Somewhere along the road, we have all lost perspective. Maybe we all lost it during the madness that was an improbable AFC East Championship run last year. Maybe it was during the climb back to .500 after going 0-3 to start the year. Whenever it was, we have all forgotten one incredibly important fact. The Miami Dolphins are in the playoff hunt. The Dolphins may not be a Super Bowl contender. Miami may not even make the playoffs. But, at least they are in the hunt for that berth.
And, when did we all as fans make the shift that losing was a good thing? Was it when Miami lost to Buffalo? Seems like it was starting prior to that game - and it seems to be really taking root now. I will never understand how a "fan" can ever root for his or her team to lose. I hate seeing the Dolphins walk off the field after a loss. Loss fifteen two years ago hurt just as much as loss one did that year - or loss six did this year.
So, in order to remind everyone where we stand - and the fact that I haven't written this piece during the last two weeks - we are going to take an in-depth look at the NFL Playoff picture today.
Here are the current standings for the AFC through Week 12 (5 games to play):
1 - Indianapolis (11&0) (Clinched AFC South)
2 - Cincinnati (8&3) (AFC North Leader)
3 - San Diego (8&3) (AFC West Leader)
4 - Denver (7&4) (Wildcard #1)
5 - New England (7&4) (AFC East Leader)
6 - Baltimore (6&5) (Wildcard #2)
7 - Jacksonville (6&5)
8 - Pittsburgh (6&5)
9 - Miami (5&6)
10 - Houston (5&6)
11 - New York Jets (5&6)
12 - Tennessee (5&6)
13 - Buffalo (4&7)
14 - Kansas City (3&8)
15 - Oakland (3&8)
16 - Cleveland (1&10) (Eliminated from Playoff)
Right now, every seed in the league is still in play, even though the undefeated Colts have already clinched their Division, and will probably lock up the #1 spot in the next couple of week. And, only the Browns have been eliminated thus far - although I doubt Oakland or Kansas City are going to make a run to get back into the race. That leaves twelve teams to fight for five playoff berths.
Looking at the AFC North leading Bengals, they are currently two games clear of Baltimore and Pittsburgh, with Cleveland the fourth team in the Division. This is still a race, but it's beginning to look like this is Cincinnati's spot to lose. Their upcoming schedule, however, does not do them any favors. This week, they face the Lions, followed by two road games, one in Minnesota, and Week 15 in San Diego. The Bengals then return home against the Chiefs, with a Week 17 matchup at the Jets. Some tough games in there - but the Steelers have an equally tough schedule (Oakland, @Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore, @Miami). The Ravens, on the other hand, come across with what looks to be a little easier time, with a visit to Green Bay, then Detroit and Chicago at home, then at Steelers and at Raiders. Depending on the Jay Cutler the Ravens face, this could be the easiest of the three AFC North contenders' schedules.
So, depending on how this all plays out, it looks like the Bengals should gain the AFC North Championship (with a record of 11&5), with the Ravens and Steelers both finishing 9&7.
The AFC West is a little more defined, as the Raiders and Chiefs both should be out of this conversation. That leaves the Chargers at 8&3 and the Broncos at 7&4 to fight it out. The Chargers finish the year with a trip to Cleveland, then to Dallas, home against the Bengals, at the red-hot Titans, and finally home against the Redskins. Starting a game down, the Broncos have an up-hill battle , but face the Chiefs twice still (in Kansas City in Week 13 and in Denver in Week 17) and host the Raiders in Week 15. Sandwiched in between these games are a visit to Indianapolis in Week 14 (who may be resting starters by this time - in Week 14?) and to Philadelphia.
So, assuming the Chargers will win in Cleveland and when they host the Redskins, they will have a dog fight in there other three games. The Cowboys, Bengals, and Titans can all beat the Chargers - especially since they will all also be fighting for playoff positions and spots. The Broncos, who started off the season 6&0, but have since begun free-falling back to Earth, could finish the season strong, beating the Chiefs twice and the Raiders. If they continue to play like they have in recent weeks, they may stumble, however, against a Raiders team that is getting better, plus the Colts and Eagles games will be tough. If both teams win when they should, and lose games that they could easily lose, the Bengals will remain at the lead of the AFC West, with an 11&5 record, and Denver finishing a game back at 10&6. This could very easily change, as a slipup by either (or both) teams is very easy to see.
With the AFC South already clinched, the Colts can be ignored (and there doesn't appear to be a game they will lose - although of they begin resting their starters, they probably will lose one). However, the rest of the AFC South needs to be examined in order to figure out Wildcard situations. The Jaguars, Texans, and Titans are all still contending for the playoffs, with Jacksonville currently holding the first position not in the tournament at 6&5, while Houston and Tennessee are both a game behind them.
Jacksonville has not looked great this year, but seems to have clawed their way to win the games they should win. Their remaining games are home against Houston, Miami, and Indianapolis then two away games against New England and Cleveland. The Jaguars already beat the Texans in Houston this year, but beating a team twice is hard. Jacksonville is not going to be able to put together the wins they need to stay in the playoff race this year, most likely losing four of their last five - although a win against Houston, Miami, and a possibly resting Indianapolis is possible.
Houston has the Jacksonville away game, followed by hosting Seattle, then two away games (St. Louis and Miami), with a finale at home against New England. They should win the Seattle and St. Louis game and probably win the Jaguars game. The Texans have never lost to the Dolphins, but I think that streak ends this year. New England should be still playing for something in Week 17, so expect a loss for the Texans there as well, giving Houston a finishing record of 8&8 - and continuing their streak of never having a winning record.
Finally from the AFC South are the red-hot, Vince Young led Titans. After starting 0&6, the Titans are suddenly 5&6 and looking to continue to rise. They finish the year at Indianapolis, at home against St. Louis, Miami, and San Diego, and finally at Seattle. Although what they are doing right now is amazing, the Titans dug themselves a hole too deep to climb out of. They will lose to the Colts this week, win against St. Louis, lose to Miami (although, with Vince Young's running ability, the Dolphins defense better step up), lost to San Diego, and beat Seattle. They finish the year at 7&9.
And now, the AFC East. The Patriots are two games in the clear right now, at 7&4, but the Dolphins and Jets are both lurking at 5&6, and the Bills are not completely lost at 4&7. New England travels to Miami this week, then hosts Carolina, at Buffalo, home against the Jaguars, and finally travels to Houston. They have already beaten both the Dolphins and Bills in Foxboro this year. However, I think they split the season series with Miami. The Carolina game could be a good one, as the Panthers have played some good games this year - and they have really been embarrassing at times. The Patriots still come out with a win here, though. New England does what Miami could not this year, and puts the Bills away in a season sweep, and then beats the Jaguars and Houston to finish the season at 11&5.
New York seems like a team in confusion right now. After starting off as a hot Super Bowl pick, the Jets have crashed back to Earth, and their path to the playoffs seems muddled right now. Their five remaining games are the Bills in Toronto tonight, at Tampa Bay, home against Atlanta, at Indianapolis, and hosting Cincinnati. The schedule makers did them no favors, and they will most likely lose the three final games, with the Bills game tonight a possible loss as well. They should finish with a 7&9 record, though 6&10 is possible as well.
Buffalo, currently in the cellar of the AFC East will look to improve in Toronto against the Jets, at Kansas City, home against New England, at Atlanta, and home against Indianapolis. Like the Jets, the last three games of the season should all be losses for the Bills, with the Jets game tonight a toss-up. The Bills should finish 5&11, possibly 6&10.
And, the Miami Dolphins. Currently a game below .500 at 5&6, the Dolphins have been in an uphill battle all season after starting 0&3. They finish the year hosting the Patriots, in Jacksonville (with half the stadium rooting for the Dolphins), at Tennessee, and two home games against Houston and Pittsburgh. The Dolphins will be looking to split the season series with the Patriots this week, and then should beat the Jaguars, Titans, and Texans. The Steelers will be a tough game, but one that Miami could win. At best, the Dolphins finish 10&6, but more likely will finish 9&7, losing one of their remaining five games.
Looking at the playoff picture 5 weeks in the future, we now have:
1 - Indianapolis (15&1) (AFC South)
2 - Cincinnati (11&5) (AFC North)
3 - San Diego (11&5) (AFC West)
4 - New England (11&5) (AFC East)
5 - Denver (10&6) (Wildcard #1)
6 - Baltimore (9&7)
7 - Pittsburgh (9&7)
8 - Miami (9&7)
9 - Houston (8&8)
10 - Jacksonville (7&9)
11 - New York Jets (7&9)
12 - Tennessee (7&9)
13 - Buffalo (5&11)
14 - Kansas City (3&8)
15 - Oakland (3&8)
16 - Cleveland (2&14) (Eliminated from Playoff)
That leaves the Dolphins tied with Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the final Wildcard spot. Understanding NFL's tie breaker procedures is that the intra-Division tie breaker is used first, to eliminate two teams from the same division. Thus, the following steps are used to break the AFC North wildcard tie:
1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
5. Strength of victory.
6. Strength of schedule.
7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
9. Best net points in common games.
10. Best net points in all games.
11. Best net touchdowns in all games.
In the third tie breaker, the Ravens take the advantage, with an 8&4 record against common opponents, as compared to the Steelers 7&5 record.
Then, with two teams tied for the Wildcard, the NFL imposes the following tie breaker rules:
1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
4. Strength of victory.
5. Strength of schedule.
6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
8. Best net points in conference games.
9. Best net points in all games.
10. Best net touchdowns in all games.
11. Coin toss.
And, on the fourth tie breaker, Miami takes the advantage over Baltimore. Winning nine games against opponents with a combined record of 59&85 as compared to the Ravens' 51&93, the Miami Dolphins somehow sneak into the playoffs as a Wildcard. For their efforts, the Dolphins would get a second chance at the Chargers or a third go-round with the Patriots.
Now, there are a lot of assumptions in all of this and some guess work on what will happen on any given Sunday, but I think it will prove to be pretty close to the final standings. I actually thought it would come out that Miami would just miss the playoffs, but if it goes like this, I will be ecstatic.
But, the most important part of all of this is the realization that MIAMI IS STILL IN THE PLAYOFF HUNT. There was a lot of doom and gloom after last week's loss to the Bills. And, I admit, it hurt. It still stings, especially knowing that the Bills should have been an automatic "W" on the record.
But, the season's not over. The Dolphins could get the Wildcard. If the Patriots slip up, the Dolphins could still reclaim the AFC East Championship and the gray hat we all love. Let the Dolphins keep fighting. Let the team continue to learn how to win, and how to put teams away. Always remember, we are only 2 years removed from the worst season in franchise history. The Dolphins are not built to win today - but tomorrow is a different story.