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. 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 8 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' victory over the Jaguars. In the Dolphins' favor, the Broncos defeated the Chargers, who are a wildcard favorite. Unfortunately, the Bills beat the Jets, the Bengals defeated the Ravens, the Texans won against the Titans, the Patriots annihilated the Bears, the Chiefs blew out the Rams, the Steelers stomped on the Colts, and the Browns held on to beat the Raiders...so 7 of the 8 games went against the Dolphins. "We're the Dolphins, we don't get to have nice things! :-(" turned out to be the correct prediction.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the San Diego Chargers 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.
3. Washington Redskins at the Minnesota Vikings
4. St. Louis Rams at the San Francisco 49'ers
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. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Cleveland Browns (4 - 3): Root for the Bucs.
The Browns are over 0.500 and could claim a playoff spot if they get even better when All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon returns from suspension, so the Dolphins would benefit if the Browns lost to a struggling team like the Bucs.
2. Philadelphia Eagles at the Houston Texans (4 - 4): Root for the Eagles.
The Texans are still very much in the playoff hunt with a 0.500 record and an easy remaining schedule, and that means a loss to the Eagles would help the Dolphins in the wildcard race.
3. Seattle Seahawks at the Oakland Raiders (0 - 7): Root for the Seahawks.
This is the least impactful game with any AFC playoff implications given how poorly the Raiders have played this season. However, as a rule, I don't "rule out" teams as playoff threats until they have at least 8 losses, so a Seahawks win this week would end the Raiders' dreams of being playoff relevant in any role other than "spoiler" for this season.
4. Indianapolis Colts (5 - 3) at the New York Giants: Root for the Giants.
I had doubts about the Colts' defensive depth chart after the season-ending injury to star pass rusher Robert Mathis, but it recently appeared that the Colts had managed to build a respectable defense despite that key injury. A respectable defense plus an Andrew Luck-led offense should be enough to comfortably win a weak division like the AFC South. However, the Colts' loss to the Steelers, in which the defense allowed 44 points, raised concerns about their defense once again.
To be clear, I still think the Colts are the overwhelming favorites to win the AFC South, but given that their opponent this week is an NFC team, it doesn't hurt the Dolphins in any scenario for the Colts to lose, while a Colts defeat could help the Dolphins in the long-run if the Colts are forced to settle into competing for a wildcard spot.
Category 3: AFC vs. AFC matchups (4)
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. Jacksonville Jaguars (1 - 7) at the Cincinnati Bengals (4 - 2 - 1): Root for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars are nearly eliminated from the playoff race, while the Bengals are locked in a close race for either an AFC North title or a Wildcard spot. It helps the Dolphins for the Jaguars to earn an upset win this week against the Bengals.
2. New York Jets (1 - 7) at the Kansas City Chiefs (4 - 3): Root for
the Jets to win the Kansas City Chiefs to lose.
I hear you - nobody wants to root for the Jets. However, it would be very helpful for the Chiefs to lose this game since they have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage over the Dolphins, so the Dolphins will have to finish with more wins than the Chiefs earn a Wildcard spot ahead of them (unless there's a tie that includes at least 3 teams). The Dolphins' playoff chances are maximized if the Chiefs don't win enough games to contend for a Wildcard spot at all, and that requires that the Chiefs lose to some of the weaker teams their schedule.
3. Denver Broncos (6 - 1) at the New England Patriots (6 - 2): Root for the Broncos.
The Broncos are very heavy favorites to win the AFC West, barring serious injuries. Meanwhile, the Patriots are still ahead of the Dolphins in the AFC East race, so it would help the Dolphins a lot for the Patriots to lose this game.
4. Baltimore Ravens (5 - 3) at the Pittsburgh Steelers (5 - 3): Root for the Steelers.
The AFC North is a closely fought division, so the team to root for in any game between 2 AFC North franchises is the team that you believe is the "weaker" AFC contender. While Ben Roethlisberger is playing at a high level, I think the Ravens are a more complete team than the Steelers, so I'd rather be in a race with the Steelers for a Wildcard spot late in the season than be competing against the Ravens.
However, I understand those who might root for the Ravens because we play the Ravens later this season and therefore could claim a head-to-head tiebreak advantage over the Ravens if we beat them. Meanwhile, the Dolphins don't play against the Steelers at all, so it's impossible to gain an early tiebreak advantage over them or impose a loss on them in a head-to-head game if they play much better than the Dolphins in the second half of the season. Most of these AFC-AFC games are debatable, and this matchup is especially so.
If those 8 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (4 - 3) beat the Chargers, here are the new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (7 - 1)
#2 seed - AFC North Leader Pittsburgh Steelers (6 - 3) - ahead of Pats due to Steelers earning a 5 - 2 conference record if they beat the Ravens compared to the Patriots being 4 - 3 against AFC opponents if they lose to the Broncos
#3 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (6 - 3)
#4 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (5 - 4)
#5 seed - Wildcard Buffalo Bills (5 - 3) - ahead of the Dolphins due to head-to-head tiebreak advantage
#6 seed - Wildcard Miami Dolphins (5 - 3)
In the hunt - Cincinnati Bengals (4 - 3 - 1), Baltimore Ravens (5 - 4), San Diego Chargers (5 - 4), Kansas City Chiefs (4 - 4), Cleveland Browns (4 - 4), Houston Texans (4 - 5), Tennessee Titans (2 - 6), New York Jets (2 - 7), Jacksonville Jaguars (2 - 7)
"Eliminated" - Oakland Raiders (0 - 8)
That's right - the Dolphins can gain control over a playoff spot if everything works out on Sunday! However, the Dolphins will have to play much better against the Chargers than they did against the Jaguars.