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NFL Picks: Crossing our fingers for 7-6 bunch at bottom of AFC playoff race

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Around the AFC

Pile-up ahead? New England did Denver (and several others) a solid Thursday night by knocking off Pittsburgh on the road. The Steelers, playing Mitch Trubisky in place of the injured Kenny Pickett at quarterback, fell to 7-6 and face a tough road to stay in the playoff picture. They finish with a trip to upstart Indianapolis and quarterback Gardner Minshew, then a home game against Cincinnati and trips to Seattle and Baltimore. Ouch. Long shot here, but let us pray for this sequence of results this weekend: Denver over the Chargers, Buffalo over Kansas City, Bengals over Indy, Jets over Houston and Jacksonville over Cleveland. Why? Because then there’d be seven (!!) AFC teams at 7-6 and total chaos at hand.

The Jake Browning Game. How about the Bengals’ back-up quarterback? Browning ripped apart a good Jacksonville defense on Monday night, completing 32 of 37 for 351 yards in an overtime win. It’s still going to be a tough climb for the Bengals without Joe Burrow the rest of the season, but Browning’s performance gives at least some hope that Cincy can be among that big group of teams and give itself a chance down the stretch.

Allen vs. Mahomes. The fact that Buffalo is also among that potential 7-6 group wouldn’t have seemed likely before the year and they have one of the toughest tests to get there – a trip to Kansas City. Even during an underwhelming season, Josh Allen against Patrick Mahomes in prime time is must-watch stuff. It keeps feeling like the Bills could get hot and make a big run. So far it hasn’t happened. Can they light the fuse at Arrowhead?

Around the NFC

Shanny Francisco. You won’t find a more impressive win this year than Kyle Shanahan’s team going to 10-1 Philadelphia, falling behind and then absolutely rolling to a 42-19 victory. The 49ers, when healthy, are the best team in football. They’ve shown they’re capable of beating anybody, anywhere, any time. In fact, the No. 1 seed is within reach, but they should prioritize health down the stretch rather than seeding. When they’re at full strength, who can beat them?

In the name of Love. Jordan Love is rolling now, and so is Green Bay. The first-year starting quarterback has put together three straight outstanding games and none better than the three-touchdown performance in a Sunday night win against the Chiefs. He’s not going to play like that every night, but the growth over the course of the season is a promising sign for Green Bay both long term and in terms of playoff potential this year.

No D in Detroit. The Lions are 9-3. They’re NFC contenders without a doubt. But can they make a real run if they continue on this defensive path? Dan Campbell’s team, even in winning four of their past five, has surrendered 38 to the Chargers, 26 to Chicago, 29 in a loss to Green Bay and 28 to New Orleans. They’ve still got the NFC North in a vice grip, but it’s something to watch down the stretch as they try to get playoff-ready.

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