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.
During week 10, there were 5 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' defeat against the Lions. In the Dolphins' favor, the Browns blew out the Bengals, and the Jets somehow beat the Steelers. Unfortunately, the Chiefs narrowly beat the Bills, the Ravens won against the Titans, and the Broncos annihilated the Raiders.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins' win against the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, 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 plus NFC vs. AFC matchups involving "eliminated" AFC teams (6)
NFC vs. NFC games 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. In addition, AFC teams with at least 8 losses aren't "officially" eliminated, but they aren't realistic playoff contenders either, so when they play an NFC team, it's an irrelevant matchup.
2. Minnesota Vikings at the Chicago Bears
3. San Francisco 49'ers at the New York Giants
5. Detroit Lions at the Arizona Cardinals
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (3)
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. Cincinnati Bengals (5 - 3 - 1) at the New Orleans Saints: Root for the Saints.
The Bengals are a wildcard contender, and if they lose this game against the Saints, the Bengals will fall further behind the Dolphins.
2. Denver Broncos (7 - 2) at the St. Louis Rams: Root for the Rams.
Much like last week, the game involving Denver is the least impactful game that has any effect on the Dolphins' playoff hopes because the Broncos remain heavy favorites to win the AFC West. However, if the Broncos lose to the Rams this week and then lose to the Dolphins next week, the Dolphins would be tied with the Broncos with a head-to-head tiebreak advantage. If that happens, then the Dolphins would be better positioned to win a Wildcard spot if they were competing against the Broncos than then Chiefs, who beat the Dolphins head-to-head in week 3.
Still, it's very likely that the Broncos will win the AFC West, so the Broncos losing this game and then finishing the year as only a Wildcard contender competing against the Dolphins for a playoff spot is a "low probability" scenario.
3. Seattle Seahawks at the Kansas City Chiefs (6 - 3): Root for the Seahawks.
The AFC West team that is most likely to win a wildcard spot is the Chiefs, who have a crucial head-to-head tiebreak advantage over not only the Dolphins but also the Bills and Chargers. Therefore, the Chiefs losing this game would help a several AFC teams gain ground in the Wildcard race.
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. Oakland Raiders (0 - 9) at the San Diego Chargers (5 - 4): Root for the Raiders.
Simply put, the Raiders aren't a realistic playoff contender, while the Chargers remain a threat to claim a playoff spot.
Another simple game to break down. The Colts are overwhelming favorites to win the weak AFC South, so they're not competing against the Dolphins for a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Patriots are directly competing against the Dolphins for the AFC East title. The Patriots losing this game also helps the Dolphins in terms of potential future tiebreaks, as Kevin previously explained.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6 - 4) at Tennessee Titans (2 - 7): Root for the Titans.
If there's one AFC team that plays down to their competition as much as the Dolphins, it's the Steelers, who are an incredible 2-10 in their last 12 games against opponents whose winning percentage is less than 20%, such as the (1-8) New York Jets last week. The Jets beating the Steelers was a nice boost to the Dolphins' playoff hopes since the Jets are not realistic playoff contenders at this point. Like the Jets, the Titans are extremely unlikely to earn a playoff spot this year, so the Titans beating the inconsistent Steelers would benefit the Dolphins.
4. Houston Texans (4 - 5) at the Cleveland Browns (6 - 3): Root for the Texans.
Both teams are wildcard contenders, but the Browns are the more threatening team, according to Football Outsiders' projections. Not only have the Browns already won 2 more games than the Texans, but they can also look forward to getting back All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon from suspension on Monday (after this game). Gordon's return to the field could help the Browns finish the season strongly, so the Dolphins would benefit if the Texans (projected to finish with 7 wins) could pull off an upset win against the Browns (projected to win 10 games and compete for a playoff spot).
AFC Teams On Bye Week: Baltimore Ravens (6 - 4), New York Jets (2 - 8), Jacksonville Jaguars (1 - 9)
If those 7 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and with the Dolphins (6 - 4) having already defeated the Bills (5 - 5), here are the hypothetical new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (7 - 3) - ahead of the Colts and Patriots due to best conference record (5 - 1). Colts have already lost to the Broncos, and the Broncos have already lost to the Patriots so far this season. In this hypothetical scenario, the Patriots ideally lose to the Colts this Sunday, so the "head to head" tiebreak can't apply in a 3-way tie in which each team has lost 1 game to a different team involved in the tie. Therefore, the deciding tiebreak is conference record.
#2 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (7 - 3) - ahead of the Patriots due to better conference record (6 - 2)
#3 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (7 - 3) - lose to Broncos and Colts due to worst conference record of the three teams involved in the tie (5 - 3)
#4 seed - AFC North Leader Baltimore Ravens (6 - 4), win division ahead of the Browns due to head-to-head win
#5 seed - Wildcard - Kansas City Chiefs (6 - 4)
#6 seed - Wildcard - Miami Dolphins (6 - 4)
In the hunt -
7. Cleveland Browns (6 - 4), loser on tiebreaks for both AFC Wildcard spots due to worse conference record (4 - 4) compared to both the Chiefs (5 - 2) and Dolphins (5 - 2). None of the 3 tied teams has defeated both of the other 2 teams involved in the tie, so head-to-head tiebreak doesn't apply.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (5 - 4 - 1)
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (6 - 5)
10. Houston Texans (5 - 5)
11. San Diego Chargers (5 - 5)
12. Buffalo Bills (5 - 5)
13. Tennessee Titans (3 - 7)
"Unofficially Eliminated" - New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders
Summary: The Dolphins are currently only the 7th seed in the AFC after their win against the Bills, which shows how tight the playoff race is this season, and that's why I keep mentioning tiebreak scenarios. The AFC still has 10 teams over 0.500, so claiming a Wildcard spot will be tough. Hopefully, the Patriots will suffer a couple of losses during the tough stretch of their schedule, which would give the Dolphins a chance to catch up in the race for the AFC East title.