While the NFC remains wide open, with nine teams gunning for five remaining playoff berths (the Seattle Seahawks have already clinched their spot), the AFC is a bit easier to predict, with five teams gunning for three spots.
The Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts are already in, while the New England Patriots would need a meltdown of epic proportions to miss the dance. That leaves the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens jockeying for the AFC North and the Ravens, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers all gunning for the final wild card berth.
Below, I'll lay out my predictions for every playoff seed in the AFC.
1. Denver Broncos (Currently 11-3)
The Broncos need only to win out to secure the AFC West title and the top seed in the playoffs, and it's pretty hard to imagine them failing to do so with games against the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders remaining.
The Broncos also only need to win one game and have both the Chiefs and Patriots lose one game to secure the top spot in the AFC, so it seems very likely they'll secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (Currently 9-5)
Despite losing in embarrassing fashion to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, expect the Bengals to earn a bye week. Here's why:
- The Bengals are 6-0 at home this season. Their last two games against the Minnesota Vikings and Ravens (8-6) are at home.
- The Bengals hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over both the Patriots and Colts. As if that wasn't bad enough for the Colts, they also have to travel to Kansas City in Week 16.
- The New England Patriots have to go to Baltimore in Week 16, with the Ravens fighting for their playoff lives. Baltimore is 6-1 at home this season. New England is 3-4 on the road and just isn't the same on offense without Rob Gronkowski. The Ravens will win that game.
Of course, the Bengals could also miss the playoffs altogether. If both the Ravens and Dolphins win out—ensuring a Bengals loss in Week 17—the Bengals will miss the postseason entirely even if they win in Week 16, since all three teams would be 10-6 but both the Ravens and Dolphins would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Cincy.
In that scenario, to make the playoffs the Bengals would need the Patriots to lose their final two games, allowing Miami to win the AFC East and giving the Bengals the final wild card spot based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. But that's a big ask, as I'll outline below.
In other words, winning out isn't just about getting a bye for Cincinnati, it could also be necessary to make the playoffs at all. But given their form at home, don't be surprised when they win out.
3. New England Patriots (Currently 10-4)
The Patriots need to only win one game to clinch the AFC East, and while I don't think they'll beat Baltimore in Week 16, they should easily handle the Buffalo Bills at home in Week 17 with their playoff lives potentially on the line.
That's right, their playoff lives.
Consider this—if New England loses their next two games and the Dolphins win both of theirs, the Dolphins would win the AFC East with a superior division record. Not only that, but in that scenario both the Bengals and Ravens would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker for the final wild card spot over the Patriots should all three teams finish at 10-6.
As discussed in the Bengals section, the Ravens would win the AFC North and the Bengals would be the wild-card team.
But c'mon—do you really think a team coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady will lose at home to Buffalo in Week 17? Nope, me neither.
4. Indianapolis Colts (Currently 9-5)
The Colts have already clinched their division, so the worst they can finish is the No. 4 seed. And that's exactly where they'll finish.
I don't think they'll beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, so it's a moot point that the Colts could finish as high as the No. 2 seed if they win out and the Bengals and Patriots each lose once (the Colts would have a better conference record than New England, thereby giving them the tiebreaker).
It's possible, but unlikely. Look for the Colts to host Kansas City in the wild-card round.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (Currently 11-3)
Based on record, the lowest seed the Chiefs can earn is No. 5. And since I believe the Broncos will win out and take the AFC West, I feel comfortable penciling the Chiefs into the No. 5 seed.
6. Miami Dolphins (Currently 8-6)
The Dolphins don't control their own destiny, but they do have a much easier slate of games down the stretch than Baltimore. Whereas the Ravens have to play the Patriots and Bengals, the Dolphins have an away trip to Buffalo and host the New York Jets to close the season.
Neither of those games are easy, of course—a trip to Buffalo in December is not kind to warm-weather teams—but both are games the Dolphins should win. And the Dolphins can even get in if they lose one game down the stretch, assuming the Ravens lose twice, since Miami holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the San Diego Chargers, also still technically alive in the playoff hunt but hanging on by a thread.
For all of the drama surrounding the Dolphins this season, a playoff berth is well within their grasp. And you can bet no one will want to face a red-hot Dolphins team that won five in a row down the stretch should they knock off the Bills and Jets to close the season.
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