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 14, there were 6 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' defeat against the Ravens. In the Dolphins' favor, the Colts narrowly defeated the Browns, the Broncos held on to beat the Bills, and the Cardinals earned a close win against the Chiefs. Unfortunately, the Steelers blew out the Bengals, the Texans comfortably beat the Jaguars, and the Patriots prevailed against the Chargers. The silver lining to the Patriots' victory over the Chargers is that while it likely ended the Dolphins' hopes of winning the AFC East, it also prevented the Chargers from pulling further ahead of the Dolphins in the Wildcard race.
In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Patriots 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 that don't involve an AFC Team That Is a Wildcard Contender (8)
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 against an NFC team or another team with at least 8 losses, it's an irrelevant matchup.
1. New York Jets (2 - 11) at the Tennessee Titans (2 - 11) - This game doesn't have playoff implications, but a win by the Jets could prevent them from earning the #1 overall pick.
2. Arizona Cardinals at the St. Louis Rams
5. Minnesota Vikings at the Detroit Lions
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (2)
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. Green Bay Packers at the Buffalo Bills (7 - 6): Root for the Packers.
A defeat against the Packers this week would leave the Bills as longshots to claim a Wildcard spot due to the Bills' remaining games both being on the road, with one game against the season-spoiling Raiders in week 16 and the other game against the Patriots in week 17. In addition to their difficult 3-game stretch to finish the season, the Bills' playoff chances are hurt by a (3 - 2) division record and a (4 - 6) conference record that would likely cause the Bills to lose in most tiebreak scenarios. Still, it would help the Dolphins for the Bills to fall out of the crowded Wildcard race sooner rather than later given the risk of the Patriots choosing to rest their starters in week 17, which would give the Bills an unexpectedly "easy" final matchup of the season.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (8 - 5) at the Atlanta Falcons: Root for the Falcons.
Because both the Steelers and Ravens won last week, the top 3 teams in the AFC North are all projected to finish the season with a record better than (9 - 7). The AFC North's strength is the main reason why the Dolphins are unlikely to claim a Wildcard spot if they win "only" 9 games, so as usual, we should root for the AFC North to lose. The Steelers' remaining schedule after this game features two home games against the reeling Chiefs and the Bengals (whom the Steelers just beat by double digits). The Steelers have an okay (3 - 2) division record, but their stellar (7 - 3) conference record should allow them to do well in most Wildcard tiebreak scenarios. Therefore, the Falcons beating the Steelers would help the Dolphins if the Steelers don't win their division and instead finish the season as a contender for a Wildcard spot.
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. Jacksonville Jaguars (2 - 11) at the Baltimore Ravens (8 - 5): Root for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars were eliminated from the playoff race weeks ago. The Ravens meanwhile are strong contenders for either the AFC North title or a Wildcard spot after earning a critical head-to-head win against the Dolphins last week. After this game against the Jaguars, the Ravens' remaining schedule includes a road game against the Texans and a home game against the Browns. While the Ravens have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage against the Dolphins that would apply if the two teams were the only ones tied for a Wildcard spot, the Ravens would most likely lose in any tie involving at least three teams due to a poor conference record of (4 - 5) compared to the Dolphins' record of (6 - 4). Therefore, the Dolphins must either surpass the Ravens in the standings or finish the season tied with the Ravens plus at least one more AFC team that has a worse conference record than Miami. The Jaguars beating the Ravens in a huge upset would help the Dolphins' chances of catching up.
2. Oakland Raiders (2 - 11) at the Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 6): Root for the Raiders.
The Raiders were eliminated from the playoff race weeks ago. The Chiefs meanwhile are strong contenders for a Wildcard spot after earning a head-to-head win against the Dolphins early in the season. After this game against the Raiders, the Chiefs' remaining schedule includes a road game against the Steelers and a home game against the Chargers. The same logic I used for the Ravens-Jaguars game applies to this game between the Chiefs and Raiders. With the Chiefs unable to win the AFC West, the Dolphins either need to surpass the Chiefs' record or to hope that a third team is involved if the Chiefs and Dolphins are tied at the end of the season. While the Chiefs are one win behind the Ravens, the Chiefs have the advantage of a better conference record (5 - 4) than the Ravens. We need the Chiefs to lose at least one of their remaining games because their remaining opponents are all AFC teams. If the Chiefs boost their conference record enough, the Chiefs could finish the season with a good enough conference record to beat the Dolphins in a tie involving 3+ teams, in addition to already being able to beat the Dolphins in a two-way tie.
3. Houston Texans (7 - 6) at the Indianapolis Colts (9 - 4): Root for the Colts.
The Colts are one win away from clinching the AFC South, and the Texans are contenders for a Wildcard spot thanks to a strong (6 - 3) conference record and a final schedule of this game on the road against the Colts and two home games against the Ravens and the Jaguars. The Texans have a good shot at a Wildcard spot if they pull off an upset this week, so Dolphins fans should root for the Colts in this game.
4. Denver Broncos (10 - 3) at the San Diego Chargers (8 - 5): Root for the Broncos.
A Broncos victory against the Chargers helps the Dolphins in two ways. First, it would give the Dolphins a chance to catch up to the Chargers in the Wildcard race. Second, it would put pressure on the Patriots to play their starters in week 17 against the Bills because the Broncos and Patriots are in a competition for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The Chargers are one of the few teams remaining in the Wildcard race who would definitely lose to the Dolphins in a two-way tie, so the Dolphins at least need to keep pace with the Chargers, whose final two games are on the road against the 49ers and Chiefs. Because both of the Chargers' remaining opponents have looked vulnerable* recently, it's very important for the Broncos to prevail in this game and prevent the Chargers from reaching 11 wins.
*"Looked vulnerable" = "lost to the Raiders"
5. Cincinnati Bengals (8 - 4 - 1) at the Cleveland Browns (7 - 6): Root for the Browns.
The Bengals would have been clear favorites to claim the AFC North title if they had beaten the Steelers last week, but instead, the Steelers earned a comfortable victory. The Bengals now have a (2 - 2) division record and a (5 - 4) conference record, and their remaining schedule includes this game on the road against the Browns, a game at home against the Broncos, and a re-match against the Steelers on the road. Meanwhile, the Browns have a (2 - 2) division record and (4 - 6) conference record, with their remaining schedule being this game at home against the Bengals, a road game against the Panthers, and a road game against the Ravens.
My take is that the Bengals appear likely to lose their final 2 games of the season, so we should root for them to lose this game as well and finish the season with a (8 - 7 - 1) record. Meanwhile, the Browns are likely to win their game against the Panthers and then lose their game against the Ravens, so beating the Bengals this week would leave the Browns favored to finish the season with a (9 - 7) overall record and a poor conference record of (5 - 7). This scenario would allow the Dolphins to surpass both teams just by winning 9 games since the Bengals would have 8.5 wins and the Browns would likely lose to the Dolphins on tiebreaks due to a poor conference record. Afterwards, the Dolphins would still be left competing against either the Steelers or Ravens for a Wildcard spot, depending on which team won the AFC North, but the good news it that the "bottom half" of the AFC North wouldn't be a threat anymore.
If those 7 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (7 - 6) defeat the Patriots (10 - 3), here are the hypothetical new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (11 - 3)
#2 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (10 - 4) - ahead of Colts in playoff seeding due to head-to-head win
#3 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (10 - 4)
#4 seed - AFC North Leader Cincinnati Bengals (8 - 5 - 1)
#5 seed - Wildcard - Miami Dolphins (8 - 6)
#6 seed - Wildcard - San Diego Chargers (8 - 6)
In the hunt -
7. Baltimore Ravens (8 - 6)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (8 - 6)
9. Cleveland Browns (8 - 6)
5-Way tie at (8 - 6) broken for 5th seed as follows:
1. (Intra-division tiebreaks) Ravens eliminate Steelers and Browns due to superior head to head record (which applies because all 3 of those teams have played each other.) In games involving the Ravens, Steelers, and Browns playing against each other, the Ravens have gone (2 - 1), while the Steelers have gone (2 - 2), and the Browns have gone (1 - 2). Dolphins and Chargers each advance because there are no other teams tied at (8 - 6) from either the AFC East or AFC West.
2. (Inter-division tiebreaks) Ravens would normally eliminate the Dolphins in a head-to-head tie, but head-to-head victories only apply as a tiebreaker if one team in a tie has beaten all of the other teams remaining in the tiebreak process, and the Ravens lost to the Chargers, who are the third team in this tie. So head-to-head record can't be used in this 3-way tie because the Dolphins beat the Chargers, the Chargers beat the Ravens, and the Ravens beat the Dolphins. Therefore, conference record comes into play. The Dolphins win the 5th seed due to the best conference record of (7 - 4) if they beat the Patriots on Sunday, while the Chargers have the 2nd best conference record of (6 - 5) if they lose the Broncos on Sunday, and the Ravens are stuck with the third best conference record of (4 - 6) if they lose to the Jaguars on Sunday.
That solves who gets the 5th seed, but there's still a 4-Way tie for the 6th seed.
4-Way tie at (8 - 6) broken for 6th seed as follows:
1. (Intra-division tiebreaks) As before, Ravens eliminate Steelers and Browns due to superior head to head record, while Chargers advance because there are no other teams tied at (8 - 6) from the AFC West.
2. (Inter-division tiebreaks) Chargers eliminate the Ravens due to a head-to-head victory in week 13. Dolphins are no longer considered part of the tiebreak process at this point because the Dolphins won the 5th seed, so head-to-head record between these two teams now can be used for the 6th seed.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 7)
11. Buffalo Bills (7 - 7)
12. Houston Texans (7 - 7)
Eliminated - Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders
Summary: The Dolphins are currently the 9th seed in the AFC, and if my "dream scenario" for this week comes true, the Dolphins would be one of 5 teams tied with a record of (8 - 6) but would claim the 5th seed after tiebreaks. The Dolphins would still be able to win the AFC East, but that would require that the Dolphins win out and the Patriots lose both of their remaining games against the Jets on the road and the Buffalo Bills at home. However, while the AFC East would be a longshot at best, the Dolphins would be in very good position to claim a Wildcard spot with 2 remaining games against teams with losing records, though both the Jets and Vikings are playing better recently.
Still, there's no denying that the Dolphins' loss to the Ravens hurts. The Dolphins can make up for it somewhat by beating the Patriots, but the "dream scenario" I describe above depends not only on the Dolphins beating the Patriots but also on huge upsets like the Jaguars beating the Ravens. Even if the Dolphins win this week and a few other games go our way, the path to the playoffs is tricky. If the Dolphins lose to the Patriots, the Dolphins would require incredible luck to make the playoffs since so many AFC playoff contenders play against each other in the final 2 weeks, so losses by 1 playoff contender end up directly leading to wins for another playoff contender.
As I wrote last week, the games against the Ravens and Patriots are the 2014 Miami Dolphins' "playoff" games. The Dolphins already lost to the Ravens, and they likely can't afford to lose to the Patriots unless other AFC Wildcard contenders lose to underdogs. The Dolphins' season isn't over yet because of how well our team does in most tiebreak scenarios, but the Dolphins need to win enough games to be involved in ties for those tiebreaks to count.
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.