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Revisting the AFC Playoff Race on Christmas Eve

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This is a public service announcement.  It is my duty to offer you all the playoff scenarios in the AFC in one place.  Since I couldn’t find any site that would do this for you, I’ve decided to take the initive myself.  Merry Christmas.

The 10-6 Scenario

The 10-6 scenario refers to any situation where the lowest seed in the AFC would end up at 10-6.  For this to happen, both the Broncos and the Ravens would have to win out to make the postseason.  This makes things pretty simple.  It’s also a pretty unlikely scenario.

The 9-7 Scenario

This refers to any situation where at least one playoff team in the AFC ends up at 9-7.  It’s the most likely of all the scenarios.  Now, in order of probability of making the playoffs at 9-7:

  • Baltimore would remain the team most likely to to make the postseason, simply because they can clinch the second seed in the AFC North with a win in either of their two games.  With a win over the Steelers this week, Baltimore can all but knock the Steelers from the playoff race, and can actually clinch a playoff berth with a Jets loss, and a Jaguars loss, (and either a Dolphins loss or Pats win: any scenario where the Pats clinch the AFC East takes them out of the wild card race).  It’s a little different if the Ravens lose to the Steelers and then rebound against the Raiders.  The Ravens would still clinch second place in the AFC North, but would need help to make the postseason.  They would actually need the Steelers to beat the Dolphins, would need the Jets to lose again, and then would either need Jacksonville or Denver to lose one of their final two games.  Still, barring something highly unexpected, the Ravens will be in.
  • Denver is out a little bit further, because they head to Philadelphia this week, and while it wouldn’t shock me if they were able to overcome the Eagles, it would have to be considered an upset if they win.  It’s very likely they’ll be playing Kansas City for their playoff lives in Week 17, and that they’ll need some help.  It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to stave off Baltimore if they do not beat Philadelphia (remember that Baltimore beat Denver head to head, back when the Broncos were 6-0).  Denver’s best chance, unlike Baltimore, is to take care of business and get to 10-6.  But if they fall to Philadelphia, Denver needs help FROM Baltimore (or Miami) against Pittsburgh, and they’ll need Jacksonville to fall in one of these next two weeks.  But certainly, there is one likely scenario that has Denver missing the playoffs, and that’s if they lose to Philadelphia this week, and then the Steelers beat the Ravens, and beat the Dolphins.  In this case, we’ll have three teams making the playoffs from the AFC North, and the 9-7 Broncos will be home for the playoffs.
  • Jacksonville is still quite likely to make the playoffs if they can beat the New England Patriots at their home.  Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the Pats are 7-0 at Gillette Stadium this year.  The Jaguars hold almost every tiebreaker imaginable, the lone exception being their Week 14 head-to-head loss to the Dolphins.  So if they win out, they need to get help from either the Texans or the Steelers against the Dolphins, and then just need to get a loss from either the Broncos or the Ravens (or both).  Technically, the Jaguars don’t control their own destiny because they could win out, and mathematically miss the playoffs.  But in layman’s terms, the Jaguars can make the postseason if they beat the Patriots and the Browns.  And if they beat the Pats on the road, it would be hard to argue that they don’t deserve it.
  • The NY Jets might be on the ropes according to head coach Rex Ryan, but they actually have a very high probability of making the playoffs if they can just win out.  The problem is just that: the Jets have to be the least likely of all the 7-7 AFC teams to finish 9-7.  They have to go to Indianapolis and play the Colts, and then they’ll have to come home and beat the AFC North leader Cincinnati.  If they can drop the Colts for the first time this year, and beat the Bengals (and given their defensive scoring ability, anything is possible), they’ll need three of the following teams to lose: Miami, Jacksonville, Baltimore, and Denver.  It’s highly likely that the Jets will make the playoffs if they can win out, but it’s just as unlikely that they can take care of their own business.
  • Miami will be pulling hard for the Steelers and Chargers this week against the Ravens and Titans respectively.  With those two wins, the Dolphins will control their own destiny for the playoffs.  Of course, they still would have to beat the Texans and Steelers to get to 9-7, which is no guarantee.  You’d have to figure that if the Steelers are good enough to beat the Ravens, they would be favored in Miami for a game where the winner likely makes it to the post season.  But don’t sleep on the Texans.  The Dolphins went 11-5 last year, but fell to the Texans, who had no issue passing against their defense.  The Dolphins get to try to close out a playoff berth at home, so we will see just how much of an advantage it is to play in December in Miami.
  • Pittsburgh is in a tricky situation because they probably won’t catch the Ravens, even if they beat them this week, and are likely to finish third in their own division.  But by beating the Broncos head to head earlier this season, no team benefited more from Oakland’s upset win on the road (ironically).  The Steelers of course, could hardly celebrate needing every one of Big Ben’s 503 passing yards to beat the Packers at the final gun.  However, Pittsburgh now needs to win out, and get some help.  They need a Denver loss to open up a playoff spot to be earned, and they need to pull for the Tennessee Titans to win out and take second in the AFC South.  If the Titans can do this (which requires a Jags loss or tie), the Steelers will tie with the Titans and Broncos for the sixth seed in the AFC, and will win it by virtue of sweeping those teams.
  • Tennessee needs help to catch Jacksonville in the AFC South, but with a second place finish in their division, would be very much alive in the playoff race if they can beat San Diego at home, and Seattle on the road.  Tennessee’s problem is that they do not hold any tiebreakers with the two 8-6 teams in the AFC, and consequently, cannot make the playoffs unless one of the Ravens or the Broncos lose out.  They’ll need Pittsburgh to help them out against Baltimore, but then to turn around and lose to the Dolphins the following week.  They’ll also look for help from Philadelphia against the Broncos, but in any case, will need either the Raiders or the Chiefs to come through in Week 17 with an upset over the Ravens or the Broncos respectively.  This has a low probability of happening, but that’s what the Eagles thought when they needed a Raiders win last year to make the postseason.
  • Houston has the lowest probability of making the playoffs of all the AFC teams, as they need to win out and get plenty of help.  Their scenario is very similar to that of the Titans: the biggest thing is that they need to see either the Ravens or the Broncos lose out.  Like the Titans, they also play a home game against a AFC division winner that they must win: they’ll play the Patriots, who could be resting starters.  If they can get to second place in their own division (they win out, and both the Jags and Texans lose), the Texans’ playoff probabilities become very real.  Because they hold tiebreakers over the Pittsburgh Steelers, any win by the Steelers over the Ravens would put the Ravens in a must-win situation on the road against the Raiders.  If they lose, the AFC North could send no teams to the playoffs, because the Texans would get the nod even if the Steelers win out.  For Steeler fans, it would be pretty devastating to get everything you needed to happen to make the postseason, and to take care of your own business down the stretch, and lose out because the Titans couldn’t take care of business in the AFC South.

The 8-8 Scenario

The 8-8 scenario refers to any situation where the last seed in the AFC goes to a team with 8 wins.  This means that one of the Denver Broncos or Baltimore Ravens manages to lose out, but none of the 7-7 teams jump in and take the open playoff spot by winning out.  Everyone loses at least once.

  • Losses eliminate the Titans, Texans, and on a complicated common opponents and strength of victories tiebreaker that assumes no ties in the final two weeks of the season, the New York Jets are also eliminated from playoff contention.
  • On the other hand, the Jaguars benefit greatly from this scenario.  They can beat the Browns to salvage 8-8, and all of a sudden, they just need the Dolphins to lose out, and then they’re in at 8-8.  This assumes that either the Broncos lose out, or the Ravens and Steelers both fail to get to 9 wins, which seems unlikely.  Of course, the whole 8-8 scenario is improbable.
  • In the 8-8 scenario, the Dolphins need to beat the Steelers to remain playoff viable, but can overcome a loss to the Texans.  The Dolphins can still catch the Ravens if they lose out, but they cannot catch the Broncos thanks to the strength of victory tiebreaker.
  • The Steelers cannot catch the Ravens if they do not beat the Dolphins.  But even a loss to the Ravens would not eliminate them from the playoffs if the Broncos don’t win again.  The key would be that the Jacksonville Jaguars would get the tiebreaker over the Steelers at 8-8 if they are there.
  • In all other scenarios, the Ravens can make the NFL postseason without winning another game.  In any situation where the Broncos lose out, they can only make the postseason if the Steelers and Jaguars also lose out, without the AFC South winner reaching 9 victories.

Armageddon

NFL Armageddon occurs if the Raiders and Chiefs become great teams and neither the Ravens nor the Broncos win again the rest of the year.  On top of this, let’s propose that no team in the AFC except the division winners make it past 8-8.

In this scenario, Pittsburgh must beat Baltimore, Miami must beat Pittsburgh, and Houston must beat Miami.

  • At 8-8, Miami clinches 2nd place in the AFC East over the New York Jets
  • Baltimore still clinches 2nd place in the AFC North over Pittsburgh, who gets third.
  • At 8-8, Denver is eliminated from playoff contention because of Pittsburgh reaching 8-8.
  • The AFC South could go in any direction.  Houston reaches 8-8 in this crazy scenario, but that’s only good enough for second place if Jacksonville and Tennessee do not win again.  If they all go to 8-8, Jacksonville gets second in the division.  If Houston and Tennessee tie for second, Tennessee wins the tiebreaker.
  • If Jacksonville gets to 8-8, they are in (5th seed).  If they do not, Tennessee and Houston are still out.
  • If Jacksonville is in, Pittsburgh is out.
  • In all likelihood, Denver gets in on strength of victory (this team has beaten NE, CIN, NYG, DAL, and SD this season), although Miami is conceivably close enough to catch them in a pie in the sky scenario.  Pittsburgh is now eliminated.  The Jags are your 5th seed, and the Broncos are your 6th.
  • But if the Jags don’t get to 8-8, Denver is now the 5th seed on strength of victory (projected at: .444).  Miami is hot on their tails (projected at: .409).  They would be the 6th seed.
  • And here is the craziest possible scenario I can imagine: Miami, Denver, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh all finish 8-8.  If Miami catches Denver in the Strength of Victory tiebreaker, they get the 5th seed instead of the 6th.  Then Denver…doesn’t get anything.  If you take Miami out of the running, it goes back to head to head tiebreakers.  This means that Denver is OUT, by virtue of losing to Baltimore.  Only in the NFL, would the strength of victory statistic of the Miami Dolphins potentially determine whether Baltimore or Denver makes the postseason.  But there’s a possibility that happens.

The Most Probable Scenario

Here’s what I think will happen these last two weeks.  In week 16:

  1. Miami beats Houston (Houston eliminated)
  2. Philadelphia beats Denver
  3. Pittsburgh beats Baltimore
  4. New England beats Jacksonville (Patriots clinch AFC East)
  5. Indianapolis beats the Jets (NYJ eliminated)
  6. San Diego beats Tennessee (Tennessee eliminated)
  7. Cincinnati beats Kansas City (Bengals clinch AFC North)

And in Week 17:

  1. Jacksonville beats Cleveland
  2. Denver beats Kansas City
  3. Baltimore beats Oakland
  4. Miami beats Pittsburgh*  OR
  5. Pittsburgh beats Miami

I think that Miami has a chance to spoil the postseason bid for the Ravens.  With Miami, Baltimore, and Denver all tied at 9-7, Denver is in as the 5th seed, playing Cincinnati in the wild card round, and the Dolphins are in as the 6th seed.  But I’m not about to rule out the Steelers in a must win game: they can save the hated Ravens!  If the Steelers win out, it not only puts them in over Miami, but it saves Baltimore, giving them the 5th seed, and knocks Denver from the playoffs.

So there you have it.  I’ll say that Baltimore and Pittsburgh grab the wild cards in the AFC.

Unless the Dolphins…never mind.

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  1. December 27, 2009 at 10:16 pm
  2. December 27, 2009 at 10:40 pm

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