What Each AFC Contender Must Do to Secure NFL Playoff Spot
The AFC is reshuffling at a drastic rate. If it's not the No. 1 seed New England Patriots, it's the Miami Dolphins, who are on a six-game winning streak, or the Denver Broncos, the reigning Super Bowl champions who are on the outside looking in after an overtime loss last week.
Through all of the action, we need to recalibrate to understand what is happening around us and what we should be on the look for in the coming weeks.
We'll take a look at every division in the AFC to break down those races, while also keeping in mind which teams have a legitimate shot to make it into the postseason as wild-card teams. Using projected lines over the last five games of the season, we'll highlight specific matchups or stretches that each team's fans should be aware of, including telling you who is in good or poor shaping moving forward.
While it's not mathematically impossible for the New York Jets to make the playoffs, it is possible for the Jets, who at best can finish with an 8-8 record, to win the AFC East. Considering the fact that the AFC has 10 squads at or above .500, which is a mark the Jets need five straight wins to match, they should be considered out of the playoffs by anyone expecting a rational outcome.
|New York Jets||3||8||0|
While we have thought of the East as the Patriots' division—they've only lost the division once since 2003, in 2008 when quarterback Tom Brady threw just seven completions all season—a new challenger has emerged: the Miami Dolphins.
Since the Dolphins have shifted their offense around second-year running back Jay Ajayi, who first cracked over 13 touches in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami is on a 6-0 winning streak. Two of those wins came in divisional play against the Bills and Jets, and the other four of them came against AFC opponents.
Here's a look at what the Patriots and Dolphins' schedules look like for the remainder of the season, using projected point spreads based on Odds Shark's adjusted power rankings and assuming a three-point swing for home-field advantage:
|New York Jets||Home||-24.5|
|New York Jets||Away||-6.5|
If Miami is going to make it to the playoffs, at least via an AFC East title, the collision course is setting up for Week 17, when they go against the division-leading Patriots. Unfortunately for them, the Patriots are projected to be double-digit favorites against three of their next four teams, while Miami is going to be an underdog on the road in three of their next four games.
It's a long shot for Miami to get the nod, but it's possible. The Dolphins need to pull off three short upsets to set up a division-deciding Week 17, if the Patriots do only lose to the Denver Broncos between now and then.
Making up a two-game difference with five weeks to go is never a great spot to be put in, but if the Dolphins win out, they just need that one Broncos upset to flip the table on New England for the first time in nearly a decade.
The Bills have no shot to win the division unless they beat Miami, Miami beats New England and they somehow make up the distance on the Patriots in the remaining games this season. As the No. 9 seed in the AFC, they have an uphill battle in a competitive division for a wild-card berth.
The Cleveland Browns are the only team in the AFC that is mathematically out of the playoffs with a quarter of the season remaining. In the NFL, it's difficult to make the playoffs as a six-loss team, and the Browns have already posted twice as many losses.
While the Cincinnati Bengals are still alive, it's going to be almost impossible for them to make the playoffs as a team with just eight wins, as their best-case scenario is 8-7-1—and that's if they finish the year with five wins in a row, with four of those teams still in the playoff hunt.
In all honestly, this is a two-team race between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, who both have a chance to not only go to the playoffs as the divisional winner, but also as a wild-card team.
Other than the New England game, when they are projected to be double-digit underdogs, according to Odds Sharks' adjusted power rankings, once adjusted for home-field advantage, the Ravens are slated to play in tight games. The only unfortunate thing is they play the Steelers on the road.
There is still a scenario, though, where the Ravens go 3-2 down the stretch, with losses to New England and Pittsburgh, and still make the playoffs as a wild-card team with a 9-7 record after the AFC West, which holds three of the top seven seeds in the conference, cannibalizes itself.
|New York Giants||Home||-5|
If you add up the projected lines for the Steelers' remaining five games, they are 34.5 points in the positive direction. That's huge compared to the Ravens, who are poised to finish 5.5 points in the opposite direction.
To say the least, Pittsburgh has the easiest path to winning the AFC North based off of schedule alone. They get the New York Giants and the head-to-head against Baltimore at home, while they also get throwaway games against the already finished Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers don't have to play against one team that is more than one win over .500 for the remainder of the season, while Baltimore has two in back-to-back weeks just a week before they travel to Pittsburgh.
The AFC South is wide-open. With Tennessee taking their late bye this week, it's within reason to project three teams being tied up at 6-6 heading into next weekend's action, as the Houston Texans have the Green Bay Packers on the road, while the Indianapolis Colts travel to take on the 3-8 New York Jets.
There is no division in football that is as much of a toss-up as the AFC South, but even then, the Jacksonville Jaguars are four games behind the lead, an almost impossible distance to make up with just five weeks left in the season. For all intents and purposes, they are out of the race.
This division will likely produce just one playoff team, which will host a wild-card game, as they make up for just one of the nine AFC teams with a record over .500. The sixth seed in the AFC is the 7-4 Miami Dolphins, and the fifth seed in the AFC is the 8-3 Kansas City Chiefs, who are a good distance ahead of a potential nondivision leader in the South.
We don't even need to bring up the out-of-division games for this playoff race. This division hasn't been solid playing outside of the South since Peyton Manning's neck was 100 percent.
Let's make this simple.
The Texans have road trips to Indianapolis and Tennessee, the two squads they have a higher win percentage than. If they drop that first game against Indianapolis, this race very well may come down to the last week of the season when they go toe-to-toe with the Titans.
On top of that, while the other two squads have just two division games left, the Texans also have to play Jacksonville at home, which shouldn't be a big deal considering the Jaguars have just two road wins in regulation over the last three seasons combined.
Those road games against the Colts and Titans need to be treated as must-wins, even if they are perfect in the division heading into them. One loss can be the difference between being the South's top team or third-best team heading into Week 17.
Like the Cleveland Browns, the Titans are the only other team in the NFL slated to play just four games in the remainder of the season. Half of them will be against AFC South opponents, as they travel to Jacksonville, a 2-9 squad with a lame-duck head coach and nothing to play for, before playing Houston head-to-head.
As mentioned before, that Texans game could easily be what decides the division straight up. You shouldn't be surprised if that becomes a game that is flexed for the whole world to see on Sunday Night Football.
While the Texans and Titans each have six wins a piece, the Colts are a win behind the grouping at the top of the South. They get their final two divisional games at home with Houston and Jacksonville.
At some point, though, they're going to need to pick up an extra game, as they are just 2-2 in the division with Houston sitting at a perfect 3-0. A straight-up win against Houston isn't going to do much, as the Texans already won their first matchup in overtime this year, and Bill O'Brien's squad has a healthy divisional lead.
Out of the division, the Colts have three straight road games: against the New York Jets, a manageable game, Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders, a pair of games which they should be more than three-point underdogs in. The Colts are behind the eight ball here, while Houston and Tennessee are poised for a late-season matchup to decide the division.
Unless this team gets extremely hot down the stretch, with out-of-division consistency not being the Andrew Luck Colts' brand, it's safe to say Indianapolis is going to miss the playoffs. Eyeball Houston-Tennessee as the straw that breaks the camel's back in the South.
As it stands right now, three of the four best records in the AFC come from the AFC West, which means that with five weeks to go, it's a virtual lock that at least two of these squads will get in—with the potential of a third looming, depending on how the AFC North shakes out and if the Miami Dolphins can keep their hot streak going.
Four games behind the divisional lead and three games behind third place, you can go ahead and count the San Diego Chargers out of the playoff hunt. Yes, the Chargers losing four close games in the first five weeks is an incredibly cruel way for them to be considered finished, but that's also reality.
Despite losing just two games all season, on paper, per Odds Sharks' power-ranking numbers and home-field advantage, the Oakland Raiders should lose three of their next five games, putting them at 11-5 with two close losses to Kansas City and San Diego. In theory, they should hover around 11 to 12 wins, but playing that last game of the season in Denver, which might decide the division, is a big deal.
The Raiders are also already one game behind the 3-0 Chiefs in divisional play. They are a virtual guarantee to make the playoffs as long as they can get two home wins or steal one of those divisional road games, but winning the West will depend on the records of those around them as much as their own performance.
Like the Raiders, the Chiefs are also slated to be dogs in three of their remaining five games, but the problem is one of the games they're favored in is a home game against Oakland. If they somehow manage to lose that game while the rest of the division plays to their averages, then they'll be a 9-7 squad and the Raiders and Broncos will finish 12-4, three games ahead of the Chiefs.
That's incredibly problematic. Kansas City might play three divisional winners in this stretch, including two potential teams with a first-round bye in the playoffs, plus they have three in-division games against the strongest division in football on their plate.
The Chiefs' games against Oakland, Denver and San Diego are make-or-break contests for their playoff aspirations. If they can't finish with at least one or two wins there, their hopes to make it into the postseason are slim to none.
Denver is two games behind in the divisional title hunt, but on paper, they are projected to win every remaining game. If every teams plays to their averages, Denver should win the AFC West, despite the fact that they're in third place.
With that being said, they have almost no margin for error. That's difficult when your schedule reads: back-to-back road games, home against the AFC's top seed, on the road against a divisional rival with a better record and back at home against a divisional rival that is the AFC's second seed.
Denver's path to the playoffs is simple: win out. Anything other than that will put them in a position where their destiny is no longer under their own control. The AFC West will produce two playoff teams, and that does play into Denver's favor heading into the last two weeks of the season.