Down the stretch they come. With six weeks left to play in the NFL season the playoff race is heating up in both conferences. There is chaos in the NFC, while the AFC playoff race is slightly more settled, except for one spot: the second wild card spot. Three of the four divisions in the AFC appear to be all but spoken for, while both Denver and Kansas City both look destined to make the playoffs out of the AFC West, despite the fact that the division winner is yet to be determined. This leaves the rest of the teams in the AFC scrambling for one, and only one, wildcard spot. Nine teams can make the argument that they’re still alive to win that postseason spot, so let’s look at each team’s journey to the last playoff spot over the final six weeks of the season and try to make sense of the situation.
Baltimore – The defending Super Bowl champions are still in it at 4-6, especially with their next three games coming at home, where they’re currently 3-1 on the season. Baltimore’s next two games are against the Jets and Steelers, two teams their in competition with for the final playoff spot, and after that they host the lowly Vikings, so there is real opportunity to get hot down the stretch right now. However, they finish the season with Detroit, New England, and Cincinnati in the final three weeks, which will make things tough for them.
Buffalo – The Bills hit rock bottom a couple weeks ago, but E.J. Manuel is back and both he and the rest of the team looked sharp last week against the Jets. Buffalo has a bye this week, but after that their next three opponents have combined for just five wins this year, so the schedule sets up nicely for them to make a run. If the Bills can sweep those three games they’ll be back at .500 and be in the middle of the race the final two weeks of the season.
Cleveland – The Browns host Pittsburgh and Jacksonville the next two weeks, giving them ample opportunity to get back to .500. However, they’ll have to play three of their final four games on the season on the road, where they have just one win this season, with a home game against the Bears mixed in. Cleveland is clinging to hope despite losing four of their last five, but they have to win their next two to have a chance.
Miami – The Dolphins stopped the bleeding with a win over San Diego last week, but they still have a lot of work left to do, despite being currently tied for the final playoff spot with the Jets. Speaking of the Jets, Miami will see them twice before the end of the season, and needless to say those games will be critical for both teams. The Dolphins also have tough road trips to Pittsburgh and Buffalo in December, and they get difficult home games against the Panthers and Patriots as well, so the schedule is not kind to the fish down the stretch.
New York Jets – The Jets have alternated wins and losses all season, and if that continues it could get them into the playoffs, although it would mean dropping both head-to-head matchups with the Dolphins, which they can’t afford to do. Outside of two meetings with Miami, the Jets have winnable home games and Oakland and Cleveland, as well as road games with Baltimore and Carolina. If the Jets can find some consistency they should be considered favorites, but if they keep alternating wins and losses, they’ll be playing with fire down the stretch.
Oakland – The Raiders are in must-win mode this week against Tennessee, who hasn’t won with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback. Of course, Oakland is unsettled at quarterback as well, and that could make things difficult for them with road games against the Cowboys, Jets, and Chargers on the horizon. The Raiders will also see the Chiefs and Broncos in two of the last three weeks of the season, and while those games are at home, it’ll make it tough for Oakland to win when it matters the most.
Pittsburgh – Four of the final six games the Steelers have down the stretch are against teams also fighting for a wildcard spot in the AFC, including two against the Browns and a Thursday night in Baltimore. The Steelers also have a road trip to Lambeau Field right before Christmas, and it’s hard to imagine Aaron Rodgers not being back by then. The next two games for Pittsburgh are both on the road against Cleveland and Baltimore, and if they can win at least one of them, they’ll finish with three of their final four at home and have a fighting chance.
San Diego – The Chargers are on thin ice after three straight losses, and a trip to Kansas City this week will make it hard for them to break that losing streak. San Diego will see the Chiefs twice and the Broncos once over the final six weeks, which will be a monumental challenge, especially since those teams are still competing for the division and will have plenty to play for down the stretch, meaning they won’t take their foot off the gas over the final few weeks. Four of their final five games are at home, but in addition to Kansas City, they’ll have to play the talented Bengals and the surging Giants, giving them a tough road ahead, even if they can upset the Chiefs on the road this week.
Tennessee – If the Titans can prove they can win with Ryan Fitzpatrick this week in Oakland they’ll be able to stay in the race and give themselves a chance. However, they follow up their trip to Oakland with road games in Indianapolis and Denver, which won’t be easy. The Titans finish off the season with Arizona, Jacksonville, and Houston, with the Jaguars being their only road opponent. If they can remain in contention with three weeks to go, Tennessee will have a chance to finish strong and make the postseason, as they hold a tiebreaker with three other teams on this list. However, they have a few more “ifs” than most of their competitors, which is never a good thing.
So, what did we learn from all that? Well, this is bound to be a war of attrition, with several teams facing difficult schedules over the final six weeks. The AFC West teams should fall first, as they can’t count on getting wins over the Broncos and Chiefs. There is a lot of intra-division play among the AFC North teams, which means one team could emerge by beating the other teams in their division, but it could also lead to those teams cancelling each other out. With three straight home games upcoming, the Ravens are the most likely AFC North team to emerge and snag the final wildcard spot. However, the most likely scenario is for an AFC East team to grab it. The Jets should be the favorites, but they’ll have to win at least one of their games against the Dolphins, who may have to sweep the Jets to get to the postseason. The sleeper of this group to keep an eye on is Buffalo, who has the most favorable schedule of all the teams competing for the final wildcard spot, and that could be the difference in getting the Bills into the playoffs.