The Miami Dolphins, winners of their last three games, hold their playoff destiny in their own hands.
The simple and often overstated truth, "Win and you're in," most certainly applies here. Two teams stand between the Dolphins and a spot in the AFC Wild Card: the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.
Simply put, Miami does not have to concern itself with watching scoreboards if they simply wish to make the playoffs. They need only win. With the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens playing each other in Week 17, the Dolphins are absolved from having to worry about anyone other than themselves.
However, should one be so inclined as to desire greater things, there is reason to watch the scoreboard.
Two wins will get the Dolphins a wild-card berth. Two wins and two New England Patriots' losses give the Dolphins the AFC East division. Two wins, two New England losses, one Indianapolis Colts' loss and one Cincinnati Bengals loss gives Miami the No. 2 seed in the AFC, a first-round bye and home-field advantage for the divisional round.
How is it possible, you ask?
By rule, the top-four seeds can only go to division winners. That being said, it is possible that aside from Denver and Kansas City, all of the playoff contenders in the AFC may finish 10-6 or worse. In such a scenario, Miami would be awarded the No. 2 seed due to having the best in-conference record (over Baltimore and Indianapolis) or due to a head-to-head sweep (over Indianapolis and Cincinnati).
It is the possibility that no one on television is talking about. Perhaps it isn't considered a realistic possibility, but that is not true. Let's take a look at each team involved in this scenario.
The Bengals close out the season with two home games. This week they face a test against the Minnesota Vikings and a hot QB in Matt Cassel. In Week 17, they face Baltimore with the AFC North potentially on the line.
Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati offense are coming off one of their most modest performances of the year, having managed only 279 yards of total offense against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Expect both Minnesota and Baltimore to play aggressively on the defensive end. Both like to get after opposing quarterbacks and have the personnel on the defensive line to do so.
Vikings defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison have 18 sacks combined. Not to be outdone, Ravens linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have 18.5 combined sacks.
Neither team is going to lie down for Cincinnati. If the Bengals want to win their division or make a run at the No. 2 seed, they'll have to work for it.
The best hope for Miami, in this situation, is likely Baltimore. The Ravens hope to complete the season sweep of the Bengals in their quest to win the North. They won the first meeting, 20-17, with a field goal in overtime.
To prevent the Colts from securing the No. 2 seed, Miami needs them to lose one game. Enter the Colts' Week 16 opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kansas City is not just haplessly playing just to keep pace with the Denver Broncos. Should John Fox, Peyton Manning and the Broncos falter in one of their final two games, the Chiefs will still have a shot at the top-overall seed in the AFC.
In short, there is a lot riding on this game.
Both teams boast highly efficient offenses, tied for first in the NFL with only 14 turnovers. Kansas City, however, boasts a more aggressive defense that ranks first in takeaways with 35—14 more than Indianapolis.
With the Colts ranking only No. 27 in the league against the run, they face a formidable challenge in Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles—No. 4 in the NFL with 1,181 rushing yards.
This is the best hope Miami has for an Indianapolis loss as they close out their season against the Jacksonville Jaguars—a team they've already beaten once 37-3 in Week 4.
New England Patriots
Thanks to wonders of NFL scheduling, the most impractical part of the equation might actually be needing New England to lose to both Baltimore and Buffalo—especially Buffalo. However, both losses are feasible.
When Baltimore plays host to New England this week at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens will be playing to keep pace with Cincinnati with hopes of winning the AFC North. A Bengals loss to the Minnesota Vikings this week does not afford them the opportunity to rest on their laurels against the Patriots.
They will still need to play for positioning. Depending on how the rest of the AFC plays out, there may be a significant difference in being the No. 3 or 4 seed. Simply put, every game has meaning for the Ravens.
The Buffalo Bills, on the other hand, have nothing more to play for but pride and the chance to play spoiler to one of their two divisional foes in Miami and New England.
Contrary to their 5-9 record, Buffalo is not a pushover. They were up on the Patriots 21-17 heading into the fourth quarter of their Week 1 matchup before yielding two field goals—including the game winner with nine seconds remaining—to lose 23-21.
That game, much like their forthcoming Week 17 contest, featured a New England offense that lacked star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
So, to assume that the Patriots will waltz into the playoffs might be an overestimation.
The likelihood of the Miami Dolphins not only winning their division but also ending up as the No. 2 seed in the AFC may not seem very great, but judging by the schedule, it is quite plausible.