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 13, there were 8 games that affected the Dolphins' playoff chances, aside from the Dolphins' narrow victory against the Jets. In the Dolphins' favor, the Saints beat the Steelers, the Packers prevailed against the Patriots, the Broncos dominated the Chiefs, the Chargers pulled off a narrow victory over the Ravens, and the Bills blew out the Browns. Unfortunately, the Bengals won an ugly game against the Bucs, the Texans demolished the Titans, and the Colts annihilated the Redskins. Ultimately, the most important matchups went the Dolphins' way, and the Dolphins are currently the 6th seed in the AFC, albeit as part of a 6-way tie.
A new week represents another chance for the Dolphins to fortify their position in one of the most competitive playoff races in NFL history. In addition to the Dolphins defeating the Baltimore Ravens 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 (9)
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 Jets (2 - 9) at the Minnesota Vikings
2. New York Giants at the Tennessee Titans (2 - 10)
5. Carolina Panthers at the New Orleans Saints
7. St. Louis Rams at the Washington Redskins
9. Atlanta Falcons at the Green Bay Packers
Category 2: NFC vs. AFC matchups (1)
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. Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 5) at the Arizona Cardinals: Root for the Cardinals.
The Chiefs have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage against the Dolphins in the AFC Wildcard race but are very unlikely to win the AFC West after being swept by the Broncos, who also have a head-to-head tiebreak advantage against our team. The Chiefs losing to an NFC team this week would give the Dolphins a chance to surpass them in the standings before the end of the regular season.
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. Houston Texans (6 - 6) at the Jacksonville Jaguars (2 - 10): Root for the Jaguars.
The Texans remain a darkhorse Wildcard contender with a remaining schedule of Jaguars on the road, Colts on the road, Ravens at home, and Jaguars at home. The Jaguars meanwhile were eliminated from the playoff race weeks ago, so a Jaguars victory against a Wildcard contender would help the Dolphins.
2. Indianapolis Colts (8 - 4) at the Cleveland Browns (7 - 5): Root for the Colts.
The Colts have looked shaky at times this season, especially when playing out of division opponents such as the Steelers and Patriots, but they've dominated their division by going (4 - 0) against the AFC South. The Colts are big favorites to win another division title with a remaining schedule of this road game against the Browns, a home game against the Texans, and then two final road games against the Cowboys and Titans. Meanwhile, the Browns are a playoff contender with a remaining schedule of Colts at home this week, Bengals at home, Panthers on the road, and Ravens on the road.
In a game between a likely division winner like the Colts and a likely Wildcard contender like the Browns, the rule to follow is that Dolphins fans should root for the team favored to win their division. A Colts victory this week allows them to potentially clinch their division while making it very difficult for the Browns to reach 10 wins this season.
3. Buffalo Bills (7 - 5) at the Denver Broncos (9 - 3): Root for the Broncos.
By completing a season-sweep over the Chiefs last week, the Broncos are now overwhelming favorites to win the AFC West. The Broncos have gone (4 - 0) in their division and own the key head-to-head tiebreak against the Chiefs. Despite only lagging the Broncos by one win, the Chargers are very unlikely to win the AFC West due to a (2 - 2) division record and a very difficult remaining schedule (which will be discussed below).
Meanwhile, the Bills are still a Wildcard contender after beating the Browns last week. Once again, the rule is that for matchups between a likely division winner and a Wildcard contender, Dolphins fans should root for the likely division champion to win, which means rooting for the Broncos once again this week. The Bills' remaining schedule after this game includes the Packers at home, the Raiders on the road, and the Patriots on the road, so a loss to the Broncos would make it very difficult for the Bills to reach 10 wins. Because the Patriots lost to the Packers, the Patriots will likely have motivation to compete hard in week 17 against the Bills since the Patriots' quest to claim homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs likely will require a Patriots victory that week.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 5) at the Cincinnati Bengals (8 - 3 - 1): Root for the Bengals.
The AFC North race is tight with every team having either 7 or 8 wins, though the Bengals have the edge because in addition to having 8 wins, they also have a tie that is worth half of a win. Meanwhile, the Bengals have two games against the Steelers remaining, as well as a road game against the Browns and a home game against the Broncos. Due to their inconsistency, I wouldn't be shocked if the Bengals finished the season with anywhere between 9 or 11 wins. Meanwhile, the Steelers have 2 games against the Bengals, plus a game on the road against the Falcons and a game at home against the Chiefs. Normally, in a game between two teams in the same division, you would root for the team that is more likely to win their division since that team isn't competing against the Dolphins for a Wildcard spot, but the AFC North race is still too close to call. That's what makes this situation a virtual "pick 'em." Your guess is as good as mine as to which team will win the AFC North. The Bengals have 1.5 more wins than the Steelers, but the Bengals also have a tougher final schedule, and we don't know how well these two teams match up against each other since they haven't played a game against each other yet.
My take is that if both the Dolphins and Bengals win all of their remaining games, the Bengals can earn a maximum of 12.5 wins, which is more than the 11 wins the Dolphins can earn. Meanwhile, the Steelers can finish the season with 11 wins at best. Based on that alone, the Dolphins would seem better positioned to surpass the Steelers for a Wildcard spot than the Bengals, so I think Dolphins fans should hope the Bengals claim the AFC North by beating the Steelers twice and the Browns once in the next 4 weeks, which would help the Dolphins in two ways. First, the Bengals would no longer be a threat to claim a Wildcard spot at the Dolphins' expense if they won the AFC North. Second, by going 3-0 against the Browns and Steelers to finish the season, the Bengals would help eliminate both the Steelers and the Browns from being factors in the Wildcard race.
For those reasons, I'm rooting for the Bengals to win their final 3 games against the AFC North and finish the season as division champions. Ultimately, unless the Dolphins win all of their remaining games, our team's playoff hopes now partially depend on Andy Dalton playing well down the stretch.
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...Let's hope the Dolphins win out.
5. New England Patriots (9 - 3) at the San Diego Chargers (8 - 4): Root for the Chargers.
The New England Patriots are currently favorites to win the AFC East, even after their narrow loss to the Packers, while the Chargers are projected to compete for a Wildcard spot. I've written before that a good rule to follow is to root for division favorites when they play against Wildcard contenders, but in this case, I think Dolphins fans should be ambitious and violate the rule (insert Bill Belichick joke here). While I'd be happy regardless of how the Dolphins make the playoffs, I still haven't given up hope of winning the AFC East. If the Dolphins win this week while the Patriots lose, the Dolphins will be only 1 win behind the Patriots with a re-match scheduled for next week. If the Dolphins win that re-match and complete a season sweep against the Patriots, the Dolphins would lead the AFC East race with both of their remaining games being against teams that are below 0.500, the Vikings and the Jets. That's why I'm rooting for the Chargers.
The good news is that while the Patriots beating the Chargers would hurt the Dolphins' chances of winning the AFC East, that result would also boost the Dolphins' chances of earning a Wildcard spot, so this is a rare "win-win" situation. If the Patriots lose this game, the AFC East remains a realistic goal. If the Patriots beat the Chargers, the Dolphins would be less likely to win the AFC East, but they would be better positioned to claim a Wildcard spot, especially since the Chargers' remaining games are the Broncos at home, the 49ers on the road, and the Chiefs on the road.
If those 6 games go in the Dolphins' favor, and if the Dolphins (7 - 5) defeat the Ravens (7 - 5), here are the hypothetical new playoff standings.
#1 seed - AFC West Leader Denver Broncos (10 - 3)
#2 seed - AFC North Leader Cincinnati Bengals (9 - 3 - 1)
#3 seed - AFC East Leader New England Patriots (9 - 4) - ahead of Colts in playoff seeding due to head-to-head win
#4 seed - AFC South Leader Indianapolis Colts (9 - 4)
#5 seed - Wildcard - San Diego Chargers (9 - 4)
#6 seed - Wildcard - Miami Dolphins (8 - 5)
In the hunt -
7. Kansas City Chiefs (7 - 6)
8. Buffalo Bills (7 - 6)
9. Baltimore Ravens (7 - 6)
10. Cleveland Browns (7 - 6)
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7 - 6)
12. Houston Texans (6 - 7)
"Unofficially Eliminated" - Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders
Summary: The Dolphins are currently the 6th seed in the AFC once you use tiebreaks to eliminate the other 5 AFC teams with the same (7 - 5) record. If my "dream scenario" for this week comes true, the Dolphins will be the only team with an (8 - 5) record and will be in a decent position to win the AFC East by virtue of only being one game behind the Patriots with a re-match upcoming.
The Dolphins are well positioned to win several of the most likely tiebreak scenarios for at least the 6th seed, but being in position to claim the 6th seed will likely require at least one victory against the Ravens and Patriots the next 2 weeks. In other words, these two games are our "playoff" games. Win at least one of those 2 games, and the Dolphins should have at least 1 game in January. Lose both of those games, and our season likely ends in December.
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.