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The First Read: Who will claim the AFC's No. 1 seed? Sizing up the top seven contenders in a thrilling race

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 13 of the 2023 NFL season, including:

But first, making sense of the thrilling race for the AFC's No. 1 seed ...

Week 12 provided something resembling clarity when it comes to the NFL playoff picture. We can at least say the NFC isn't going to be hard to handicap. You have four teams that are legitimate championship contenders (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Detroit and Dallas) and a bunch of others that won't make much noise in the postseason. The AFC is shaping up to be a different story. There is plenty of competition on that side, with the race for the top seed being as heated as we've seen in recent memory.

If the playoffs started today, the AFC would have four teams with three losses and two others with four. The Baltimore Ravens would have the edge for that coveted first-round bye, but that's also because they've played one more game than everyone else in the running. The Kansas City Chiefs would have an advantageous position because of tiebreaker scenarios, but that could change as teams like the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars start playing lesser opponents in the coming weeks. The bottom line is that all these clubs have reason to feel optimistic about their shot at taking a break during the first week of the postseason.

The big question in this week's edition of The First Read is this: Who is worth trusting the most out of this AFC bunch when it comes to acquiring that first-round bye? All of these teams have their strengths and their weaknesses, and they're well aware that the pressure on them will only build with each passing week. So let's take a look at who really has the best shot of landing that top seed at the moment.

Here is how the AFC side of the playoff bracket looks entering Week 13, with one writer's feelings on each contender's chances at claiming the No. 1 seed.

Baltimore Ravens
9-3 · AFC North leader

The case for: The Ravens have been the most complete team in the AFC all season. They have a top-tier offense, a extremely stingy defense and an MVP-caliber quarterback in Lamar Jackson, a player who’s become more dangerous in an offense designed to feature his passing skills. This is also a team that is built for football in December. Baltimore runs the ball effectively, harasses quarterbacks routinely and has an elite special teams unit (even though kicker Justin Tucker missed a huge field goal late in Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers). This is a team that can dominate when it’s on point. Just as it did against Detroit and Seattle, who lost to Baltimore by a combined score of 75-9.

The case against: Jackson no longer has his favorite target in Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, who recently underwent surgery to repair a fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments. That’s a major blow to Baltimore's revamped passing attack. The Ravens also have shown a tendency to blow leads, with the most frustrating moment coming in a Week 10 loss to Cleveland (after Baltimore led by 14 points in the fourth quarter). Baltimore also won’t find any favors in its schedule. The Ravens end the season with games against the Jaguars, 49ers, Dolphins and Steelers.

Confidence scale (1-10): EIGHT. The Ravens understand what’s at stake. They have earned home-field advantage once during the Lamar Jackson era, back in 2019. They didn’t capitalize on it then, and this is their best shot at acquiring it again.

Kansas City Chiefs
8-3 · AFC West leader

The case for: No other team in this bracket knows more about winning at this time of year than the reigning Super Bowl champion. The Chiefs also have the best player in the league in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, someone who's always shown a knack for finding a way to win. The difference now is that Kansas City’s defense is the major strength of this team. That unit has been elite since Week 1 and it’s created problems for some of the league’s top offenses (including Miami and Philadelphia). It used to be normal to think the Chiefs only needed an average defense to win a championship. Now they have a great one.

The case against: The offense showed improvement in Sunday’s 31-17 win over the Raiders -- when it finally broke its streak of three straight games without scoring in the second half -- but this unit remains hard to trust these days. And it’s not just about the wide receivers dropping too many passes -- the offensive line has been shakier this year and there are too many drive-stalling penalties and soul-crushing turnovers. There were more encouraging signs from rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice on Sunday, but this unit also is relying too much on tight end Travis Kelce and running back Isiah Pacheco. Others need to step up.

Confidence scale (1-10): EIGHT. This is all about recency bias. The Chiefs have hosted the last five AFC Championship Games and been the top seed in three of those seasons (2018, 2020, 2022). They have a habit of gaining steam at this time of year, even though upcoming games against Green Bay and Buffalo suddenly look more daunting.

Jacksonville Jaguars
8-3 · AFC South leader

The case for: The Jaguars proved to be a feisty second-half team last year when they overcame a slow start to win the AFC South. They’re in an ideal position to take their second straight division crown after beating Houston on Sunday. This is a team that is about to face the Joe Burrow-less Bengals next Monday and will finish the season with very winnable games against Tampa Bay, Carolina and Tennessee. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence also has improved after battling a knee sprain last month. He produced one of his best games of the year against the Texans, throwing for a season-high 364 yards. 

The case against: Jacksonville remains one of the tougher teams to figure out. It has moments when is impresses (such as when it went on a five-game win streak earlier this year). The Jaguars also have moments when they look overrated (like when the San Francisco 49ers thumped them by 31 points in Jacksonville after both teams were coming off byes). The big questions about this team down the stretch aren’t hard to decipher, either. The Jags need wide receiver Calvin Ridley to be a bigger part of the offense, which has happened more lately. They need that defensive front to be disruptive. And they need to Lawrence to deliver big.

Confidence scale (1-10): FIVE. There’s a lot to like about the Jaguars, but they’re not dominant enough to inspire MAJOR faith. They can change that perception over the next six weeks.

Miami Dolphins
8-3 · AFC East leader

The case for: The Dolphins feel like a team that is trending in the right direction. For all the criticism about their failings in big games, they’re still leading the AFC East and boasting an offense that is second in the league in scoring (30.8 points per game). If Miami can somehow find a way to keep rookie running back De’Von Achane healthy -- he’s once again plagued by knee problems after missing four games earlier this season -- it’s hard to see too many defenses slowing down an offense that already features quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and an assortment of other explosive weapons. The defense is also much improved now that cornerback Jalen Ramsey is back on the field. Most importantly, the schedule should allow the Dolphins to build some critical momentum. They will face the Commanders, Titans and Jets over the next three weeks before finishing with Dallas, Baltimore and Buffalo. The Dolphins could very much be in control of their own destiny heading into those last three games.  

The case against: We’re still waiting for this team to beat an opponent who has a winning a record. There’s no shame in the losses Miami's endured -- to the Chiefs, Eagles and a Bills team that was healthy back in Week 4 -- but there’s still a legitimate question about this group's legitimacy. Those final three games will go long way toward clarifying if the Dolphins really have learned how to win in those critical moments. It doesn’t help that the defense lost its best pass rusher, Jaelan Phillips, to a torn Achilles in the Black Friday win over the Jets. This unit was just starting to hit its stride. It needs to find somebody to fill that void once Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen show up on the schedule.

Confidence scale (1-10): SEVEN. The Dolphins are an intriguing team in this conversation because it’s easy to see them sitting at 11-3 with three games to go. That’s when it all comes down to their growth over this season. They’ll probably need to win two of those last three games against strong opponents to snag that first-round bye.

Pittsburgh Steelers
7-4 · Wild Card 1

The case for: This team just finds a way. Pittsburgh has been doing it all season with a limited offense, and it might be capable of continuing that success now that offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been fired. The Steelers produced a season-high 421 yards in Sunday’s 16-10 win over Cincinnati with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner running the offense and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan calling the plays. When you combine that kind of production with a defense the features a true game wrecker in T.J. Watt, you can start to feel better about what this team could do late in the season. It also helps that the Steelers have one of the easiest schedules in the league moving forward. In the next four weeks alone they’ll see two of the league’s worst teams (Arizona and New England), plus the Bengals with backup quarterback Jake Browning again.

The case against: It’s too early to buy into the Steelers' offense. This is still the same team that was outgained in every one of its first 10 games this season. That’s way too big a sample size to dismiss at this point. Pittsburgh also is fighting for supremacy in the toughest division in football, the AFC North. Mike Tomlin is a hell of a coach. His problem is the Ravens have more talent.

Confidence scale (1-10): ONE. The Steelers have been a surprising story given their obvious shortcomings. The reality is this team is too flawed to stay in the conversation for the top seed much longer.

Cleveland Browns
7-4 · Wild Card 2

The case for: It’s all about that defense. It’s been the best thing about this team since the season started and nothing has changed since. Only five teams have scored more than 17 points against this D and only three have surpassed 300 total yards in a game. This also is a unit that understands the task at hand. It must carry this team now that quarterback Deshaun Watson’s injured shoulder ended his season. The good news is Cleveland finishes the regular season with four of its remaining six games coming against teams with losing records (the Rams, Bears, Jets and Bengals).

The case against: The Browns are really beat up. They’ve lost Watson, right tackle Jack Conklin and running back Nick Chubb to season-ending injuries, while left tackle Jedrick Wills has been sidelined with a knee injury since Week 9. Sunday’s loss to Denver offered more of the same, as backup quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (concussion) and wide receiver Amari Cooper (ribs) were both knocked out of the game. Oh, and star defensive end Myles Garrett sustained a shoulder injury. Let’s face it: The Browns are going to have a hard time scoring points consistently. If Garrett is down for any amount of time, winning will be just as difficult.

Confidence scale (1-10): ONE. The Browns should be happy with just making the playoffs after all the injuries they’ve suffered. Their defense is good enough to get them that far if Garrett is healthy.

Indianapolis Colts
6-5 · Wild Card 3

The case for: Head coach Shane Steichen has molded a resilient team. Indianapolis lost rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson to a season-ending shoulder injury and kept plugging along behind journeyman backup Gardner Minshew. The Colts have dealt with early-season drama surrounding star running back Jonathan Taylor (who received the extension he coveted) and midseason drama with former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard (who was waived last week after his role continually diminished). Through it all, the Colts just keep winning. This team is currently riding a three-game win streak. It also has four more games against teams that have losing records. This is starting to feel real in Indianapolis. 

The case against: If you’re wondering how Pittsburgh has gotten this far with its limitations, then Indy's accomplishments really must blow your mind. It has a top-10 scoring offense, but Minshew has thrown just eight touchdown passes (against seven interceptions) in 11 games. The defense has been one of the worst in the league all season and gave up 107 points in a three-game losing streak that preceded this current win streak. The Colts' recent run comes with the caveat of taking place as the schedule has lightened up. Their last three wins came against Carolina, New England and Tampa Bay.

Confidence scale (1-10): ZERO. The Colts are a nice story, but they’re going to face a lot of competition for this wild-card spot.


Sean Payton
Sean Payton
Denver Broncos · HC

The Broncos head coach took a lot of body shots when his team was struggling. He deserves his fair share of credit for the way Denver has responded to those early-season issues. The same team that started 1-5 has won five straight games and firmly entrenched itself into the playoff conversation. A defense that was once historically bad has become one of the best in the league at generating turnovers. Quarterback Russell Wilson also is making plays again, with his confidence permeating throughout the offense. And then there’s this: The Broncos have beaten the Chiefs, Bills, Vikings and Browns during this stretch, all of whom could be playing in the postseason. This is what Denver hired Payton to do.

Rashee Rice
Kansas City Chiefs · WR

The Chiefs have been searching for more reliable weapons on offense, and Rice is becoming an obvious option with each passing week. The rookie wide receiver posted season highs in receptions (eight) and yards (107) while also scoring a touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Raiders. The best part is the Chiefs kept things simple. Most of the first-year pro's targets came on hitches and drag routes, where he could catch the ball and use his strong running skills. Rice already looked like a promising player. On Sunday, he became a clear solution to some of Kansas City’s frustrations in the passing game.

DaRon Bland
Dallas Cowboys · CB

It’s time to start talking about this guy as a real candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Cleveland’s Myles Garrett has been incredible -- and remains the favorite -- but Bland isn’t receiving nearly the love he deserves. He now holds the record for most interception returns for a touchdown in a season after producing his fifth pick-six in the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day win over Washington. He also leads the league with seven total interceptions, and that’s after just 11 games. It’s apparent that sacks have become the marquee stat when deciding who wins this award, but Bland is definitely worthy.


Frank Reich
Carolina Panthers · HC

You knew there would be some major growing pains as Carolina tried to acclimate rookie quarterback Bryce Young to the NFL. What has gone on lately has to make you wonder what type of pressure Reich is feeling in his first season on the job. The Panthers are downright horrible. Their offense ranks among the worst in the league and their defense has been even more disappointing. Reich’s decision to give play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown only to reclaim those responsibilities a few weeks later also wasn’t a good look. This team just dropped to 1-10 with Sunday’s loss to Tennessee. It’s looking like Carolina won’t find another win this season.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: After publishing on Monday, NFL Network Insiders Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport reported that the Panthers fired Frank Reich, with special teams coordinator Chris Tabor taking over as interim head coach.

Cincinnati Bengals

The season-ending wrist injury to quarterback Joe Burrow was always going to be painful for Cincinnati. Now we know just how painful. Jake Browning’s first start revealed that any hope the Bengals had of creating the kind of magic we’ve seen from Joshua Dobbs in Minnesota was crazy talk. Cincy managed just 222 yards of offense (25 rushing) and 10 points in the six-point loss to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have a strong defense, sure, but this was more about where the Bengals are heading than how Pittsburgh attacked them.

Geno Smith
Seattle Seahawks · QB

All the good vibes that emanated from Smith last season haven’t carried over into this year. He’s battled inconsistency and an elbow injury, and it feels like things aren’t going to improve any time soon. Geno produced another lackluster effort in Seattle’s Thanksgiving Day beatdown by San Francisco, as he threw for 180 yards and tossed an interception. The Seahawks now have gone 20 straight drives without a touchdown. Even worse, they have three losses in their last four games, with Smith throwing just one touchdown pass in those defeats.


Green Bay's offensive resurgence. The Packers were falling apart behind quarterback Jordan Love just a couple weeks ago. Now they're suddenly finding themselves with him playing the best football of his young career. He threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns in a Thanksgiving Day win at Detroit, and that was four days after he lit up the Chargers for 322 yards and two touchdowns. Love didn't throw an interception in either game. He's also helped Green Bay thrust itself back into playoff contention, as the Pack are now one game behind Seattle in the race for the seventh wild-card spot.


  1. Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles: An overtime thriller that features nine total touchdowns from Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen.
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: Jacksonville wins a huge AFC South matchup after Houston's last-second field goal attempt bounces off the crossbar.
  3. Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers: Baltimore's defense comes up big in a huge game for both teams.


These are the two best teams in the NFL. They met in the NFC Championship Game last season -- when an early elbow injury to 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy ruined San Francisco’s odds of winning -- and there’s a good chance they hook up again in the same game this January. A shot at the NFC’s first-round bye also will be part of the storyline on Sunday. What else do you need to know?


A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 13 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 9 a.m. ET on Monday, Nov. 27):

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB
  • Caesars odds: +700
  • Weeks in top five: 3
  • Next game: vs. Seahawks | Thursday, Nov. 30
Brock Purdy
San Francisco 49ers · QB
  • Caesars odds: +650
  • Weeks in top five: 4
  • Next game: at Eagles | Sunday, Dec. 3
Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · QB
  • Caesars odds: +180
  • Weeks in top five: 1
  • Next game: vs. 49ers | Sunday, Dec. 3
C.J. Stroud
Houston Texans · QB
  • Caesars odds: +2500
  • Weeks in top five: 3
  • Next game: vs. Broncos | Sunday, Dec. 3
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB
  • Caesars odds: +450
  • Weeks in top five: 11
  • Next game: at Packers | Sunday, Dec. 3


My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: 49ers over Ravens.

Previous picks ...

  • Week 11: Eagles over Ravens
  • Week 10: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 9: Ravens over Eagles
  • Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 4: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 2: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins

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