This article series discusses what games are worth keeping an eye on and what results would be most helpful to the Dolphins given how the AFC East and Wildcard races are playing out. Plenty of guesswork is required, 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 take into account how well teams have played so far this season and the strength of their remaining schedule.
During week 12, there were 8 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' narrow loss against the Broncos. In the Dolphins' favor, the Raiders beat the Chiefs. Unfortunately, the Ravens beat the Saints, the Browns won a close game against the Falcons, the Chargers defeated the Rams, the Patriots demolished the Lions, the Colts crushed the Jaguars, the Bills blew out the Jets, and the Bengals won against the Texans.
Still, a new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the the New York Jets on Monday, 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 (7)
NFC vs. NFC games don't significantly affect our team since the Dolphins are competing for a playoff spot in the AFC. In addition, AFC teams with at least 8 losses aren't realistic playoff contenders, so when they play an NFC team, it's an irrelevant matchup.
1. New York Giants at the Jacksonville Jaguars (1 - 10)
2. Oakland Raiders (1 - 10) at the St. Louis Rams
3. Chicago Bears at the Detroit Lions
4. Philadelphia Eagles at the Dallas Cowboys
5. Seattle Seahawks at the San Francisco 49ers
6. Carolina Panthers at the Minnesota Vikings
7. Arizona Cardinals at the Atlanta Falcons
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. Washington Redskins at the Indianapolis Colts (7 - 4): Root for the Redskins.
I'm not optimistic that the now Colt McCoy-led Redskins can beat the Colts, but the good news is that this matchup is by far the least significant game that has any effect on the Dolphins' playoff hopes. The Colts losing this game would help the Dolphins only if the Colts suffer a late-season collapse as the Texans go on a hot streak, in which case the Colts would be stuck competing against the Dolphins for a Wildcard spot. Because that "doomsday" scenario for the Colts is so unlikely, a Colts victory in this game wouldn't hurt the Dolphins' playoff outlook significantly.
2. New Orleans Saints at the Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 4): Root for the Saints.
Like all AFC North teams, the Steelers are a playoff contender, so it would be helpful if a team from the NFC South (like the Saints) could beat them to give the Dolphins some leeway in the Wildcard race.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (7 - 3 - 1) at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Root for the Bucs.
Once again, this is the part where I write, "It would really help the Dolphins if an NFC South team could beat an AFC North team." For now, the Bengals are the AFC North leaders, but if the Bengals end up competing for a Wildcard spot, the Dolphins would benefit from the Bucs winning this game.
4. New England Patriots (9 - 2) at the Green Bay Packers: Root for the Packers.
The Patriots have three fewer losses than the Dolphins with five games remaining in the regular season. Even if the Dolphins win all of their upcoming games and complete a season sweep of the Patriots, the Patriots still can claim the AFC East title by winning three of their other four games, which are against the Packers on the road this Sunday, the Chargers on the road next week, the Jets on the road in week 16, and the Bills at home in week 17. The Dolphins are still alive in the AFC East race, but the Patriots will become huge favorites to claim the division if they win at Lambeau Field.
The Patriots continuing their winning-streak could hurt the Dolphins in not only the AFC East race but also the Wildcard race. A Patriots victory on Sunday would put them on pace to clinch the #1 seed in the AFC before the end of the season, which would leave them with nothing to play for in their week 17 game against the Bills. The Patriots choosing to rest their starters in that game might allow the Bills to earn a win that puts them ahead of the Dolphins in the Wildcard race. Therefore, a Patriots loss on Sunday would help the Dolphins in two ways. The Dolphins would have a chance to begin catching up in the AFC East race, and a potential Wildcard contender (the Bills) would be less likely to get an "easy" game against the Patriots in the final week of the season.
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. Tennessee Titans (2 - 9) at the Houston Texans (5 - 6): Root for the Titans.
The Texans are still Wildcard contenders, despite their starting quarterback Ryan Mallett suffering a season-ending injury. Meanwhile, the Titans are not a playoff threat, and a Titans victory would help end the Texans' Wildcard hopes.
3. San Diego Chargers (7 - 4) at the Baltimore Ravens (7 - 4): Root for the Chargers.
One way to think about this matchup between two talented 7-win teams is to note that the Dolphins can "inflict" a loss on the Ravens later this season to prevent them from reaching 12 wins, while the Chargers don't face the Dolphins again and could finish the season with 12 wins simply by beating other teams. The Dolphins meanwhile already have 5 losses and can only win a maximum of 11 games this season. Based on that approach, it would make sense to root for the Ravens because a Ravens victory would prevent the Chargers from reaching 12 wins, and then the Dolphins would have a chance to beat the Ravens and prevent them from reaching 12 wins. If all went well, the Dolphins would be well-positioned to win a Wildcard spot after earning head-to-head victories over both the Chargers and Ravens, with neither one of those teams capable of winning more than 11 games. Also, if you're very confident the Ravens will win the AFC North, then this game would appear to be a contest between a Wildcard contender (Chargers) and a likely division winner (Ravens), which would mean we should root for the Ravens.
However, my take is that right now, I think the Ravens will win the AFC North, but that's far from a safe bet because of how competitive that division race continues to be, so I still consider the Ravens to be a serious Wildcard threat. The Dolphins already have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage over the Chargers because the Dolphins defeated them a month ago, but at this point, we can only "hope" the Dolphins earn a head-to-head tiebreak advantage against the Ravens by beating them two weeks from now. Therefore, I think that Dolphins fans should root for Chargers because we "know" the Dolphins would prevail against the Chargers if there is a two-way tie for a Wildcard spot, while the Ravens might finish the season with a key tiebreak advantage against the Dolphins.
Ultimately, there are smart arguments to be made for both sides, so feel free to pick either team knowing that there's no "wrong" choice given what we know now.
4. Cleveland Browns (7 - 4) at the Buffalo Bills (6 - 5): Root for the Bills.
It's hard to imagine the Bills winning the AFC East because the Bills already have two division losses to the Dolphins and Patriots and lag behind the Patriots by 3 wins. Still, the Bills are contenders for a Wildcard spot even with a poor conference record of (3 - 5) and a tough final 4 game schedule of Broncos on the road, Packers at home, Raiders on the road, and Patriots on the road. Meanwhile, the Browns already have 7 wins and a decent conference record of (4 - 4), and the Browns finish the season with a final schedule of 2 home games against the Colts and the Bengals, and then two road games against the Panthers and the Ravens.
Simply put, the Browns have more wins than the Bills, a better conference record than the Bills, and an arguably "easier" 4-game stretch to finish the season than the Bills. The Browns' end of season schedule looks even more favorable once you remember how badly the Browns beat the Bengals in their earlier matchup. For those reasons, the Browns are the bigger Wildcard threat in this game, so I think it's best to root for the Browns to lose even though the Bills would reach 7 wins as a result. The other teams on the Bills' schedule, such as the Broncos, Patriots, and Packers, should be able to prevent Bills from earning more than 9 wins.
If those 8 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (6 - 5) defeat the Jets (2 - 9), here are the hypothetical new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (9 - 3) - ahead of Broncos for the #1 seed due to head-to-head tiebreak advantage
#2 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (9 - 3)
#3 seed - AFC North Leader Cincinnati Bengals (7 - 4 - 1)
#4 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (7 - 5)
#5 seed - Wildcard - San Diego Chargers (8 - 4)
#6 seed - Wildcard - Miami Dolphins (7 - 5) - Six-way tie for Wildcard 6th seed broken as follows:
1. First applicable tiebreak is the intra-division tiebreak. Dolphins are tied with Bills in head-to-head record (1 - 1) but eliminate Bills due to better division record of (3 - 1) for Dolphins versus (3 - 2) for Bills. The Ravens have played against and defeated both the Steelers and Ravens, so the head-to-head tiebreak applies for the AFC North Wildcard contenders: Ravens eliminate both the Steelers and Browns due to superior head-to-head win percentage, with Ravens having a (2 - 1) record in games involving two of those three tied AFC North teams, while the Steelers have gone (2 - 2) and the Browns have gone (1 - 2) in those games. The Chiefs are the only AFC West team who are (7 - 5), so they advance uncontested.
2. After that first tiebreak, the three remaining (7 - 5) teams are the Dolphins, Ravens, and Chiefs. Normally, the Chiefs would eliminate the Dolphins due to the Chiefs' head-to-head win against the Dolphins, but head-to-head results only apply if at least one team involved in the tie has defeated all of the other teams in the tie. The Chiefs haven't played against the Ravens, so the head-to-head tiebreak can't be used to eliminate the Dolphins in a tie involving at least 3 teams. Therefore, the next applicable tiebreaker is conference record, which the Dolphins would win in this scenario with a (6 - 3) record if they beat the Jets, compared to the Chiefs' conference record of (5 - 4) if they lose to the Broncos and the Ravens' record being only (3 - 5) if they lose to the Chargers.
If my math is right, that's how the Dolphins could end up as the 6th seed after this week if my "dream scenario" comes to fruition.
In the hunt -
7. Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 5)
8. Baltimore Ravens (7 - 5)
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 5)
10. Buffalo Bills (7 - 5)
11. Cleveland Browns (7 - 5)
12. Houston Texans (5 - 7)
"Unofficially Eliminated" - Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders
Summary: Despite a winning record, the Dolphins are still currently only the 10th seed in the AFC. Even if my "dream scenario" for this week comes true, 11 AFC teams would remain over 0.500 entering week 14. If that seems like an unusually high number of teams with winning records this late in the season, that's because this is one of the most competitive AFC playoff races in NFL history.
11 teams in the AFC have a winning record after week 12. That's a first in NFL history. So is the fact that 16 of 32 have seven or more wins— Mark Dominik (@MarkdominikESPN) November 25, 2014
In other words, while I believe that the Dolphins are better this season than last season, several other AFC teams are also better this year. With an ultra-competitive playoff field, this upcoming game against the Jets is a virtual "must win." Even in my "dream scenario" I described above, the Dolphins re-gain the 6th seed this week by virtue of winning a 6-way tie, so the Dolphins' margin for error is small.
I'm still optimistic because the Dolphins are well positioned to win several of the most likely tiebreak scenarios for at least the 6th seed (as I demonstrated above in a hypothetical 6-way tie), and the Dolphins are favored in 3 of their remaining 5 games. Nonetheless, a playoff spot in the AFC this season will only be earned this season through consistently good play between now and the end of the season, and that starts with a win against the struggling Jets.
One final note: At this point of the season, ESPN's "Playoff Machine" is up and running, and it allows you to pick and choose potential winners and losers each week and see how those outcomes affect the standings. In other words, if you're wondering about other playoff scenarios but don't feel like doing the math yourself, this website makes it easy to see how other game outcomes affect the playoff picture. Just click on the link below.