‘Tis the season. There’s a month left of the NFL season, and the playoff picture is beginning to take form. Fans around the league are beginning to worry about tie-breakers, going through every possible scenario in their heads, and convincing themselves that their team is destined for glory this year. With hopes running high, let’s take a look at some AFC playoff hopefuls, and determine who will ultimately walk away with the second wild card spot.
The AFC East and the AFC South are pretty much determined, with the Patriots and Texans each holding 3 game leads over second place. The North and the West, on the other hand, are up for grabs. It’s extremely probable that the fifth seed will go to the loser of the West division race, so for the purpose of this exercise both the Steelers and Ravens will be discussed and it will be assumed the Chiefs or the Chargers will snag the first wild card spot.
At the moment, the Ravens are primed to make the playoffs. At 7-5, Baltimore sits a game ahead of the other contenders. Their destiny is in their own hands. However, this is certainly easier said than done. The Ravens still have to travel to both Kansas City and Los Angeles (Chargers). In both of these games, Baltimore will likely be the underdog, meaning they could very easily lose two games. Not to mention there is still a divisional showdown against the much-improved Browns and a matchup with the trending Bucs.
While this may worry Raven fans, it’s still realistically conceivable that they could lose two of these four and end up taking the division. The Steelers, after a gimme against Oakland, face New England (whom they almost always lose to), the Saints (arguably the best team in football), and a divisional matchup against the Bengals. With two very probable loses for Pittsburgh, a slip-up in one of their other two games would drop them to 8-7-1, in a situation where they would be praying for a wild card spot.
I believe that each of these teams will drop two games. The Ravens will win one of their road games against the juggernauts, but then drop one of the two they shouldn’t while Pittsburgh will lose to the Pats and Saints and beat the Raiders and the Bengals. This means the Steelers will take the division and the Ravens will end up 9-7.
This means that the teams currently looking up at the Ravens will need to go 3-1 to tie Baltimore. Tie breakers at the end of the season will first go to conference record and then strength of schedule. If the Ravens end the season as I predict, they will end up with 7 conference wins. So who has the best shot at either winning out or taking 3 and having a shot at the tie breaker?
The Titans, despite being the only team that is unable to reach 7 conference wins, are certainly the most likely to win out. Their next three games are against Jacksonville, the Giants, and the Sanchez-led Redskins. Really no excuse to lose any of these games, which means they should be rolling into Week 17 9-6 with a huge matchup against the Colts at home to close out the season. With a win and a 10 and 6 record, they would set themselves up in a great position to sneak into the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The Dolphins, alternatively to the other teams, are the only squad that is able to hit 8 conference wins and avoid a S-O-S tie breaker. Unfortunately for Miami, this is the least talented team pushing for a playoff spot. New England comes to Miami this week, and although the Fins have been able to give them trouble in years past, a motivated New England unit should be able to squish the fish. Combine this with a trip to Minnesota, and it would be very hard for Miami to not lose two. 8-8 is unlikely to cut it this year. Sorry Dolphins.
The Broncos schedule is very manageable. They face two of the easiest teams in football in the 49ers and the Raiders on the road, and play the Browns at home. Their season will likely come down to the Week 17 showdown against the Chargers at Mile High. Unfortunately for Denver, they will need this game. Winning the other 3 and losing against the Chargers would only give them 6 conference wins, and would therefore give the Ravens the upper hand. But the Broncos were able to win in LA earlier this year, and Denver is a VERY hard place to play. One would expect a loud stadium filled to the brim with orange and blue. This would be a hugely exciting game, and will very probably hold a lot of cards for the how the playoff picture will end up looking.
Finally, we have the Colts. Andrew Luck has been having an MVP caliber season, but the loss to Jacksonville last week was a major blow to this squads playoff chances. This week they travel to Houston. The Texans have taken 9 straight, and both teams will be playing hard for post season seeding. After this the Colts still have to play the Cowboys and Titans. This will be a hard road for Indy, facing three playoff contenders. It was a great comeback from 1-5, but I don’t see this Colts team making the postseason.
The two teams I mentioned who I most believe in are the Broncos and the Titans. Both of these teams have potential to go 4-0, in which case they would leapfrog the Ravens. So if that’s the case, which of these two teams makes it. That would be the Broncos. With 7 conference wins versus the Titans 6, Denver, probably the team with the best shot at stunning a higher seed, takes the 6 seed.
It’s very hard to give the edge to either the Broncos or the Ravens. Both of these squads have played great seasons in years where expectations were fairly low. However, I’m going to go with the Broncos. Despite the fact that Baltimore controls their own destiny, a daunting schedule for them and a fairly easy one for Denver makes me think the Broncos can squeeze it out.
If I were to rank the teams chances: