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AFC Playoff Picture: Myles Garrett’s assault of Mason Rudolph overshadows significant shift in Wild Card race

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Lots to unpack here.

The AFC playoff picture shifted dramatically on Thursday night, as the Cleveland Browns beat the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 21-7. Pittsburgh falls to 5-5 while Cleveland keeps their hopes alive at 4-6. That wasn’t the top-line takeaway from the game, though.

The teams were playing out the remaining seconds and nothing of importance was happening. With eight seconds left in a two-score game, Steelers QB Mason Rudolph passed the ball to his running back when nothing was open down the field. The cameras panned to the ballcarrier who went out of bounds harmlessly down the field.

When cameras panned back to the end zone, Rudolph was without his helmet, which was in the clutched hand of Browns’ DE Myles Garrett. A second later, Garrett swung the helmet down onto the crown of Rudolph’s unprotected skull. Luckily, the blow was glancing as the bottom, padded area of the helmet was what came into contact with Rudolph and a pair of Steelers offensive linemen who were attempting to separate the two players. It could have been much worse if it was the crown of the helmet.

What we saw later on replays was Garrett took Rudolph to the ground very late and very unnecessarily. Garrett ended up on top of Rudolph and decided to stay for a while, likely including some choice words for the second-year QB. Rudolph grabbed the back of Garrett’s helmet and flung his legs. (Some are saying this is Rudolph “starting” the altercation by purposefully kicking Garrett in the groin area.) As Garrett gets up off of Rudolph, he grabs him by the facemask and drags him to his feet, pulling off his helmet.

Editor’s note: We’ll put a few videos here, in case one of them is removed. The NFL prohibits us from embedding YouTube video directly, so here’s a link to the entire sequence.

So while that’s the big story coming from Thursday night, the more important one for the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the AFC is the loss by the Pittsburgh Steelers (now 5-5). Pittsburgh had been in sixth place in the conference based on tiebreakers following their four-game winning streak. The loss drops them a half-game behind the Indianapolis Colts (5-4) and the Oakland Raiders (5-4) in the race for the six seed behind Buffalo (6-3).

Buffalo heads to Pittsburgh in a month in what could very well be a game that decides a playoff spot or eliminates one team from contention. With 10-6 looking to be the cutoff for a playoff spot in a hotly-contested race, Buffalo’s three losses looks pretty good compared to Pittsburgh’s five right now.

Full AFC Standings

1. New England Patriots (8-1)
2. Baltimore Ravens (7-2)
3. Houston Texans (6-3, 5-1 AFC)
4. Buffalo Bills (6-3, 4-2 AFC)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)
6. Oakland Raiders (5-4, head-to-head win over IND)
7. Indianapolis Colts (5-4, , head-to-head loss to OAK)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5, 4-3 AFC)
9. Tennessee Titans (5-5, 4-4 AFC)
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)
11. Cleveland Browns (4-6, 4-3 AFC)
12. Los Angeles Chargers (4-6, 2-5 AFC)
13. Denver Broncos (3-6)
14. Miami Dolphins (2-7, head-to-head win over NYJ)
15. New York Jets (2-7, head-to-head loss to MIA)
16. Cincinnati Bengals (0-9)

AFC Playoff Standings

1. New England Patriots (8-1)
2. Baltimore Ravens (7-2)
3. Houston Texan (6-3, 5-1 AFC)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)
5. Buffalo Bills (6-3, 4-2 AFC)
6. Oakland Raiders (5-4, head-to-head win over IND)
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7. Indianapolis Colts (5-4, , head-to-head loss to OAK)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5, 4-3 AFC)
9. Tennessee Titans (5-5, 4-4 AFC)
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)
11. Cleveland Browns (4-6, 4-3 AFC)
12. Los Angeles Chargers (4-6, 2-5 AFC)
13. Denver Broncos (3-6)