It's week 17, and the Dolphins are in a 3-way tie for an AFC Wildcard spot with an 8-7 record. This article series talks about what upcoming games are worth keeping an eye on (besides the Dolphins game, of course), and what outcome would help the Dolphins.
Now for a disclaimer - immediately after the Dolphins' game against the Bills, the Phinsider published three articles discussing the Dolphins' playoff outlook. If you read those articles feel you already have an excellent understanding of the playoff picture, you should know this article doesn't have much new to add.
However, for those who took a break from reading about the Dolphins after that humiliating performance on Sunday and then were too busy with family commitments to think about the playoff race, this article should hopefully sum up everything you need to know prior to the final set of NFL regular season games.
Last week, in the Dolphins' favor, the Patriots demolished the Ravens and the Chargers easily beat the Raiders. The results that went against the Dolphins' interests were the Colts dominating the Chiefs and the Bengals blowing out the Vikings.
In the poll for the previous article, only 21% of folks correctly predicted 2 of the 4 key non-Dolphins matchups going the Dolphins' way, so this was an unexpectedly bad week for the Dolphins in addition to their loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins' defeat means that while they are currently the 6th seed due to their conference record tiebreak advantage over the Chargers and Ravens, the Dolphins do not control their own destiny even if they beat the Jets on Sunday. In addition, if the Dolphins lose this week, they are out of the playoffs no matter what happens to other teams.
Let's see what matchups we'd like to go our way this week. The goal is for the Dolphins to either be a wildcard playoff team or winners of the AFC East. Therefore, I've broken up the 15 upcoming non-Dolphins games into 3 categories.
Category 1: Irrelevant Games, such as NFC team vs. NFC team matchups or games featuring AFC non-threats (11)
Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
Houston Texans (2 - 13) vs. Tennessee Titans (6 - 9)
Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys
Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints
Denver Broncos (12 - 3) vs. Oakland Raiders (4 - 11) - The Broncos are guaranteed a top-2 seed, meaning the Dolphins wouldn't see them in the playoffs until week 2 of the playoffs at the earliest, regardless of the result of this game (which the Broncos will likely win).
San Francisco 49'ers vs. Arizona Cardinals
St. Louis Rams vs. Seattle Seahawks
Cleveland Browns (4 - 11) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 8) - I consider this game irrelevant because the only way the Steelers can make the playoffs is if 2 things happen:
1. The Steelers win this game, which is probable, and
2. The Dolphins lose on Sunday.
However, if the Dolphins lose on Sunday, then the Dolphins are out of the playoffs, regardless of whether or not the Steelers win this particular game.
That's because the Jets beating the Dolphins in week 17 would mean both AFC East teams' records are tied at 8-8 for the season. However, the Jets would have a better AFC East division record at 4-2 compared to the Dolphins' 2-4 in this scenario, and the division record is the first tiebreak in a tie involving 3 or more teams competing for a wildcard spot if any teams are in the same division as each other.
Therefore, if the Dolphins don't win on Sunday against the Jets, the Dolphins are eliminated from the playoffs (regardless of whether or not the Steelers win) because the Jets would eliminate the Dolphins early in any tiebreak scenario if multiple teams also finish 8-8.
The result of this Browns-Steelers game only changes "which" AFC team would beat the Dolphins for a wildcard spot if the Dolphins lose on Sunday, not "whether" an AFC team would beat the Dolphins for a wildcard spot.
Category 2 Games: AFC team vs. NFC team matchups (NONE)
Category 3 Games: AFC team vs. AFC team matchups (4)
Given that, I'd want the Colts as the #3 seed in the playoffs, and the only way the Colts could reach the #3 seed is if they beat the Jaguars. Even if the Colts beat the Jaguars, they're not guaranteed the #3 seed because the Bengals would have to lose to the Ravens to make that happen - or as FinFanForFortyFour points out in the comments, the Bengals and Bills both would have to win. However, if the Dolphins earn a wildcard spot, then the Colts beating the Jags in this game could set up a Dolphins vs. Colts round 1 matchup.
Root for the New England Patriots (11 - 4) to defeat the Buffalo Bills (6 - 9) - Some fans will disagree, but I consider both the Colts and Bengals to be "more favorable" round 1 matchups than the Patriots in Foxboro (though again, all 3 teams are tough). Therefore, to ensure a round 1 game against either the Colts or Bengals, we need a Patriots win on Sunday that allows them to claim the #2 seed (and first round bye).
Root for the Cincinnati Bengals (10 - 5) to defeat the Baltimore Ravens (8 - 7) - The Ravens are the #1 threat to the Dolphins because the Ravens have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage if there is a 2-way tie. Luckily, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis says he'll be playing his starters against the Ravens because they could earn the #2 seed if they win and if the Bills beat the Patriots. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap was asked about what will be his teammates' motivation to play hard against the Ravens, and he said, "Because we don't like them."
The Bengals beating the Ravens is helpful because the only way the Dolphins could claim a wildcard spot if the Ravens won this game would be if the Chargers also won and created a 3-way tie. Speaking of which:
The Chargers cannot beat the Dolphins in either a 2-team or 3-team tiebreak scenario due to their earlier head-to-head loss to the Dolphins this season and their worse conference record. Therefore, the Chargers cannot eliminate the Dolphins from the wildcard race if the Dolphins win 9 games. Meanwhile, the Jets (not the Chargers) are the team that would guarantee the Dolphins would be eliminated from the wildcard race if the Dolphins finish with just 8 wins. A Chargers win can't hurt the Dolphins, but it could help, so it's good news that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is leaning towards benching his starters against the Chargers due to the Chiefs being locked into the 5th seed.
Just to be clear - If the Dolphins lose against the Jets, then the Dolphins are out of the playoffs even if both the Chargers and the Ravens lose this week. This "Doomsday 8-8 scenario" results from the Jets eliminating the Dolphins "early" in the tiebreaking process due to the Fins' worse AFC East division record (2 - 4) compared to the Jets' (4 - 2) if the Dolphins lose on Sunday. The Jets are in "Playoff Purgatory" - officially eliminated from the playoffs because they're guaranteed to lose the later tiebreaks but able to influence the outcome of the early tiebreaks if they beat the Dolphins.
However, if those 4 games all go in favor of the Dolphins (Colts defeat Jaguars, Patriots defeat Bills, Bengals defeat Ravens, Chargers defeat Chiefs), and if the Dolphins defeat the New York Jets (7 - 8) in a must-win "home playoff game" ("Win or the season is over"), the new standings would be...
#1 seed - AFC West leader Denver Broncos (13 - 3)
#2 seed - AFC East leader New England Patriots (12 - 4)
#3 seed - AFC North leader Cincinnati Bengals (11 - 5) [earns #3 because of head-to-head tiebreak over the Colts]
#4 seed - AFC South leader Indianapolis Colts (11 - 5)
#5 seed - Wildcard #1 Kansas City Chiefs (11 - 5)
#6 seed - Wildcard #2 Miami Dolphins (9 - 7) [beats Chargers via head-to-head tiebreak]
Teams in the Wildcard Hunt that are eliminated this week - San Diego Chargers (9 - 7), Baltimore Ravens (8 - 8), Pittsburgh Steelers (8 - 8)
Previously Eliminated - Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets
Summary for this week:
1. A Dolphins win + a Ravens defeat = Dolphins clinch #6 seed (regardless of whether the Chargers win or lose) and play Cincy in the first round of the playoffs if Pats beat Bills
2. A Dolphins win + a Ravens win + a Chargers win = Dolphins clinch #6 seed (winning 3-way tiebreak) and play Colts in first round of the playoffs if Colts beat Jags and Pats beat Bills
3. A Dolphins win + a Ravens win + Chargers loss = Ravens clinch #6 seed (head-to-head tiebreak over Dolphins)
4. A Dolphins loss = Dolphins out of the playoff, regardless of other teams winning/losing
Moral of the story: Week 17 against the Jets is a playoff game that the Dolphins get to play at home. Win and (probably) advance to the next round of the playoffs - the wildcard round. Lose and start the offseason early once again.
The Colts and Patriots winning this Sunday would set up the Dolphins for a more favorable playoff matchup against either the Colts or Bengals but are NOT necessary for the Dolphins to make the playoffs.
Any big disagreements? And don't forget to vote.