The Dolphins don't play in a game this week, but the results of nine games involving other teams will impact the Dolphins' playoff chances. 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 AFC East rival teams to all lose.
However, for fans who would like to see how the Wildcard race is playing out (very) 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 4 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.
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.
1. (Thursday) Minnesota Vikings at the Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears at the Carolina Panthers
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the New Orleans Saints
4. Atlanta Falcons at the New York Giants
5. St. Louis Rams at the Philadelphia Eagles
6. Seattle Seahawks at the Washington Redskins
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (4)
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. Houston Texans (3-1) at the Dallas Cowboys (3-1): Root for the Cowboys
There's no experience quite like rooting for the Cowboys when the team is outperforming expectations. My friends who are Cowboys fans describe it as a mix of genuine excitement combined with near certainty that things will not end well. Luckily, Dolphins fans get to join in the fun this week! The Texans are a surprisingly resilient team led by darkhorse MVP candidate and current favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, J.J. Watt. Dolphins fans should hope the Cowboys win because that would limit the Texans' chances of being relevant in the AFC Wildcard race.
2. Buffalo Bills (2 - 2) at the Detroit Lions (3 - 1): Root for the Lions
Depending on whether quarterback Kyle Orton can quickly provide competent quarterback play roughly a month after joining the Bills' roster, the Bills could contend for a playoff berth either by claiming the AFC East title or a Wildcard spot. Therefore, a Lions victory over the Bills would improve the Dolphins' chances making the playoffs by either route.
3. Arizona Cardinals (3 - 0) at the Denver Broncos (2 - 1): Root for the Cardinals
Most would agree that the Broncos are still favorites to win the AFC West title, barring serious injury to a player like Peyton Manning. Still, in case the Broncos fall short of expectations and end up in the Wildcard hunt, a Broncos defeat this week would help the Dolphins out if the Phins are forced to compete for a Wildcard berth as well.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (2 - 2) at the San Francisco 49'ers (2 - 2): Root for the 49'ers
If you think that the Chiefs can win the AFC West, you should root for the Chiefs to win so they're not competing against the Dolphins for a Wildcard spot. That's because the Chiefs have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage against the Dolphins after winning the week 3 matchup between the two teams. I think the Chiefs are too banged up to surpass both the Broncos and the much-improved Chargers for the AFC West title, which would mean the Chiefs' most likely path to the playoffs is as a Wildcard team. Dolphins fans who agree with me should root for the 49'ers in 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. Most choices aren't clear-cut, especially when it's early in the season and most teams are still technically playoff contenders.
1. Baltimore Ravens (3 - 1) at Indianapolis Colts (2 - 2) - Root for the Colts
I'm not particularly high on the Colts, but I do believe they're the best team in the AFC South. If that's correct, then the Colts are more likely to make the playoffs by winning their division than by claiming a Wildcard spot, and the Colts should not be considered a threat to the Dolphins' goal of reaching the playoffs. However, the Ravens appear to be credible contender for a Wildcard spot, so Dolphins fans should root for the Ravens to lose.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (2 - 2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0 - 4) - Root for the Jaguars
No disrespect to Blake Bortles, but I don't think any quarterback can lead that Jaguars roster to the playoffs this year. They're a team to watch next season if they have a good offseason in 2015, but at the moment, they don't appear to be much of a Wildcard threat. Meanwhile, the Steelers always find a way to hang around and be relevant in the playoff race. I think the Bengals are the big favorite to win the AFC North at this point, so the Steelers are a Wildcard contender that Dolphins fans should hope suffers a loss this week.
3. Cleveland Browns (1 - 2) at Tennessee Titans (1 - 3) - Root for the Titans
The Browns are a team that is better than their 1-2 record would suggest. Their 2 losses were by a total of 5 points, so it's no exaggeration to say they're just a lucky play or two away from a 2-1 or even a 3-0 record. On the other hand, after an impressive win against the Chiefs in week 1, the Titans have looked terrible 3 weeks in a row. For now, the Browns appear to be the more threatening team, so Dolphins fans should root for the Titans.
4. New York Jets (1 - 3) at San Diego Chargers (3 - 1) - Root for the Chargers
You could make the case that the Dolphins would benefit from the Jets winning this game because the Chargers are the bigger threat to claim a Wildcard spot. However, the race for the AFC East is tight because no team in the division looks consistent enough to string together several wins in a row. I think it's better for the Dolphins to gain ground in the AFC East race than to improve their chances of winning a Wildcard spot because winning the AFC East might be the easier route to the playoffs. With winning the AFC East as the top priority, it's straightforward for Dolphins fans to root for the Chargers to defeat the Jets.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (3 - 0) at New England Patriots (2 - 2) - Root for the Bengals
Again, I believe the priority for the Dolphins should be gaining ground in the AFC East race, in part because this is the most vulnerable that the Patriots have looked in a long time. Meanwhile, the Bengals are favorites to win the AFC North, so they're not competing against the Dolphins for a Wildcard playoff spot. It's clear which outcome of this game is most favorable to the Dolphins.
If those 9 games all go in favor of the Dolphins, the Division Leaders would be....
#1 seed - AFC North Leader Cincinnati Bengals (4 - 0)
#2 seed - AFC West Leader San Diego Chargers (4 - 1)
#3 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (3 - 2) - ahead of Texans due to division record tiebreak
#4 seed - AFC East Leader Miami Dolphins (2 - 2)