We’re now 12 weeks through the NFL season and with only 5 games remaining on the schedule, the playoff race is really starting to heat up. The AFC in particular, has been painted with quite an interesting landscape. There are 9 teams who either still have a shot at their division title, or can claim one of the two wildcard spots. Here is a look at each team’s remaining schedule, key matchups, tiebreakers, and scenarios, along with my prediction as to which 6 teams will be representing this conference in the playoffs.
New England Patriots - The Patriots have all but assured themselves a playoff spot already, it’s just a matter of if they can snag the top seed. They have a 2 game lead in the division over the Jets, beating them twice head to head. Only 1 of their 5 next opponents have a winning record, and that 1 team is the offensively-handicapped Denver Broncos. The Patriots will be overwhelming favorites in every game the rest of the season, so it’s very conceivable that they will win out to finish 13-3. If Pittsburgh or Baltimore wins out as well to finish with the same record, they will not get the #1 seed losing all tiebreakers to both teams.
NY Jets – Right now the Jets sit at 8th place overall in the conference, but they hold the same record as two other teams - just one game back of the final playoff spot. The Jets have an interesting remaining schedule against a lot of mediocre, tough opponents. They have been so unpredictable this season, that it is difficult to forecast how this team will fare the rest of the way. Playing at Washington & Philly, and home against crosstown rival NY Giants should prove to be very difficult wins. They should be able to defeat KC at home, but end the schedule with a tricky away game versus Miami. The Jets definitely have the potential to put it all together considering they have been to the playoffs the last several years. However, with such erratic play this year and a fairly tough schedule, a 3-2 record or 2-3 record could mean all the difference. The Jets lose their tiebreakers to Denver and Oakland, and would go to conference winning % against Tennessee.
Baltimore Ravens – Baltimore is sitting in a very good position right now, but not a perfect one. They lead the division, but only based on tiebreaker since Pittsburgh has an equal record. Therefore, any slip-ups they encounter the rest of the schedule could cause them to lose out on the divisional crown. However, they are basically a lock for some sort of playoff spot even if they experience a mistake down the road. The Ravens will actually get the #1 overall seed if they win out, and that scenario is entirely possible. They have the head to head tiebreaker against Pittsburgh and Houston, and the better winning % among common opponents tiebreaker against New England. Two games against Cleveland plus one against Indy should give them 3 more easy wins. Flying across the country to play at San Diego could give them some trouble even though the Chargers have been terrible this year. But all 3 of their losses have come on the road, and San Diego may play spoiler during a big night game. However, the biggest/toughest key game may come during the last week of the year @ Cincinnati. Baltimore could be playing for the #1 seed, and Cincinnati could be playing for a wildcard spot.
Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers must really like their chances to make the playoffs as well. They are currently 2nd in the division, but are tied with 3 other teams for the best record in the conference. A lot would have to go wrong for them to miss out on a playoff spot. Two games against Cleveland and another against St. Louis, should definitely produce 3 wins. And with 3 more wins, an 11-5 record at worst would assure this team atleast one of the wildcard spots. Winning out the season gives them a chance to grab the #1 seed in the AFC, but they would need help with a Baltimore loss for that scenario to play out. On the other hand, a loss to Cincy this upcoming week would actually give Cincy the chance to control their own destiny in their battle for playoff seeding. This game along with a trip out to San Francisco on Dec. 19th should determine which wildcard spot they get, or possibly even a divisonal title/#1 seed possibilities.
Cincinnati Bengals – With 3 teams sitting just one game back of Cincinnati out of the playoffs, there is no room for error down the road. Next week @ Pittsburgh could have a profound effect on this team’s future hopes. Pittsburgh looked very unconvincing against KC, and Cincy played them very close last matchup without their star player for 3 quarters. A loss doesn’t kill them, but a win would be immensely huge. The Bengals have a tricky-tough schedule the rest of the way, but all of their games are close regardless. Barring any downfalls, I think a 3-2 record in their last 5 games is very feasible which should be good enough to get a wildcard place at 10-6. They should get wins against St. Louis and Arizona, plus manage one more against a 3rd string qb-led Texans team at home or Baltimore at home (if Balt. clinches their seed they may bench starters also). In the event of an equal record with other wildcard teams, they would beat out Tennessee, lose to Denver, and NY/Oakland would come down to conference winning % (although Cincy has 1 game up as of now).
Houston Texans – This is probably the most unique team of any involved in the playoff picture. They are tied for the best record in the conference, they give up the fewest yards per game, second-fewest pts per game, and average the 3rd-most rushing yards per game. However, they are now relying on their 3rd-string rookie quarterback the rest of the way now that they’ve lost their other two qb’s to injury. This makes it extremely difficult to predict how the rest of the season will go for them. Teams can now stack the box in attempt to stop the awesome running game, and try to get after the rookie qb. I believe the stout defense and strong running game should negate the qb downgrade enough for Houston to hold on for the divisional lead. Of their 5 remaining games, Indy is an easy win, Carolina could challenge, and Atlanta, Cincy, & Tenn. will be tough. Beware if TJ Yates struggles mightily and they go on a skid, a potential final week divisional matchup with Tennessee could effect divisional seeding, wildcard seeding, and a playoff berth altogether.
Tennessee Titans – Tennessee has a lot of work to do to sneak into the playoffs, but if Chris Johnson starts to play like he did last week, they could make things interesting down the stretch. The Titans final five opponents include Buffalo, New Orleans, Indy, Jacksonville, and Houston. This is by no means an easy finish, but I believe they could possibly go 4-1. Based on how their season has played out so far however, it’s more likely that they’ll finish 3-2. In the event of a tie for the last wildcard spot, Tennessee holds the tiebreaker over Denver, loses to Cincinnati, and would go to winning % within conference against Oakland. If Denver, Cincy, and Tennessee have a three-way tie, they would again go to winning % within conference since those three all beat each other.
Oakland Raiders – No one knows what to really expect from any team in this division. At one point it looked as if one bad team would emerge as the division winner and only playoff representative, but now their is an interesting scenario being played out between Oakland and Denver where both teams could potentially make the playoffs. Oakland controls their own destiny with a game in hand on the Broncos, but they also face a rough stretch of opponents. They face a tough Miami team away across the country, get a loss in Green Bay, face a good Lions team at home, play at a tough KC stadium where it’s difficult to win (and already got clobbered by that team), then finish with San Diego at home. I believe the Raiders will finish this stretch at 2-3, 9-7 overall, and put themselves in the middle of a muddled divisional battle/final wildcard spot. If Oakland shares the same record with Denver, divisional record would be the first tiebreaker since they split their regular season matchups, and winning % against common opponents would be the next tiebreaker.
Denver Broncos – I mean what can I say about this team? They are extremely boring to watch, they gain minimal yards per play, they don’t/can’t throw the ball – literally, yet the somehow have turned their season around with a 4 game winning streak behind Tim Tebow. Here’s the thing about this team’s remaining schedule: they could go 4-1 or 0-5. This kind of offense is unprecented in the NFL, so there is no telling if this strategy will actually keep up. One thing is almost for certain though; if the Broncos defense can’t keep playing at an unbelievably high level, then they will have no chance at the division or the wildcard. If necessary, a tie with Tennessee drops them out, but a tie with Cincy gets them in. If there is one thing I’ve learned about the Broncos, it’s never bet against Tebow.
Here is my final playoff prediction:
2. New England