AFC Playoff Free-For-All

The conference heavyweights of New England and Denver currently stand as the top two seeds and I expect them to remain so.

Cincinnati sits at 8-3-1 and hosts Denver in Week 16, but let’s be honest Cincy probably has a better chance of choking away the AFC North than making a serious push for a top two seed. I do think Cincy will win the North as they have a two game lead in the loss column over the field. Although they still have two remaining games against Pittsburgh and must travel to the Dog Pound in Week 15, they are clearly the most talented team in this division and should be able to maintain their lead. Of course when Andy Dalton is your quarterback anything is possible.

Indy is firmly entrenched as the AFC South leader and although the Texans are still mathematically alive and have a matchup with the Colts in Indy in Week 15, no one is that much of a believer in Fitzmagic and disbeliever in Andrew Luck.

Out of those four teams the Bengals are the only team I would say is susceptible to relinquishing its division lead, but I think they can manage at least a split with the Steelers in their two remaining matchups and that should be enough for Cincy to maintain its hold on the division.

Where the AFC playoff picture is particularly crowded and cloudy is in the wild card race. Through Week 13 the Chargers are currently slotted as the first wild card with an 8-4 record and the Dolphins hold the final playoff spot with a 7-5 record. Lurking behind them are the Chiefs, Ravens, Bills, Steelers and Browns at 7-5, but losing out on tiebreakers. The Texans remain a longshot, but are still alive at 6-6.

Those tiebreakers are likely to change in the coming weeks and because the field is so crowded, conference records may loom just as large as any head-to-head meetings among the contending teams.

piitt

Now let’s get to each team’s remaining schedule and evaluate the key games that will go a long toward crowning two wild card teams from the jumbled mess.

The Chargers host the Pats this week in a matchup that has huge playoff implications. Thanks to Philip Rivers and an awful Ravens secondary, the Chargers saved their playoff hopes with a dramatic fourth quarter comeback last week in Baltimore. However, the Chargers’ remaining slate is brutal: vs Patriots, vs Broncos, @49ers, @Chiefs. That is insanely tough! If the Chargers can split with the Pats and Broncos the next two weeks, then get a win against the spiraling 49ers that Week 17 trip to Kansas City could be for all the marbles. Rivers destroys Alex Smith in a QB comparison, but I actually think the Chiefs are a more complete team and that Arrowhead crowd (best fan base in the NFL) makes winning in KC at least 20 times harder.

chargers

However, the Chiefs are on a two-game skid[1] and face another What the Hell is Happening to Our Once Promising Season team with a trip to Arizona this week. The Chiefs have two remaining roadies, Arizona this week and a trip to Pittsburgh in Week 16. If they can split those two contests, exact revenge on the Raiders in Week 15 and then beat the Chargers at home in the final week of the season, I think they get in.

kc

The Dolphins host the Ravens this week in what has the feel of a loser leaves town match in which the loser’s playoff hopes are done. However, I think the Dolphins could withstand a loss, although it would be difficult with a matchup against the Pats in Foxboro next week[2]. A split over the next two weeks could be considered a win for the Dolphins, especially considering they have home games against the Vikings and Jets[3] in the final two weeks of the season.

Now to the AFC North…..wait the Bills are also somehow 7-5 despite their starting QB being Kyle Orton. Wait their starting QB IS Kyle Orton and they have reaming games against the Broncos, Patriots and Packers. Why did we take the time to bother mentioning the Bills again? [4]

bills

Now to the AFC North and the only division that still has yet to be decided[5]. The Steelers actually still control their own destiny to win the division due to their two remaining contests against the Bengals and with the Bengals other two remaining games @Browns in Week 15 and vs. Broncos in Week 16, that Week 17 meeting in Heinz Field could come with the division title on the line[6]. If the Bengals go 2-2 over the last four weeks, however, I think they win the division at 10-5-1[7].

The Ravens are in an interesting situation because they currently lead both of their divisional counterparts, the Steelers and Browns, due to their combined 2-1 record against them[8], but they actually have the worst tiebreaking resume. The Ravens will only be able to maintain their tiebreaker over the Browns and Steelers if they defeat the Browns in Week 17, and they have the same record as the Steelers and Browns at the end of the season (not likely to happen). If the Ravens engage in a two-way tie with the Steelers for the wild card, they will lose out due to their inferior conference mark[9] assuming they both have the same divisional record. The Ravens already have five conference losses, while the Steelers have only three. A tie between the Ravens and Browns for the wild card spot as the winner of their Week 17 matchup would gain the spot, due to head-to-head or divisional record. However, these scenarios only decide which team competes for the wild card out of the AFC North, tiebreakers would still have to be determined with teams competing from other divisions.

ravens

Let’s look at the remaining slates of the Ravens, Steelers and Browns to get a feel what tiebreaking scenarios may be faced for the wild card spot. The Ravens will likely have to win out to get a wild card spot because of their poor conference mark. They don’t have any daunting matchups, but it will be difficult for a team with a banged-up secondary and lacking consistency on offense to win out. Their remaining games are @Dolphins, vs Jags, @Texans and vs Browns. The Steelers play @Bengals, @Falcons, vs Chiefs and vs Bengals for their last four. If the Steelers split with the Bengals[10], can take care of business in Atlanta and then defeat a Chiefs team that is a far different team on the road, I think they get in. At 10-6 with an 8-4 conference mark and a head-to-head win against the Chiefs as a tiebreaker if needed the Steelers would be in a prime spot to snag a wild card spot.

browns

The Browns schedule is vs Colts, vs Bengals @Panthers and @Ravens over the last four weeks. At best I see the Browns going 2-2 over their last four and I don’t see 9-7 being good enough for a playoff spot in such a crowded field. However, let’s assume that the Browns go 3-1 and finish at 10-6. One of their losses would likely come against a conference foe which would give them a 6-6 conference mark, behind those of Miami, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Kansas City. In other words the Browns would lose the conference mark tiebreaker to any team they would be competing for a wild card spot with. The Browns are in a similar situation to the Ravens, they will likely have to win out in order to obtain a wild card.

We have loosely detailed the playoff scenarios surrounding all the competing teams, now I will give my projections over the next four weeks, evaluate tiebreakers and see who gets the two wild-card spots.

Bills: three losses, one win. Finish at 8-8 eliminated.

Ravens: lose @Dolphins or @Texans and finish at 10-6, but just a 6-6 mark in conference.

Browns: go 2-2 at best over their last four giving them a 9-7 record. Eliminated.

Steelers: lose this week in Cincinnati, but win their last three games @Atlanta, vs Chiefs and vs Bengals. Finish 10-6 with an 8-4 conference mark.

Dolphins: The next two weeks are huge for Miami, they need to split vs Ravens this week and @Patriots next week and then avoid what would be killer upsets against the Vikings and Jets the last two weeks. The Phins get the split and then take care of business to finish 10-6 and 8-4 in conference.

Chiefs: This is a tough one. They essentially have one guaranteed win the rest of the way when they host the Raiders in Week 15. Two big roadies against the Cardinals this week and Pittsburgh in Week 16. If the Chiefs can manage a split over those two their Week 17 matchup against the Chargers in Arrowhead could be for a wild card. The Chiefs, however, lose both roadies and finish at 9-7. Eliminated.

Chargers: Lose this week to a pissed off Tom Brady and company, but pick up a big victory next week versus the Broncos. Split a pair of roadies over the last two weeks @49ers and @Chiefs. Finish 10-6 with a 3-3 divisional record and 7-5 conference record.

That would leave the Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins and Chargers all tied for two spots at 10-6. The Steelers eliminate the Ravens with the AFC North divisional tiebreaker thanks to their 8-4 conference mark after both teams finish with divisional records of 3-3.

After the Ravens are eliminated[11]the Steelers, Dolphins and Chargers remain in a three-way tie at 10-6. The Dolphins and Steelers have the better conference records at 8-4, putting both ahead of the Chargers who have a 7-5 conference mark. However, the Dolphins have a better record in common games going a combined 4-1 in games against the Chiefs, Jaguars, Jets and Ravens, while the Steelers are just 3-2[12] against those opponents.

dolphins

So under these completely hypothetical circumstances, the Dolphins would get the five seed and first wild card spot.

The Steelers would then get the sixth and final playoff spot over the Chargers due to their superior conference mark.

So my projections for the two wild card spots in the crowded AFC playoff picture are the Dolphins and Steelers.

[1] Hate to put you through the pain KC fans, but that lost to Raiders on Thursday Night could very well cost your team a playoff berth. Actually I did just bode for you as the best fan base in the NFL so I withdraw my apology.

[2] It may have been 14 weeks ago at this point, but don’t think Bill Belichick and Tom Brady forgot that Week 1 loss to the Dolphins.

[3] I’m calling it now, the Dolphins are going to be 9-6 heading into that Jets game with the playoffs on the line and the Jets are going to shock them. I don’t know how this will happen because it’s the Jets and, well, have you seen their offense, but it’s going to.

[4] Maybe because the Bills are 0-4 in the Super Bowl and have suffered through a 15-year playoff drought. They deserve this!….Or did crushing their playoff hopes make it worse?

[5] Am I disrespecting the Chargers in the West? Yeah, probably.

[6] I think I just talked myself into the Bengals giving away the North.

[7] All of a sudden every spots fan on Earth isn’t hating that stupid tie so much because we don’t have to deal with tiebreaking scenarios. Unless there is another tie. NO!

[8] The Ravens are a combined 2-1 against the Steelers and Browns and the host the Browns in Week 17, the Steelers are a combined 2-2 against the Ravens and Browns, and the Browns are a combined 1-2 against the Ravens and Steelers.

[9] This is assuming the Steelers split with the Bengals to give them a 3-3 divisional record and the Ravens beat the Browns to give them a 3-3 divisional record. If the divisional records are different, then whichever team has the better divisional record wins the tiebreaker.

[10] If they win both matchups, they have a great chance to win the North.

[11] If the Steelers were to get the first wild-card spot the Ravens would re-enter the discussion against the Chargers and Dolphins. Under these circumstances, both the Dolphins and Chargers defeated the Ravens eliminating them in this scenario as well.

[12] That Jets loss really stings here for the Steelers.

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