NFL Playoff Scenarios: Ravens, Broncos Lead Crowded AFC Wild Card Race

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2009

BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 20:  Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs the ball against the Chicago Bears at M&T Bank Stadium on December 20, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

One of the truths you have to accept when you write about a sport like the NFL is just how ephemeral our conclusions can be.

For instance, this was written in total seriousness less than a month ago:

"There's plenty of head-scratching going on over the sudden collapse of the Broncos, but when the team is 25th in points per game, 19th in passing offense, and just 16th in rushing offense, not to mention allowing 117 points in four games against the Redskins, Chargers, Ravens, and Steelers, it's safe to say things aren't turning around anytime soon.

The Broncos don't have an impossible run down the stretch, but with games against the Giants, at the Colts, and at Philadelphia left to play, don't expect any Lazarus jokes this season."

Way to go, me.

Of course, Denver responded by rattling off two straight victories over the Giants and Chiefs, giving up a combined 19 points, and then nearly beat the Colts on the back of a 200-yard receiving day by Brandon Marshall.

Needless to say, egg on my face. Luckily for me they, like the Steelers, have attacked their own playoff ambitions with a ruthlessness only a von Clausewitz could love, losing to Oakland 20-19 yesterday.

Yet here we are, with two weeks to play, and the Broncos not only still have a shot at the playoffs despite the loss to the Raiders, but actually have the inside track with their 8-6 record.

Denver and Baltimore (also 8-6) are the current leaders for the two AFC Wild Card spots, but they just highlight what is an incredibly crowded group that includes six teams sitting at 7-7 just waiting for the Ravens or Broncos to slip up.

Let's look at each's playoff candidacy and see who has the best chance to sneak in under the wire.


Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins made the playoff picture very interesting on Sunday, with Chad Henne throwing an overtime interception against the Titans that, once again, proved Vince Young might be the luckiest man of all time.

But what makes the Dolphins so intriguing is not their young, developing quarterback but one of the most overlooked players at his position this decade: Ricky Williams.

Six years after posting his last complete season, in which he ran for over 1,300 yards, Williams is just 25 yards shy of breaking the 1,000-yard mark.

Our brains' odd fascination with round numbers aside, he's averaging 4.9 yards per carry, the best of his career.

Williams is a subject for another day, but he has maybe the youngest legs any elite running back has ever had at his age. He's still only 32, so if you allow that he hasn't undergone the usual battering that elite running backs suffer, he may still have several more years ahead of him if he changes his mind about retiring.

Even with Ricky running as well as he ever has, the Dolphins have a tough road to the playoffs. Their final two games are against the Texans and Steelers, who are both also 7-7 and fighting for their playoff lives.


New York Jets

As tough as the Dolphins have it in their final two games, the Jets are really in for a treat with games against the Colts and Bengals left for the final two weeks.

With the Colts now the only team left without a defeat on their record, I'm not expecting them to suddenly go and bench their starters until the game is decided.

You don't want to be the coach that gets Manning or Wayne injured with such a clear run to the Super Bowl on the line, but three weeks is a long time to keep your stars on the sideline before the playoffs even begin.

Maybe it's the fact that I've got Peyton Manning leading the way for my fantasy team, the Tecmo Bowl Bo Jesuses, but I'm hoping they go after history, if only to make the Brady/Manning debate infinitely more interesting.

Still, even if the Colts don't sit Manning, the Jets have shown a resiliency you don't usually associate with teams employing a rookie head coach and quarterback. After starting brightly this season, they lost six out of seven games and looked dead in the water.

Then they went and rattled off three straight wins over Carolina, at Buffalo, and at Tampa Bay before tripping up to Atlanta this past weekend.

Truthfully, they're not a half-bad football team at 7-7. Still, it looks like it's going to take nine wins to get into the playoffs and it's going to be a tough road to beat both the Bengals and Colts, especially when they're already behind the Dolphins due to head-to-head losses.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Can anyone figure out the Steelers? Anyone? Bueller?

This really is getting ridiculous. Can they just decide if they're a cursed, Super Bowl hangover team or if they're just an unlucky, injury-prone team that is capable of beating anyone on their day?

They just capped off a five-game losing streak by having their recently-concussed quarterback toss for over 500 yards, knocking off one of the sneakier talented teams in the league 37-36.

Of course before that five-game skid they won five in a row, handing the undefeated Vikings their first loss of the season.

The Steelers now have to take on the Dolphins (discussed above) and the Ravens in their final two games.

They better have that league-best run defense revved up because it's going to take one hell of an effort in that regard for the Steelers to get to the necessary nine wins.

Unfortunately they'll have to rely on just about every other playoff bubble team in the league going to pot because even if Pittsburgh knocks off the Ravens next week, their division record will still be a pedestrian 2-4.

The only saving grace they may have is if Denver beats Philadelphia and loses to Kansas City, Pittsburgh's head-to-head win over the Broncos will put them into the playoffs.

If Denver goes the other way and loses to Philly but beats Kansas City, the Broncos' 7-5 division record will give them a great shot of taking the last wild card spot.

Either way, the Steelers no longer have their destiny in their own hands.


Jacksonville Jaguars

Other than the Broncos and Ravens at 8-6, the Jaguars are actually the most likely team to get into the playoffs, shockingly enough.

Despite being outscored by 56 points this season, the Jaguars have just about every tiebreaker necessary to get them in over any other team in the conference.

Within their division they have a 3-1 head-to-head record among themselves, the Titans, and Texans while, if they win their last two games, they'd finish up with an 8-4 conference record, enough to put them over any of the other potential 9-7 clubs who they might be tied with.

The only team that has a tiebreaker over Jacksonville is Miami, because of the Dolphins' victory in week 14. Still, their ace in the hole might just be that conference record which, because of a lack of any head-to-head matchup, actually gives them the leg up on Baltimore and the Broncos if either or both team falters in the last stretch.

Let's face it, that's not exactly outside the realm of possibility.

The big hiccup in that scenario is that in order to get to that superior 8-4 conference record they have to win their final two games against New England and Cleveland—both on the road.


Tennessee Titans

For all the reasons I just wrote about, the Titans and Texans are in it pretty deep against the rest of the conference in the hunt to lock down the wild card spots in the playoffs.

The Titans have a 2-2 record against the Texans and Jaguars on the season (and are just 2-4 in the conference as a whole), meaning they'd have to finish with a better record than the Jaguars to get in. They also were on the losing end of that overtime season opener from so long ago, putting them behind the Steelers as well.

They own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami after this weekend, but a lot of chips have to fell Tennessee's way to get them back into the playoffs.

Still, after beginning the season 0-6, the Titans did all of us who called them "the most talented team without a win" a big favor by proving us right.

They're still a pretty talented team, but their lucky rabbit's foot has to be Vince Young, who is now 7-1 in his return as a starting quarterback.

It hasn't been pretty by any stretch, but Vince Young has grown by leaps and bounds since his first bout as a starter.

While he owned a winning record in those first two seasons, going 17-11 as a starter, he always relied too heavily on his athleticism. It always seemed that he was resisting the gameplan, swimming against the current and not trusting the system around him.

I've always been of the opinion that quarterbacks can get by on their own only so much. Football is a team game. It relies on systems. It's why coaching can have such a dramatic impact on the success of a team.

Again, this is my opinion, but the ability of a quarterback to truly learn a system, to pair what the system can do with his own abilities, is what allows great quarterbacks to be great quarterbacks.

Michael Lombardi, I believe, made this point somewhat in a podcast with Bill Simmons not too long ago, discussing the career arcs of Peyton Manning, who has been in basically the same system his entire career, and that of Jason Campbell who has shown flashes of quality but has had a new offensive system almost every year of his career dating back to college.

In his return to the field, you can sense Young trusting the system more and his abilities less. He performs his checkdowns, his footwork has been greatly improved, and he keeps his eyes downfield on his receivers. 

He still runs well and can make plays with his feet, but he's shown, to me at least, that his ceiling as a quarterback is maybe higher than we once thought.

This season may be lost for the Titans, unless their run of luck continues unabated, but their future looks brighter than it did a year ago.


Houston Texans

I'm including the Texans here mostly out of courtesy. They're 7-7 of course, but with two games remaining against the Dolphins and Patriots, a pitiful 1-5 division record, and their only quality win of the season coming against the Bengals, their playoff hopes are basically null.

The Texans are actually a good team, to be fair. You don't win seven games in the NFL without being somewhat OK at this tackle football thing.

The problem is the Texans just haven't been good enough. At some point, you have to figure their growing talent base will result in a solid 11-5 season.

In all likelihood, it just won't be under Gary Kubiak.


So how is all this going to shake out?

Obviously the Ravens are in the driver's seat going forward as they sit at 8-6 with games against the Steelers and Raiders left. The way they're playing I think they have the best shot going forward to win out and claim one spot.

After that, I don't have the foggiest who is going to pull into that last spot. With so many games left between teams still fighting for playoff spots, there's just too many moving parts to really pin down with any certainty what will happen.

Denver, as I wrote at the beginning of the article, are in the lead. But with a loss to the Raiders to chew on all week and nothing but hungry teams in the rearview mirror, I'm not hitching my wagon to the Broncos just yet.

No matter what, if you're a neutral it's going to be an exciting two weeks.

If you're a football fan in Denver, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami, New York, Houston, Tennessee, or Jacksonville, however, then congratulations on the impending ulcer.


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