We're coming up on the final week of the NFL regular season. Josh has already given you a bit of a rundown on the NFC playoff scenarios, so I thought I would attempt to shed some light on how the AFC might play out. (Keyword: Attempt)
First.. here are the current records and standings:
1. Colts 14-1
2. Chargers 12-3
3. Patriots 10-5
4. Bengals 10-5
5. Broncos 8-7
6. Jets 8-7
7. Ravens 8-7
8. Texans 8-7
9. Steelers 8-7
10. Dolphins 7-8
11. Jaguars 7-8
12. Titans 7-8 (OUT)
Clearly, the Colts and Chargers have 1 and 2 respectively all wrapped up. Patriots and Bengals share conference records and are both 2-2 in games against common opponents. Each of their last games is against another common opponent, so we must go to the Strength of Victory Tiebreaker. There, Opponents in Patriots wins currently have a very slight margin in that category. If the two teams end up tied, there placement could easily come down to how the rest of the league preforms. Frankly, it doesn't matter much. One of them will be #3 and one will be #4.
So, with the easy stuff out of the way, let's look at the Wild Card Picture.. yeesh.
Here is ESPN's listing of how different teams can make the playoffs...
I'm going to try to explain why this is all true. All of my explanations assume no ties.
TEN is out. Though they could finish 8-8 tied with other 8-8 teams, there conference record is worse than every other possible 8-8 team. They are immediately eliminated in all tiebreaker scenarios.
MIA clinches a playoff spot in only one scenario. They must win and have the NYJ, BAL, HOU, and JAC all lose. If the NYJ win, the best MIA could hope for is a 4-way Tiebreaker with HOU, BAL, and DEN. HOU gets knocked out due to their conference record and the rest are tied in common games, but MIA can't beat out the Broncos in Strength of victory. So NYJ must lose.
Assume MIA wins and NYJ lose this gives them the AFC East #2 position at 8-8. If BAL wins as well, they obviously make it over MIA. The best MIA could then hope for is a 4-way Tie with DEN, HOU, and PIT. Again, they cannot beat out DEN in Strength of Victory. So BAL must also lose.
Even if BAL and NYJ lose and MIA wins, if HOU wins, the Dolphins still can't make it. Since at best they would end up in a 3-way Tiebreaker with DEN and BAL for the #6 seed. They are tied in Conference record, and DEN is tied with MIA in common games, but DEN holds Strength of Victory. So HOU must also lose.
Lastly, JAC holds the Conference Record tiebreaker over everyone, so MIA cannot make the playoffs over them if they win. Moreover, the DEN Strength of Victory tiebreaker means that MIA would miss the playoffs.
The final word is that there is no way for the Dolphins to make the Playoffs over the Broncos. So a Broncos win or loss just doesn't make a difference. Additionally, they can't out-joust the Jaguars in Tiebreakers, so they need a JAC loss as well. If NYJ, BAL, and HOU all also lose, then MIA will be in a 3-way tie for the #6 seed with BAL and HOU. HOU is eliminated based on their Conference record. Both the MIA and BAL have would have a 2-3 record in common games, but MIA would hold the Strength of Victory tiebreaker.
JAC must win. They then make the Playoffs in the following scenarios:
PIT loss, BAL loss, DEN loss, HOU loss, OR
PIT loss, BAL loss, DEN loss, NYJ loss, OR
PIT loss, BAL loss, NYJ loss, HOU loss, OR
PIT loss, NYJ loss, DEN loss, HOU loss, OR
NYJ loss, DEN loss, HOU loss, BAL loss
The reasoning is simply. JAC will hold the Conference Record tiebreaker with any team that ends up 8-8. Therefore, if enough teams lose such that an 8-8 team makes the playoffs, JAC will be it. There are 5 8-7 teams; if 2 of them win, JAC is out. If only 1 of them wins, JAC will hold the tiebreaker over the other 4 and any other potential 8-8 team, such as MIA.
HOU must win. They then make the Playoffs in the following scenarios:
NYJ loss, BAL loss, OR
NYJ loss, DEN loss, OR
BAL loss, DEN loss
Houston has a record of 8-7, but unfortunately have a poor conference record, which is why they are currently on the outside looking in. If even 2 of NYJ, BAL, DEN win, HOU will be eliminated first in any Tiebreaker scenarios and both of those team will make it over HOU. If 2 of NYJ, BAL, and DEN lose, then the worst cast scenario is a 3-way tiebreaker with HOU, PIT, and either DEN or NYJ. DEN or NYJ would take the #5 seed based on their conference record. HOU is 4-1 in common games with PIT and PIT would at best be 2-3, so HOU could take the #6 seed. Therefor, a PIT win or loss does not matter.
PIT must win. They then make the Playoffs in the following scenarios:
HOU loss, NYJ loss, OR
HOU loss, BAL loss, OR
NYJ loss, BAL loss, DEN loss
PIT has its best hope where enough other 8-7 teams lose that they make the playoffs outright. As we demonstrated before, if HOU wins, the are guaranteed to make the playoffs over PIT. Additionally, due to their poor conference record, PIT loses all scenarios where 3 teams are tied for 1 spot. However, their head-to-head victory over DEN gives them some life.
Given their division records, if BAL wins, it automatically makes it over PIT since BAL will be ranked #2 in the AFC North. Therefore, PIT needs to end up in only a 2-way tiebreaker against DEN to make the playoffs. This means that HOU and NYJ both have to lose.
If BAL does lose, HOU still must lose, but PIT will be in a 3-way tiebreaker with NYJ and DEN (assuming they win) for the #5 and #6 spot. NYJ will take the #5 spot, since they would have an advantage in common games over DEN if they win. Then, PIT sneaks into the #6 spot, since the Tiebreaker reverts to a head-to-head matchup, and PIT beat DEN earlier in the year.
In a final scenario, if HOU does win, as long as the other three 8-7 teams lose, then PIT would be one of two 9-7 teams and would not require tiebreakers to qualify.
Despite being the #7 seed at the moment, BAL has a simple win-and-their-in scenario. It's bizarre. It is caused by a fluke in the common opponents record tiebreaker between BAL DEN and NYJ, wherein it doesn't currently qualify as a tiebreaker until NJY plays CIN is week 17. As a result, in the current standings, there are five 8-7 teams. PIT is initially ignored since they are behind BAL in their division. Of HOU, BAL, DEN, and NYJ, we first look at their conference record. HOU is eliminated since there conference record is a game worse than the other three. At the moment, we skip common opponents and jump to Strength of Victory, where Denver easily claims the #5 seed. Then we throw all of the 8-7 teams back in the mix for the #6 seed. PIT and HOU are eliminated for the same reasons as before, and NYJ beats BAL in Strength of Victory.
However, if every 8-7 team wins, such that the Tiebreaker scenarios look similar, then we don't skip the common opponents tiebreaker. In this case, NYJ win the #5 seed between DEN, BAL, and NYJ based on their 4-1 record in those games. When looking at the #6 seed, PIT and HOU are eliminated for the same reasons as stated above, which reverts the #6 seed to a head-to-head tiebreaker between BAL and DEN, which BAL wins.
NYJ also lives in a win-and-in world. Clearly, they outdo DEN, BAL, and HOU from our previous discussion in the Ravens section. They also outdo PIT, since PIT has a weaker conference record.
If DEN wins, They make the playoffs if:
NYJ loss, BAL loss, OR
NYJ loss, PIT loss, OR
NYJ loss, HOU win, OR
PIT loss, BAL loss, OR
HOU win, BAL loss, OR
OR they make the playoffs if:
PIT loss, BAL loss, HOU loss, JAC loss, OR
PIT loss, BAL loss, HOU loss, NYJ loss, OR
PIT loss, BAL loss, NYJ loss, JAC loss, OR
PIT loss, NYJ loss, HOU loss, JAC loss, OR
MIA loss, BAL loss, HOU loss, JAC loss, NYJ loss OR
How much a shame is it that a team ranked #5 in week 16 is not in control of their own destiny. That said, they are the only team that can lose and still make it (Broncos fans... don't count on it).
Even with a win, DEN needs more than one other game to go their way. Since both BAL and PIT own head-to-head tiebreakers, DEN wants to be in 3-way tiebreakers, since that helps make sure that Head-to-Head tiebreakers are not used.
If NYJ wins, obviously, BAL must lose. However, this isn't enough since a PIT victory would mean that NYJ take #5 and PIT beats out DEN in head-to-head at #6. This can be avoided if HOU also wins. A 3-way tiebreaker between DEN, HOU, and PIT goes to DEN since they have a superior conference record to the other two.
If NYJ loses, then BAL and PIT both still own head-to-head tiebreakers, so one of them must lose. Or HOU winning means that DEN could claim that #6 seed in the same way as above.
If DEN doesn't win, they still can clinch a playoff birth in a few scenarios.
Basically, DEN will be looking for a 4-way tie at 8-8, as these usually help them get to the deeper tiebreakers, which they can win. They don't want to end up in scenarios that boil down to head-to-head tiebreakers with PIT or BAL. And obviously, at most one team can be 9-7.
If PIT wins, then BAL, NYJ, HOU obviously all must lose. In this case, PIT is the #5 seed, but JAC must also lose, since their conference record would give them the #6 seed. Even if this happens, let's look at how the Tiebreakers work out. There will be a 4-way between DEN, BAL, NYJ, HOU. HOU is eliminated since their conference record is weakest by one. Now, we have a 3-way between DEN, BAL and NYJ. Previously, when all of these teams won, we saw that this went to NYJ by virtue of their common games record. However, if all teams lose, then DEN actually gets the nod since their common games record will be equal to NYJ and DEN has the Strength of Victory. So, DEN does make the playoffs if MIA, NYJ, BAL, HOU, and JAC all lose.
If BAL wins, then PIT, HOU, NYJ must all lose. Similar to the previous case, JAC must also lose. In the 4-way tiebreaker with PIT, HOU, and NYJ for the #6 seed, HOU and PIT are eliminated by their weaker conference record, and DEN once again outdoes NYJ for the #6 seed based on Strength of Victory.
If NYJ wins, then PIT, BAL, HOU must all lose. Again, JAC must also lose. the 4-way tiebreaker is between DEN, BAL, HOU, MIA (since MIA will have defeated PIT). HOU is eliminated by their conference record. DEN wins the 3-way between DEN, BAL, and MIA by strength of victory as discussed in the Dolphins section at the beginning.
If HOU wins, then PIT, BAL, NYJ must all lose, and JAC must lose. There is then a 3-way tiebreaker between DEN, BAL and NYJ (PIT is excluded since they are in the same division as BAL, and will be behind them in the division standings). As discussed previously, DEN wins this tiebreaker (when they all lose) by Strength of Victory over NYJ.
Lastly, JAC can win, as long as all of the 8-7 teams lose. JAC would take the #5 seed, and DEN again wins based on their Strength of Victory tiebreakers.
I know this is all very dense. Sorry, but that's how this stuff works....