the driver's seat for the top seed in the AFC.

Of course, there's still a good chance the Patriots will lose another game. New England finishes 14-2 in only about one-third of our simulations this week. But even if the Patriots lose their toughest remaining game, Week 16 at the Jets, they still get the No. 1 seed in 51 percent of simulations and a first-round bye in 91 percent of simulations.

One big reason for that, of course, is that the Bengals are no longer quite the same team they were the first 13 weeks of the season because of a thumb injury that will likely cost Andy Dalton the rest of the regular season and possibly force him to miss the playoffs. A rash of quarterback injuries among AFC contenders has turned this week's playoff odds simulation into a tricky balancing act with a lot more subjective analysis than we're used to.

With Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Houston, we can't project the rest of the season based on how well each team has played so far, because of the questions at each team's quarterback position. Figuring out when Dalton or Andrew Luck might actually return to the field is a feat of guesswork that requires parsing the vague language of head coaches and discerning the health of players without the benefit of actual medical reports.

After trying to figure out the odds of each quarterback playing in each successive week, we also have to figure out just how much a team is likely to lose by going to its backup quarterback. The general rule is that an offense will drop about 13 points in our DVOA ratings with a backup quarterback. But there's no question Indianapolis has dropped much more this season when Matt Hasselbeck plays instead of Luck. On the other hand, does it make sense to penalize Houston the full amount for a backup quarterback, given how well T.J. Yates has played when forced into the lineup this season?

These difficult questions make this week's Houston-Indianapolis game -- and thus the AFC South title -- a complete toss-up. But based on the past performance of backup quarterbacks with as little experience as AJ McCarron, Cincinnati's diminished chances of making it out of the AFC playoffs are much less of a question mark.