At this point in the season, most fans are focused on hoping their team becomes a division champion, and in that case, the rule to follow is simple: Root for the rival AFC East teams to lose. However, for fans who would like to see how the Wildcard race is playing out early in the season, this article series will discuss what games are worth keeping an eye on and what outcome would be most helpful to the Dolphins. There's a lot of guesswork involved when most teams have only played 6 games, so to help sort out which AFC teams are the biggest threats to claim a Wildcard spot, I rely on Football Outsiders' playoff odds calculations, which are the result of computer simulations that factor in how well teams have played plus the strength of their remaining schedule.
This past week, there were 8 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' narrow loss to the Packers. In the Dolphins' favor, the Colts defeated the Texans, the Patriots beat the Bills, the Browns crushed the Steelers, and the Broncos vanquished the Jets. Unfortunately, the Chargers managed to beat the Raiders, the Titans pulled out a close win against the Jaguars, and the Ravens annihilated the Buccaneers. Last but not least, the Bengals' game against the Panthers ended in a tie, when the Dolphins would have benefited more from the Bengals losing.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Chicago Bears this Sunday, there are other key game outcomes that could help our team make the playoffs. So to begin - each NFL game generally falls under 1 of 3 categories.
Category 1: NFC vs. NFC matchups (4)
These don't affect our team since the Dolphins are competing for a playoff spot in the AFC, and their only NFC opponent in the final month of the season is the Vikings, who are unlikely to win enough games to be in a position to rest their starters against the Dolphins in week 16 with nothing to play for.
1. Carolina Panthers versus the Green Bay Packers
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (5)
It makes sense to root for the NFC team to win, unless the AFC team has an early tiebreaker advantage against the Dolphins and is a favorite to win their division. In that scenario, the Dolphins would benefit from the AFC team winning their division so that the AFC team isn't a threat to claim a Wildcard spot at the Dolphins' expense on tiebreaks.
1. Minnesota Vikings at the Buffalo Bills (3 - 3): Root for the Vikings.
A Vikings win over the Bills helps the Dolphins' pursuit of the AFC title or a wildcard spot.
2. Atlanta Falcons at the Baltimore Ravens (4 - 2): Root for the Falcons.
A Falcons win over the Ravens helps because the Ravens are a serious threat to claim a Wildcard spot.
3. Tennessee Titans (2 - 4) at the Washington Redskins: Root for the Redskins.
The Titans are an unlikely team to earn a Wildcard spot, but they still have a shot.
4. Arizona Cardinals at the Oakland Raiders (0 - 5): Root for the Cardinals.
The Raiders have almost no shot of claiming a playoff spot, but they haven't been eliminated yet.
5. San Francisco 49'ers at the Denver Broncos (4 - 1): Root for the 49'ers.
The Broncos are likely to win the AFC West, but how well the Chargers are playing, it's still possible that the Broncos could end up as a Wildcard team. If that happens, it would help the Dolphins for the Broncos to lose this game.
Category 3: AFC vs. AFC matchups (5)
In this category, you usually root for the AFC team that meets at least one of two criteria:
1. The team isn't in the AFC East, and/or
2. The team is not considered a Wildcard contender because they're either favorites to win their division or almost certain to miss the playoffs.
These games are the toughest for Dolphins fans to pick sides because it's not always clear which team is the bigger threat.
1. New York Jets (1 - 5) at the New England Patriots (4 - 2): Root for the Jets.
In this type of matchup, you root for the lesser of two evils. The Jets' season is on life support with 5 losses already, while the Patriots are playing better each week. The Dolphins can only win the AFC East if the Patriots don't gain too big of a lead in the standings, so Dolphins fans should root for the Patriots to lose this game.
2. Cleveland Browns (3 - 2) at the Jacksonville Jaguars (0 - 6): Root for the Jaguars.
The Browns are very legitimate contenders for a Wildcard spot or perhaps even the AFC North title given how well they've played despite All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon serving a suspension. Meanwhile, the Jaguars are more or less in the spoiler role already at this point in the season, so Dolphins fans should root for the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars to "spoil" the Browns' attempt to string wins together.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (3 - 1 - 1) at the Indianapolis Colts (4 - 2): Root for the Colts.
The Colts are strong favorites to win the AFC South, which means they're not competing directly against the Dolphins for a playoff spot. The Bengals meanwhile could end up in the hunt for a Wildcard spot if the Browns or Ravens win the AFC North. Therefore, Dolphins fans should hope the Colts beat the Bengals just in case the Dolphins are stuck competing against the Bengals for a Wildcard spot later this season.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (2 - 3) at the San Diego Chargers (5 - 1): Root for the Chiefs.
In most weeks, Dolphins fans will be rooting against the Chiefs because they're a Wildcard contender that has an early tiebreak advantage against the Dolphins due to their victory in the head-to-head matchup between the two teams. However, the Chargers are heavy favorites for an AFC Wildcard spot if the Broncos win the AFC West, so this week, Dolphins fans should hope the Chiefs pull off a win against their division rival to keep the Wildcard race as competitive as possible.
5. Houston Texans (3 - 3) at the Pittsburgh Steelers (3 - 3): Root for the Texans.
Both of these teams are at 0.500 and are Wildcard contenders. However, the Steelers are more likely than the Texans to be a threat later in the season to claim a Wildcard spot per Football Outsiders' projections, so Dolphins fans should root for the Texans to win this week.
If those 10 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (2 - 3) beat the Bears, here are the new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (5 - 2)
#2 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (4 - 2)
#3 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (4 - 3)
#4 seed - AFC North Leader Cincinnati Bengals (3 - 2 - 1)
#5 seed - Wildcard San Diego Chargers (5 - 2)
#6 seed - Wildcard Houston Texans (4 - 3) - better conference record than the Ravens
In the hunt - Ravens (4 - 3), Chiefs (3 - 3), Dolphins (3 - 3), Browns (3 - 3), Bills (3 - 4), Steelers (3 - 4), New York Jets (2 - 5), Titans (2 - 5), Jaguars (1 - 6), Raiders (0 - 6)
Even if the Dolphins win and all the other games go in the Dolphins' favor, the Dolphins are STILL out of the playoffs, so it's crucial they win this Sunday so that they don't fall too far behind their AFC East and Wildcard rivals.