This article series discusses what games are worth keeping an eye on and what outcome would be most helpful to the Dolphins given how the AFC East and Wildcard races are playing out early in the season. There's a lot of guesswork involved, 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 10 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' blowout victory over the Bears. In the Dolphins' favor, the Redskins defeated the Titans, the Cardinals beat the Raiders, the Jaguars earned an upset victory against the Browns, the Colts demolished the Bengals, and the Chiefs managed to win against the Chargers. Unfortunately, the Bills pulled out a close win against the Vikings, the Broncos beat the 49'ers, the Patriots held on to defeat the Jets, the Steelers defeated the Texans, and the Ravens annihilated the Falcons.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars 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 (6)
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.
2. Minnesota Vikings at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. Philadelphia Eagles at the Arizona Cardinals
5. Detroit Lions at the Atlanta Falcons
6. Washington Redskins at the Dallas Cowboys
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (2)
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. St. Louis Rams at the Kansas City Chiefs (3 - 3): Root for the Rams.
The Chiefs are a Wildcard contender who have a key tiebreak advantage over the Dolphins due to their win in the head-to-head matchup between these 2 teams back in week 3. A Rams victory helps the Dolphins gain ground in the Wildcard race.
2. Chicago Bears at the New England Patriots (5 - 2): Root for the Bears.
The Patriots have begun stringing together victories after a shaky start to their season. The Bears defeating the Patriots would give the Dolphins a chance to start catching up in the AFC East race.
Category 3: AFC vs. AFC matchups (6)
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. San Diego Chargers (5 - 2) at the Denver Broncos (5 - 1): Root for the Broncos.
With their convincing win against the 49'ers last week, the Broncos are strong favorites to win the AFC West given their favorable remaining schedule for the regular season. If the Broncos make the playoffs as AFC West champions, they wouldn't compete against the Dolphins for a potential wildcard spot. The Chargers meanwhile appear more likely to make the playoffs as a Wildcard team given the difficulty of their remaining schedule, so a Broncos victory against the Chargers would be the best outcome to help the Dolphins catch up in the Wildcard race.
2. Baltimore Ravens (5 - 2) at the Cincinnati Bengals (3 - 2 - 1): Root for the Ravens.
The Ravens are playing at their best, while the Bengals' offense stalled without AJ Green last week. Green still won't be fully healthy if he manages to play in this game, and given how well the Ravens have performed this season, they're projected to win the AFC North. Dolphins fans should root for the Ravens to win this game, which would make the Ravens heavy favorites for the AFC North as the Bengals would fall behind the Dolphins in the Wildcard race (if the Dolphins manage to beat the Jaguars).
3. Buffalo Bills (4 - 3) at the New York Jets (1 - 6): Root for the Jets.
The Jets are likely stuck in the spoiler role for the rest of their season because they already have 6 losses, while the Bills remain a contender for the AFC East title or a Wildcard spot. Therefore, Dolphins fans should root for the Bills to lose this game so that the Dolphins can both improve their long-term chances of claiming a Wildcard spot as well as potentially regain 2nd place in the AFC East.
4. Houston Texans (3 - 4) at the Tennessee Titans (2 - 5): Root for the Titans.
The Titans appear very unlikely to be relevant in Wildcard hunt due to their 5 losses at this point of the season. The Texans meanwhile are still darkhorse contenders for a Wildcard spot due to a favorable remaining schedule, so a Titans victory would help the Dolphins' pursuit of a Wildcard spot.
5. Oakland Raiders (0 - 6) at the Cleveland Browns (3 - 3): Root for the Raiders.
With 6 losses, the Raiders' season is all but over. However, even after losing to the Jaguars, the Browns are still a Wildcard contender. That means Dolphins fans should root for Tony Sparano to coach the Raiders to their first victory of the season on Sunday.
6. Indianapolis Colts (5 - 2) at the Pittsburgh Steelers (4 - 3): Root for the Colts.
The Colts are big favorites to claim the AFC South (barring injury), while the Steelers are Wildcard favorites due to their easy remaining schedule. Dolphins fans should root for the Colts to win this game and drop the Steelers back to a 0.500 record.
If those 8 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (3 - 3) beat the Jaguars, here are the new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (6 - 1)
#2 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (6 - 2)
#3 seed - AFC East Leader Baltimore Ravens (6 - 2)
#4 seed - AFC North Leader New England Patriots (5 - 3)
#5 seed - Wildcard San Diego Chargers (5 - 3)
#6 seed - Wildcard Miami Dolphins (4 - 3)
In the hunt - Bengals (3 - 3 - 1), Bills (4 - 4), Steelers (4 - 4), Chiefs (3 - 4), Browns (3 - 4), Texans (3 - 5), Titans (3 - 5), Jets (2 - 6), Raiders (1 - 6), Jaguars (1 - 7)
That's right - the Dolphins can gain control over a playoff spot if everything works out on Sunday!