I'm calling it now. I don't care if Denver collapsed last year; I don't care that Indianapolis has two to go with the Texans; I don't care if the Jets have the tiebreaker right now over New England, who also have two to go with Miami; and I don't care if Cincinnati have the tiebreaker with Pittsburgh right now.
It's week 7 and the Colts, Patriots, Steelers, and Broncos have assured themselves at least one home game in the playoffs each.
Obviously the easiest team to guarantee this luxury to right now is Indianapolis. The Colts are 6-0 and if you look at their schedule anything more than three losses would be considered tragic for this teams psyche (unless loss four comes in week 17 after home field is wrapped up of course). The Colts host New England who have lost to Indianapolis four of the last five times these teams met, including the 2006 AFC Championship game, they host Denver, and they have to go to Baltimore, who haven't beaten the Colts since the beginning of the decade. The Colts also have two games with Houston and one game with Jacksonville remaining. 14-2 seems likely here.
The Broncos have impressed everyone all year. They've beaten New England, Dallas, and San Diego, teams who were supposed to put the Broncos in their place, and they currently have a defense that looks phenomenal. Kyle Orton is doing a great job and for the first time since 2005 the Broncos look like a serious AFC contender. I know this franchise collapsed last year down the stretch but this is a different team. It won't take much more than 4 more wins this year to wrap up the AFC West, and with Washington, Kansas City x2, and Oakland on their schedule, it'll come down to beating the Giants, Chargers, or Steelers at home, or the Colts, Ravens, or Eagles on the road. 11-5 seems like the right record for this team.
The Patriots will be back in the playoffs this year after being left out in 08 despite an 11-5 record. This Patriots team is looking a lot like the 08 Patriots who beat up on the bad teams and lost their five regular season games to the Dolphins, Jets, Colts, Chargers, and Steelers; all playoff contenders. So far the Patriots have lost to the Jets and Broncos; but the rest of the season doesn't look to bad; Miami 2x, New York Jets, @ New Orleans, and @ Indianapolis are the only scary games left on the schedule. Chances are this team finished 11-5 or 12-4; enough to win the AFC East in 2009.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the trickiest team of the bunch. They currently sit in a tie for the AFC North this week, and at 4-2 they host undefeated Minnesota before heading into a a bye week. After that the schedule picks up where it left off with a lot of cold weather games versus tough teams. Working in Pittsburgh's favor is that Cincinnati has to travel to Pittsburgh in week 10, and the team still has two to go with 3-3 Baltimore. If the Steelers come out of those three games with a 2-1 record they'll win the division. I think they'll do just that and with an 11-5 record win the AFC North.
The biggest game to decide playoff seeding may be the week 9 matchup of Pittsburgh @ Denver. This game could likely be the difference between a two seed and a four seed for these teams. Denver currently holds the tiebreaker over New England thanks to a head to head victory.
In week 10, the Patriots will travel to Indianapolis to continue arguably the decades best rivalry. This time a loss may mean the difference between the Patriots being the one seed and being the four seed. If the Colts win this one then they're in great shape to get a first round bye for only the third time this decade despite going to the playoffs in a league record 9 out 10 seasons.
It's also important to note that all four of these teams have intertwined in rivalries this decade. In 2003 and 2004 the Colts beat the Broncos in the playoffs before losing to the Patriots. In 2001 and 2004 the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. In 2005 the Broncos beat the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. That same round the Steelers would beat the Colts en route to beating the Broncos the next week. In 2006 the Colts beat Patriots in the AFC Championship game. In 2007 as part of their undefeated regular season New England defeated both the Colts and the Steelers. In 2008 as part of their "must win" push for the playoffs the Colts defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh and defeated the Patriots in a game that turned out to be a "loser stays home" game; the Steelers would go on to win the Super Bowl though.
These four franchises account for eight of the leagues past twelve Super Bowl champions. Chances are that after this year that number is going to be nine out of the last thirteen.
We'll find out this January.