Breaking Down the Race for the Final AFC Wild-Card Spot

Kevin LeeCorrespondent IDecember 27, 2013

After beating the Patriots in Week 15, the Dolphins laid an egg against the Bills, hurting their chances of making the playoffs.
After beating the Patriots in Week 15, the Dolphins laid an egg against the Bills, hurting their chances of making the playoffs.Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Only one week remains in the NFL regular season, and all but one of the playoff berths in the AFC have been determined. 

Denver, New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis have all clinched division titles and trips to the postseason. The Kansas City Chiefs have also secured a playoff spot by clinching a wild-card berth. 

Four teams are vying for the second and final AFC wild-card spot. Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh all have a shot entering Week 17.

Probabilities That Each Team Will Make the Playoffs
TeamWeek 17 OpponentProbability of Making Playoffs
Miami Dolphinsvs. New York Jets62.9%
Baltimore Ravens@ Cincinnati Bengals21.0%
San Diego Chargersvs. Kansas City Chiefs8.1%
Pittsburgh Steelersvs. Cleveland Browns8.0%

Here's how each of those four teams can clinch a place in the postseason:

Miami Dolphins

Miami's embarrassing 19-0 shutout against the Buffalo Bills last week made the race for the final spot quite a bit more interesting. Playing host to the Jets in the final week of the season, the Dolphins no longer control their own destiny.

Miami will clinch an AFC Wild-Card Berth only if...
Dolphins' ResultOther Contenders' Results
Win (vs. Jets)Ravens Loss (@ Bengals) AND Any Chargers Result (vs. Chiefs)
Win (vs. Jets)Ravens Win (@ Bengals) AND Chargers Win (vs. Chiefs)
NFL Tiebreaking Procedures

A loss to the Jets would be devastating for Joe Philbin and the Dolphins. Losing on Sunday would eliminate them from contention for a wild-card berth. In this scenario, the Jets would finish ahead of Miami in the AFC East due to a superior divisional record.

Despite losing to Buffalo last week, the Dolphins still have the best chance at making the playoffs.
Despite losing to Buffalo last week, the Dolphins still have the best chance at making the playoffs.Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Because the NFL's tie-breaking procedures break ties between teams in the same division first, a Jets win would make it impossible for Miami to make the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

What about the Jets though? They would finish 8-8 with a win, so perhaps they could still make the playoffs. Well, the problem is that New York's conference record would keep them out of contention. That's why they've already been mathematically eliminated. Rex Ryan and company could still play the role of spoilers if they manage to beat Miami, however.

A win against the Jets could still see the Dolphins miss out on the postseason. If Baltimore defeats Cincinnati and San Diego loses to Kansas City, Miami would lose the tiebreaker with Baltimore due to the head-to-head result between the two.

Essentially, if Miami beats the Jets, the Dolphins only need the Ravens to lose or the Chargers to win in order to secure a wild-card berth. Miami owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against San Diego, so if both finish 9-7 and Baltimore loses, then the Dolphins would get the nod.

In the case where all three win and finish with a 9-7 record, the Dolphins would still go through because they have the best conference record among the three teams.

Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco and the Ravens head to Cincinnati in Week 17 to take on a Bengals team that has already clinched the AFC North title.

Baltimore will clinch an AFC Wild-Card Berth only if...
Ravens' ResultOther Contenders' Results
Win (@ Bengals)Dolphins Win (vs. Jets) AND Chargers Loss (vs. Chiefs)
Win (@ Bengals)Dolphins Loss (vs. Jets) AND Any Chargers Result (vs. Chiefs)
Loss (@ Bengals)Dolphins Loss (vs. Jets) AND Chargers Loss (vs. Chiefs) AND Steelers Loss (vs. Browns)
NFL Tiebreaking Procedures

A Ravens win combined with a Dolphins win and a Chargers loss results in a tie between Baltimore and Miami. Both would be 9-7, and Baltimore would win the tiebreaker.

The Ravens can do themselves a favor by beating the Bengals once again.
The Ravens can do themselves a favor by beating the Bengals once again.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If Baltimore wins and the Dolphins lose, the Ravens don't have to worry about what happens in San Diego. A Chargers loss means John Harbaugh's team would have the best overall record among the teams contending for the second wild-card berth. If the Chiefs fall to the Chargers once again, Baltimore and San Diego would both possess 9-7 records. Because of a better conference record, the Ravens would win the tiebreaker.

Unlike the Dolphins, the Ravens could still get that wild-card berth if they lose to the Bengals. However, Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh would all have to lose. That would leave the Jets, Ravens, Chargers and Dolphins tied at 8-8. Since the NFL breaks these types of ties by considering intra-conference teams first, Miami would be eliminated for finishing behind New York in the AFC East. The Ravens would make the playoffs by having a better conference record than the Jets and Chargers.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers are hoping that they can beat Kansas City once again to extend their winning streak to four games. Just like Miami, a loss would eliminate them from the wild-card race.

San Diego will clinch an AFC Wild-Card Berth only if...
Chargers' ResultOther Contenders' Results
Win (vs. Chiefs)Dolphins Loss (vs. Jets) AND Ravens Loss (@ Bengals)
NFL Tiebreaking Procedures

In fact, there's only one scenario where San Diego makes the playoffs. The Chargers need to win and have to hope that both the Ravens and Dolphins lose. This would give San Diego the best overall record among the three other contenders.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are in the same boat as the Chargers. There's only one way for them to squeak into the playoffs. Of course, Pittsburgh would have to beat the Browns in order to have an 8-8 record. Then, Mike Tomlin's team would need losses from the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers.

Pittsburgh will clinch an AFC Wild-Card Berth only if...
Steelers' ResultOther Contenders' Results
Win (vs. Browns)Dolphins Loss (vs. Jets) AND Ravens Loss (@ Bengals) AND Chargers Loss (vs. Chiefs)
NFL Tiebreaking Procedures

That would mean five AFC teams finish the regular season at 8-8. In addition to the Steelers, Ravens, Chargers and Dolphins, the Jets would also factor into the tie-breaking procedures even though there's no scenario in which they would clinch the wild-card berth.

Once again, ties are broken between intra-conference teams first. Based on divisional standings and records, the Steelers would eliminate the Ravens and the Jets would eliminate the Dolphins. 

That leaves the Jets, Chargers and Steelers. Pittsburgh would clinch the final wild-card spot because of its superior conference record.

No matter how unlikely the odds are for some of these teams to play in the postseason, all four teams still have a chance to make a run in the playoffs. Who do you think will clinch the last AFC wild-card berth?


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