This article series discusses what games are worth keeping an eye on and what game results 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 11, there were 7 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' victory over the Bills. In the Dolphins' favor, the Rams pulled off a huge upset victory against the Broncos, and the Texans beat the Browns. Unfortunately, the Bengals crushed the Saints, the Chiefs won their game against the Seahawks, the Chargers managed to narrowly defeat the Raiders, the Steelers came from behind to beat the Titans, and the Patriots dominated the Colts.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Denver Broncos on 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 and games pitting a NFC team against an AFC Team That Isn't a Wildcard Contender (6)
NFC vs. NFC games don't significantly 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.
1. Tennessee Titans (2 - 8) at the Philadelphia Eagles
2. Green Bay Packers at the Minnesota Vikings
3. Arizona Cardinals at the Seattle Seahawks
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. Baltimore Ravens (6 - 4) at New Orleans Saints: Root for the Saints.
If I had to guess which AFC North team will eventually claim that division, I'd pick the Ravens. However, the race is too close to call because every AFC North team has 6 wins, though the Bengals have earned a tie in addition to 6 outright wins. Until one team in the AFC North clearly pulls ahead, I will consider all teams in that division to be Wildcard contenders, which means the Saints defeating the Ravens would boost the Dolphins chances of getting a Wildcard spot.
2. Atlanta Falcons at the Cleveland Browns (6 - 4): Root for the Falcons.
Like all the AFC North teams, the Browns remain a credible Wildcard threat due to their winning record, and the return this week of All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon from suspension could make them even more dangerous. It would definitely help the Dolphins for the Browns to lose to an NFC team like the Falcons.
3. St. Louis Rams at the San Diego Chargers (6 - 4): Root for the Rams.
The Rams may only have 4 wins, but the list of teams they've beaten is impressive. In addition to a "less than spectacular" win against the Bucs, the Rams have defeated both teams that played in the Super Bowl last season (Broncos and Seahawks), as well as the 49ers. It would be helpful for the Dolphins if the Rams continued their "Giant-slayer" ways by defeating the Chargers, who remain a Wildcard contender after narrowly defeating the Raiders last week.
4. Detroit Lions at the New England Patriots (8 - 2): Root for the Lions.
As of this week, the Dolphins have two more losses than the Patriots. That means the Dolphins cannot win the AFC East, even if the Dolphins prevail in their re-match against the Patriots later this season, unless the Patriots lose to at least 1 other opponent during their remaining 6 games. The Detroit Lions are one of the 3 toughest opponents remaining on the Patriots' schedule (alongside the Packers and the Dolphins themselves), so this game represents one of the best opportunities for the Patriots to suffer a loss that would help the Dolphins gain ground.
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 - 9) at the Indianapolis Colts (6 - 4): Root for the Jaguars.
In a more perfect world, the Colts would have defeated the Patriots on Sunday, thereby helping the Dolphins gain ground in the AFC East race. In addition, a Colts victory against the Patriots would have left the Colts as overwhelming favorites to win the AFC South, and as a result, this game between the Colts and the Jaguars would have been mostly irrelevant. Unfortunately, the Colts were run over by the Patriots, and even worse, the Colts suffered two key injuries in RB Ahmad Bradshaw (broken ankle) and TE Dwayne Allen (high ankle sprain) during that defeat. With the (5 - 5) Texans only 1 loss behind the Colts and perhaps poised to play better the remainder of the season with Ryan Mallett replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback, it's quite possible that the Texans could win the AFC South. If the Texans find a way to win the AFC South this season, the Colts would be left as Wildcard contenders who would be competing against the Dolphins for a playoff spot.
Do I think that scenario is likely? No, but weirder late-season collapses have happened. Given that the Jaguars are eliminated from the Wildcard race, it would help the Dolphins for the Jaguars to defeat the Colts just in case the Texans get "hot" and finish the year as AFC South champions. However unlikely that may seem, if the Texans win the AFC South, the Dolphins would be more likely to finish ahead of the Colts in the race for a wildcard spot if the Colts lose this game against the Jaguars.
2. New York Jets (2 - 8) at the Buffalo Bills (5 - 5): Root for
the Jets to win the Bills to lose.
This game will be postponed to Monday after two consecutive snowstorms have left many in Western New York stranded in their homes due to 5+ feet of snow...
If you don't like Buffalo, well, there's the door. pic.twitter.com/pvDvkMymeV— John Luke Maher (@MaherNotMayer) November 20, 2014
Public safety concerns have prevented the Bills from practicing at all this week. The National Guard has been called in to assist in clearing roads, and we at The Phinsider hope everyone in Western New York stays safe and that things return to normal as soon as possible.
Now, to take a break from reality and return to football: Despite the Bills' shaky tiebreak situation due to a poor conference record (2 - 5) and head-to-head losses to key Wildcard contenders such as the Chiefs, Chargers, and Texans, the Bills remain a Wildcard threat and a contender to win the AFC East. Meanwhile, the Jets can be safely excluded from both the Wildcard race and the AFC East race, which leaves the Jets playing the "spoiler" role for the rest of the season. Therefore, it would help the Dolphins in the separate races for a Wildcard spot and the AFC East title if the Bills lose to the Jets.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 3) at the Oakland Raiders (0 - 10): Root for the Raiders.
The most likely scenario for the AFC West involves the Chiefs ending the season as a wildcard contender and the Broncos winning the division. However, the Chiefs defeating the Seahawks on the same day that the Broncos lost to the Rams makes the AFC West a lot more interesting. The Broncos and Chiefs currently have the exact same record, though the Broncos remain ahead of the Chiefs in the playoff standings because the Broncos beat the Chiefs earlier this season. Because the Chiefs have 2 games against the Raiders plus a rematch against the Broncos remaining on their schedule, it's very possible that the Chiefs could win the AFC West, especially if the Dolphins help them out by defeating the Broncos on Sunday.
For now, the Chiefs are a more likely Wildcard contender than the Broncos, which is why the Raiders beating the Chiefs would be the most helpful outcome for the Dolphins in this game. Still, if the Dolphins manage to beat the Broncos on Sunday, then the Dolphins would own a head-to-head tiebreak advantage against the Broncos. If that happens, then it would be better from the Dolphins' perspective for the Chiefs to win the AFC West because the Chiefs would still have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage over the Dolphins for a Wildcard spot, while the Broncos would be at a disadvantage in the Wildcard race if the Dolphins pull off an upset on Sunday.
UPDATE: The Raiders had multiple defenders stay behind the line of scrimmage to celebrate a sack in the final minute of the game as the Chiefs rushed to start the next play....
And they still won.
Congrats to the Raiders, who are no longer winless. In addition, this could be the victory that prevents the Chiefs from winning the AFC West because their division record is now (1 - 2), compared to the Broncos' (3 - 0) record.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6 - 3 - 1) at the Houston Texans (5 - 5): Root for the Texans.
While I consider the Ravens to be the favorites to win the AFC North, the Bengals are currently leading that division and have the best division record of any AFC North team (2 - 1). In my opinion, the Bengals are too inconsistent to claim their division, but they are talented enough to win 10 games and claim a Wildcard spot. Because of that, I view this as a game between two Wildcard contenders. In games between two Wildcard contenders, I root for the team that is projected to finish with fewer wins, so I'm rooting for the Texans this week.
However, the race for the AFC North title is too close to call, and all four teams remain credible contenders. Fans who think the Bengals will claim the AFC North should root for the Bengals to defeat the Texans in this game. If I'm wrong and the Bengals win their division, the Bengals wouldn't be a threat to win a Wildcard spot, which would leave the Texans as the more likely Wildcard contender. Still, I'm rooting for the Texans to win because a Texans' victory would leave both of these teams with only 6 wins each, while the Dolphins could reach 7 wins this weekend by beating the Broncos. By contrast, if the Bengals win this game, there would be two AFC North teams with 7 wins (the Bengals and the Steelers) that the Dolphins would have to worry about going forward.
AFC Teams On Bye Week: Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 4)
If those 8 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (6 - 4) defeat the Broncos (7 - 3), here are the hypothetical new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (8 - 3)
#2 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (7 - 4) - ahead of Chiefs in AFC West race due to head-to-head tiebreak advantage, ahead of Steelers due to superior conference winning percentage, (5 - 2) for Broncos vs. (6 - 3) for Steelers
#3 seed - AFC North Leader Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 4)
#4 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (6 - 5)
#5 seed - Wildcard - Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 4)
#6 seed - Wildcard - Miami Dolphins (7 - 4) - settle for 6th seed because Chiefs win head-to-head tiebreak
In the hunt -
7. Cincinnati Bengals (6 - 4 - 1)
8. Cleveland Browns (6 - 5)
9. Baltimore Ravens (6 - 5)
10. Houston Texans (6 - 5)
11. San Diego Chargers (6 - 5)
12. Buffalo Bills (5 - 6)
"Unofficially Eliminated" - Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders
Summary: The Dolphins are still currently only the 7th seed in the AFC, which shows how tight the playoff race is this season. Out of 16 teams in the AFC, there are 12 teams with a record either at 0.500 or better, which makes claiming a Wildcard spot a difficult challenge. Even if my "dream scenario" for this week comes true, 11 AFC teams would remain over 0.500 entering week 13.
Football Outsiders currently projects that in addition to the four division winners, there will be three 10-win teams in the AFC competing for 2 Wildcard spots, so one team would miss out on a playoff spot despite winning 10 games. That's why I believe 10 wins is what it will take to have a shot at a playoff berth, and even then, the Dolphins might have to hope tiebreaks go in their favor. While the upcoming game against the Broncos isn't a "must win," the Dolphins winning on Sunday would both improve the Dolphins' record and also boost their chances of winning various tiebreakers. Plus, even if the Patriots lose to the Lions, the Dolphins don't actually gain any ground in the AFC East race this week unless they beat the Broncos.