After Sunday afternoon, the AFC playoff picture got a lot more interesting entering the final two weeks of the regular season. With the Titans beating out Miami on a last-second field goal, a Texans win, a Jets loss, and the Steelers' miracle comeback victory, the conference has six teams stuck at 7-7.
The team to come out of that piled up and live for another day in January might seem clear as mud, but an in-depth look at tiebreakers and schedules down the stretch put the true contenders in clear vision.
The Ravens and Broncos currently control their own destiny with 8-6 records and can punch their playoff tickets next Sunday. But while Baltimore and Denver are looking at six teams only a game behind in the wild card race, only two of the teams in the mix are legitimate contenders for that final spot.
Based on conference records, Jacksonville (6-4 in AFC) and Miami (5-5 in AFC) clearly hold the upper hand with a tiebreaker advantage on the other four playoff hopefuls—that is, if each can take care of business in their remaining schedule. The Jaguars finish on the road at New England and Cleveland, while the Dolphins close out 2009 with a pair of home games against Houston and Pittsburgh.
Both would need to run the table to have a chance at the wild card, but with help in the final two weeks the playoffs are a reality.
For the other four teams waiting for their break, it's unlikely that good fortune will be coming for the Jets, Steelers, Texans, and Titans, who are all in a weak position in the AFC with regard to the tiebreaker scenarios, which will play a huge role on the final weekend.
The Jets shot themselves in the foot by losing at home to Atlanta and are in a precarious position down the stretch. They've already lost twice to Miami in divisional play, which will make all the difference in the end if each finish tied at season's end, and New York has only mustered a 5-5 mark within the conference. Not to mention, New York faces the undefeated Colts on the road next week at Lucas Oil Stadium.
For the defending Super Bowl champions, who looked completely dead until another Ben Roethlisberger miracle winning touchdown, the prospects of defending their championship are still looking bleak, despite breaking their five-game losing streak.
Pittsburgh is a meager 4-6 against AFC competition and are not playing good football overall. The only thing that might give the Steelers a chance in the final two weeks is their schedule. They face Baltimore next Sunday in a playoff showdown and finished off on the road in Miami—both teams that they need to leapfrog to get in the top six.
The Tennessee Titans, possibly aside from their division rivals that have won 22 straight and are seeking perfection, are the hottest team coming down the stretch drive having won seven of their last eight games despite the horrid 0-6 start to the season.
The problem for the Titans will come down to crucial conference losses early in 2009 against the same teams they're battling with for a shot at the Super Bowl—all close games, too. A 13-10 defeat to Pittsburgh to open the season, 34-31 heartbreaker against the Texans, and a turnover-filled 24-17 loss at the Meadowlands have all contributed to a miserable 4-7 record in the AFC.
And despite the masterful comeback orchestrated by the reborn Vince Young, if Tennessee falls short fans will look back at the key conference losses early in the season as a big reason they won't be watching playoff football for the first time since 2006.
Down in Houston, the once 5-3 Texans have fallen apart, but a pair of wins over NFC West competition has kept them on the outskirts of the playoff conversation. Yet a 1-5 divisional record in the AFC South and a 4-6 conference mark will make it improbable for Houston to make its first-ever playoff appearance—in what will likely be Gary Kubiak's last hoorah.
So while six teams on the outside are holding out hope that the chips will fall in their favor, reality tells a different story. The Jaguars and Dolphins are the front-runners to knock Baltimore or Denver out of their playoff positions, with a relatively favorable schedule and the tiebreakers in their hands.
Either way, next weekend will simplify the cloudy playoff picture, as crucial AFC match-ups are on the horizon Sunday. Miami and Houston clash in what is ultimately an elimination game, Pittsburgh and Baltimore face off in a heated divisional game for possible playoff destiny, while Jacksonville meets the Patriots in Foxboro with all its playoff hopes on the line.