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 Chargers. In the Dolphins' favor, the Seahawks beat the Raiders, the Steelers won against the Ravens, and the Eagles defeated the Texans. Unfortunately, the Browns beat the Bucs, the Bengals defeated the Jaguars, the Chiefs won against the Jets, the Patriots annihilated the Broncos, and the Colts manhandled the Giants.
A new week represents another chance for things to hopefully go better for the Dolphins. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Detroit Lions 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 plus NFC vs. AFC matchups involving "eliminated" AFC teams (7)
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 anymore either, so when they play an NFC team, it's an irrelevant matchup.
1. Dallas Cowboys at the Jacksonville Jaguars (1 - 8)
2. San Francisco 49'ers at the New Orleans Saints
3. Atlanta Falcons at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
4. New York Giants at the Seattle Seahawks
5. St. Louis Rams at the Arizona Cardinals
6. Chicago Bears at the Green Bay Packers
7. Carolina Panthers at the Philadelphia Eagles
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (0)
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.
The only AFC team that is both a playoff contender and facing an NFC team this week is the Dolphins.
Category 3: AFC vs. AFC matchups (5)
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. Denver Broncos (6 - 2) at the Oakland Raiders (0 - 8): Root for the Raiders.
This is the least impactful game for the Dolphins' playoff hopes because the Broncos remain strong favorites to win the AFC West, and if they win the AFC West, the Broncos won't compete against the Dolphins for a playoff spot. However, if the Dolphins manage to beat the Broncos in a few weeks, then the Dolphins would be better positioned to win on tiebreaks against the Broncos than the Chiefs if one of those two AFC West teams is tied with the Dolphins in the hunt for a Wildcard spot.
Again, Broncos will very likely win the AFC West, even if the Dolphins manage to beat them later this year. I only consider this game relevant because the Raiders are already eliminated from the playoff race, so a win for the Raiders doesn't hurt the Dolphins' playoff hopes in any scenario. Meanwhile, there's a tiny chance the Broncos losing this game could help the Dolphins' pursuit of a Wildcard spot later this season if Denver goes on an improbable losing streak, including a loss to the Dolphins, over the next few weeks. So I'll be rooting for the Raiders to win, but I won't be too upset (or surprised) if they lose to the Broncos.
2. Tennessee Titans (2 - 6) at the Baltimore Ravens (5 - 4): Root for the Titans.
It's easy to see why Dolphins fans should root for the Titans to pull off an upset win. The Titans are close to being eliminated from the playoff race, while the Ravens are strong contenders for a Wildcard spot. This is as straightforward as they come.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6 - 3) at the New York Jets (1 - 8): Root for the
Jets to win Steelers to lose.
The Jets are already eliminated from the playoff race, while the Steelers are strong contenders for either a Wildcard spot. It helps the Dolphins' playoff hopes for the Steelers to lose games against teams who aren't AFC playoff contenders, such as the Jets.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (5 - 3) at the Buffalo Bills (5 - 3): Root for the
Bills to win Chiefs to lose.
Like the previous game, this is a matchup involving two Wildcard contenders, so a win by either team hurts the Dolphins at least a little bit. I was originally going to argue that we should root for the Chiefs since in addition to being a Wildcard contender, the Bills are also AFC East contenders, so a Bills defeat would help the Dolphins in the race for both possible paths to a playoff spot. Also, if the Chiefs won this game and if the Broncos lost to the Raiders, the Chiefs would be tied with the Broncos' win-loss record for 1st place in the AFC West with 7 games to go in the regular season. The Chiefs making the playoffs as the AFC West champion would be helpful if the Dolphins managed to beat the Broncos later this season since we'd have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage over the Broncos but not the Chiefs in the race for a Wildcard spot....
However, it's very unlikely that the Chiefs will win the AFC West. Football Outsiders projects the Chiefs as far more likely to finish with a Wildcard spot than winning the AFC West, and they're projected to earn more wins this year than the Bills. That makes the Chiefs more threatening to claim a Wildcard spot than the Bills. Meanwhile the Bills seem unlikely to win the AFC East because, for whatever reason, the Bills still can't beat the Patriots despite having an elite pass rush that shows up whenever they play Miami. Most importantly, the Dolphins have 1 more game against the Bills this season, so the Dolphins will have a chance to impose a loss on the Bills before the season is over, which is an opportunity the Dolphins don't have against the Chiefs anymore. For those reasons, I will be reluctantly hoping the Bills beat the Chiefs on Sunday.
AFC Teams On Bye Week: Houston Texans (4 - 5), Indianapolis Colts (6 - 3), New England Patriots (7 - 2), San Diego Chargers (5 - 4)
If those 5 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (5 - 3) beat the Lions, here are the new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (7 - 2)
#2 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (6 - 3) - ahead of the Colts because the Broncos won a head-to-head matchup earlier this season
#3 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (6 - 3)
#4 seed - AFC North Leader Cleveland Browns (6 - 3)
#5 seed - Wildcard - Buffalo Bills (6 - 3), ahead of the Dolphins due to head to head tiebreak advantage
#6 seed - Wildcard - Miami Dolphins (6 - 3), loser on tiebreaks to the Bills due to head-to-head loss
In the hunt -
7. Cincinnati Bengals (5 - 3 - 1)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (6 - 4)
9. Kansas City Chiefs (5 - 4)
10. San Diego Chargers (5 - 4)
11. Baltimore Ravens (5 - 5)
12. Houston Texans (4 - 5)
13. Tennessee Titans (3 - 6)
"Unofficially Eliminated" - New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders
Summary: The Dolphins are entering week 10 as only the 9th seed in the AFC, which shows how tight the playoff race is, and that's why I keep mentioning tiebreak scenarios. The AFC has twice as many teams over 0.500 as the NFC (11 in AFC vs. 6 in NFC), and the AFC East alone has 3 teams currently on pace for at least 10 wins. In other words, the Dolphins will have to earn a playoff spot this year by playing well for most of the next 8 weeks unless other AFC teams start falling off. If the Dolphins beat the Lions on the road on Sunday, AND if all the other games go in the Dolphins' favor, the Dolphins would still only be the 6th seed in the AFC.