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 5 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 9 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances. In the Dolphins' favor, the Cowboys defeated the Texans, the 49'ers defeated the Chiefs, the Colts defeated the Ravens, and the Chargers demolished the Jets. Unfortunately, the Bills managed a late comeback against the Lions, the Broncos overwhelmed the Cardinals, the Steelers held on against the Jaguars, the Titans choked against the Browns, and the Patriots annihilated the Bengals. With only 4 outcomes in the Dolphins' favor, the Dolphins are currently the 10th seed in the AFC and ranked 3rd in the AFC East, but there's still plenty of football to be played.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Green Bay Packers 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.
1. Detroit Lions at the Minnesota Vikings
3. Dallas Cowboys at the Seattle Seahawks
4. Washington Redskins at the Arizona Cardinals
6. San Francisco 49'ers at the St. Louis Rams
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. Baltimore Ravens (3 - 2) at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Root for the Bucs.
Even after last week's loss to the Colts, the Ravens appear to be credible contender for a Wildcard spot, so Dolphins fans should root for the Ravens to lose.
2. Carolina Panthers at the Cincinnati Bengals (3 - 1): Root for the Panthers.
After falling flat on their faces against the Patriots, the Bengals aren't quite the same favorites for the AFC North that they were a week ago. With the Bengals perhaps being a wildcard contender, Dolphins fans should root for a Bengals defeat.
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. Most choices aren't clear-cut, especially when it's early in the season and most teams are still technically playoff contenders.
1. Indianapolis Colts (3 - 2) at the Houston Texans (3 - 2): Root for the Colts
Most consider the Colts to be 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' chances of reaching the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Texans are a surprisingly resilient team led by J.J. Watt and a resurgent Arian Foster. Dolphins fans should hope the Colts win because that would limit the Texans' chances of being relevant in the AFC Wildcard race.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (3 - 2) at the Cleveland Browns (2 - 2) - Root for the Browns.
The obvious decision is to root for the Browns since they've won fewer games than the Steelers. However, the Browns are a team that is better than their 2-2 record would suggest. Their 2 losses were by a total of 5 points, and they're finding ways to win games despite not having All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon, whose return after his 10 game suspension ends will make the Browns even more dangerous. By contrast, the Steelers have already lost to the Bucs and couldn't build a big lead in their win against the Jaguars. With the Ravens and Bengals losing last week, the power structure of the AFC North remains unclear. For now, I think the Steelers are more likely than the Browns to make the playoffs, so Dolphins fans should root for the Browns this week. However, most weeks from here on out, Dolphins fans should be rooting for the Browns to lose.
3. Denver Broncos (3 - 1) at the New York Jets (1 - 4) - Root for the Broncos.
Most would agree that the Broncos are still favorites to win the AFC West title, barring serious injury to a player like Peyton Manning, though the Chargers are playing well enough to make it a real battle to win that division. Meanwhile, even after a humiliating defeat on Sunday, the Jets are only 2 losses behind the Dolphins in the AFC East race. The Dolphins' priority each week should be to gain ground in the AFC East race because winning the AFC East might be the easier route to the playoffs than claiming a wildcard spot. With winning the AFC East being the main goal, it's straightforward for Dolphins fans to root for the Broncos to defeat the Jets.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (0 - 5) at the Tennessee Titans (1 - 4) - Root for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars show no sign of being a realistic threat to make the playoffs, so this season for them is about developing Bortles and playing the role of "spoiler." The Titans are a team with talent that continues to find ways to lose, but of these two teams, the Titans are the bigger threat to claim a wildcard spot this season.
5. San Diego Chargers (4 - 1) at the Oakland Raiders (0 - 4) - Root for the Raiders.
Simply put, the Chargers are very credible contenders for a Wildcard spot if they don't win the AFC West, while the Raiders are unlikely to make the playoffs. The Raiders are likely stuck playing the "spoiler" role for the rest of the season. For that reason, any Dolphins fans who miss rooting for a Tony Sparano-led team (Fist-pump!) will get the chance to root for the Raiders for the next 12 weeks whenever they play against an AFC team in contention for a playoff spot.
6. New England Patriots (3 - 2) at the Buffalo Bills (3 - 2): Root for the Patriots
Part of what makes the NFL so exciting is the parity that exists league-wide. There are a few teams that are really good, and a few teams that are really bad. The remaining 20 or so teams are close enough to each other talent-wise that specific matchups are what determine the outcomes of games. Many people, including me, expected the Patriots to be one of those elite teams, but they haven't consistently played that way so far this season.
While it wouldn't shock me if the Patriots finish this season with more wins than the Bills, recent history suggests that the Patriots are the more favorable head-to-head matchup for the Dolphins of those two teams. The Dolphins' offense seems to fare better against teams whose pass defenses are built around their strength in the secondary (Patriots) rather than elite pass rush (Bills). Also, the Dolphins would own a head to head tiebreak advantage against the Patriots if they beat the Patriots later in the season because that victory would complete a season sweep. Meanwhile, the best the Dolphins can hope for against the Bills is to split the season series by winning the next matchup, in which case the Dolphins would still be at the mercy of later tiebreaks if both teams finish the season with the same record. Lastly, Football Outsiders projects the Bills as the slight favorites to win the AFC East because the Bills have been a more consistent team than the Patriots and the Dolphins so far, and the Bills have a reasonable schedule going forward.
Again, these AFC vs. AFC matchups are very debatable, and I understand that my reasoning could look very foolish in hindsight if the Patriots finish the season with 12 wins as the Bills implode and end the season with 7 wins. Ultimately, my argument is that as of right now, I like the Dolphins' chances against the Patriots better than the Phins' chances against the Bills if the Dolphins are in a close race for the AFC East near the end of the season, and the next AFC East division game is a "must-win" to make the playoffs. Still, I understand why many Dolphins fans will continue to view the Patriots as the more credible threat, and those people who disagree with my logic should root for the Bills in this game instead.
#1 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (4 - 1)
#2 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (4 - 2)
#3 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (4 - 2)
#4 seed - AFC North Leader Cincinnati Bengals (3 - 2) - ahead of the Browns due to division record tiebreak
#5 seed - Wildcard San Diego Chargers (4 - 2)
#6 seed - Wildcard Miami Dolphins (3 - 2) - ahead of Browns due to strength of victory tiebreak, which is the tiebreak that comes after conference record (both teams would be 2 - 2 in AFC games) and shared opponents (not enough shared opponents for this to apply). If all goes well, the Dolphins would have wins over the Packers, Patriots, and Raiders (who would have won a total of 8 games in this ideal scenario), compared to the Browns' potential wins over the Steelers, Saints, Titans (whose combined win total would be 6)
In the hunt - Browns (3 - 2), Ravens (3 - 3), Bills (3 - 3), Texans (3 - 3), Steelers (3 - 3), Chiefs (2 - 3), New York Jets (1 - 5), Titans (1 - 5), Jaguars (1 - 5), Raiders (1 - 5)