Breaking Down the 9-Way Race for the 6th AFC Playoff Spot

The Buffalo Bills’ Week 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers could be a deciding factor in the AFC wild card race. (Photo: Charles LeClaire — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

At 4-7 and trailing in the AFC East by four games, making the playoffs isn’t supposed to be considered realistic for the Buffalo Bills.

While there have been 10 NFL playoff teams since 2007 with seven or more losses, only five of those teams have been wild card teams. And there is certainly a big difference between teams who finished the year 9-7 or even 8-8, and expecting the Bills, who have not won consecutive games yet this season, to put together a significant winning streak to secure a playoff berth.

Coming out of Buffalo’s Week 12 bye, however, the possibility should not be ruled out. And that isn’t just blind optimism from a Bills perspective. In the American Football Conference, in which only five teams have winning records, there are still nine teams with a realistic of being the AFC’s second wild card and sixth playoff team.

Given the conference’s incredible lack of depth this season, it would be a major upset if any of the conference’s current top five teams fail to make the playoffs.

The New England Patriots hold a three-game lead in the AFC East, while the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts each hold two-game leads in their respective divisions. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are currently tied for the AFC West lead, with a Week 13 game between the two teams that looms very large, but at 9-2, both teams have all but clinched playoff spots with a four-game lead on the wild card.

The race for that second wild card spot, however, remains wide open. The current mark is at 5-6, where there are six teams tied: the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers. Just one game back of them, however, are the Bills, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders.

At 2-9 each, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans are the only teams who can be effectively ruled out of the AFC playoff picture. For each of the other nine, an end-of-regular-season winning streak could be enough to propel them to a berth in the league’s second season.

How do the Bills stack up against their competition for that spot?

The games are not played on paper, so any of these teams could get hot and find the on-field formula to success, but since I have never been very good at game predictions, I came up with a formula to project the remaining outcomes on the schedule for that.

The following formula is what I used to determine what would be “expected wins” at this point in the season:

A. If the win differential between the two teams is 2 or more, the team with more wins is the expected winner.

B. If the win differential between the two teams is less than 2 wins, the two teams are compared on each of the following factors, with the team in favor in more factors being the expected winner.

- Record

- Team home record vs. opponent away record, or vice versa, depending on location of game

- Previous win/loss (if division rematch)

- Record against common opponents

C. If B fails to determine an expected winner, teams compared on the following three factors, with the team in favor in more factors being the expected winner.

- Record

- Home field

- Previous win/loss (if division rematch)

- Strength of schedule

D. If C fails to determine an expected winner, tiebreakers used in this order:

1. Record (if 1-game difference)

2. Previous win/loss (if division rematch between teams with same record)

3. Home team is expected winner (if non-division rematch between teams with same record)

(Formula rules satisfied are listed next to each expected result, with record against common opponents only calculated when necessary.)

Tennessee Titans

Current Record: 5-6

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

at Indianapolis – Loss (A)

at Denver – Loss (A)

vs. Arizona – Loss (A)

at Jacksonville – Win (A)

at Houston – Win (A)

Expected Final Record: 7-9

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Current Record: 5-6

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

at Baltimore – Win (B, 2-1)

vs Miami – Win (B, 2-0)

vs Cincinnati – Loss (A)

at Green Bay – Loss (B, 0-2)

vs Cleveland – Win (B, 3-0)

Expected Final Record: 8-8

 

Baltimore Ravens

Current Record: 5-6

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

vs Pittsburgh – Loss (B, 1-2)

vs Minnesota – Win (A)

at Detroit – Loss (B, 0-2)

vs New England – Loss (A)

at Cincinnati – Loss (A)

Expected Final Record: 6-10

 

San Diego Chargers

Current Record: 5-6

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

vs Cincinnati – Loss (A)

vs New York Giants – Win (B, 2-0)

at Denver – Loss (A)

vs Oakland – Win (B, 3-1)

vs Kansas City – Loss (A)

Expected Final Record: 7-9

 

New York Jets

Current Record: 5-6

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

vs Miami – Win (B, 2-0)

vs Oakland – Win (B, 2-0)

at Carolina – Loss (A)

vs Cleveland – Win (B, 2-0)

at Miami – Loss (C, 0-2)

Expected Final Record: 8-8

 

Miami Dolphins

Current Record: 5-6

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

at New York Jets – Loss (B, 0-2)

at Pittsburgh – Loss (B, 0-2)

vs New England – Loss (A)

at Buffalo – Loss (B, 1-2)

vs New York Jets – Win (C, 2-0)

Expected Final Record: 6-10

 

Oakland Raiders

Current Record: 4-7

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

at Dallas – Loss (A)

at New York Jets – Loss (B, 0-2)

vs Kansas City Chiefs – Loss (A)

at San Diego – Loss (B, 1-3)

vs Denver – Loss (A)

Expected Final Record: 4-12

 

Cleveland Browns

Current Record: 4-7

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

vs Jacksonville – Win (A)

at New England – Loss (A)

vs Chicago – Loss (A)

at New York Jets – Loss (B, 0-2)

at Pittsburgh – Loss (B, 0-3)

Expected Final Record: 5-11

 

Buffalo Bills

Current Record: 4-7

Expected Results of Remaining Games:

vs Atlanta – Win (A)

at Tampa Bay – Win (B, 2-1)

at Jacksonville – Win (A)

vs Miami – Win (B, 2-1)

at New England – Loss (A)

Expected Final Record: 8-8

 

Based on these expected records, we can use the NFL playoff tiebreaking procedures to see how the AFC playoff race projects to end up:

*6. Pittsburgh: 8-8 (wins vs. New York Jets, Buffalo)

7. New York Jets: 8-8 (projected strength of victory over Buffalo)

8. Buffalo: 8-8

9. Tennessee: 7-9 (win vs. San Diego)

10. San Diego: 7-9

11. Baltimore: 6-10 (win vs. Miami)

12. Miami: 6-10

13. Cleveland: 5-11

14. Oakland: 4-12

These projections indicate the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the best position to earn the sixth playoff spot in the AFC, in part due to their 23-10 against the Bills in Week 10.

If that game were to ultimately cost the Bills a playoff berth, it would be a deserved consequence. That game was Buffalo’s worst performance of the season, and it came without the excuse of having to play with a backup quarterback, as rookie EJ Manuel simply played badly. But for the Steelers, it started what is currently a three-game winning streak to bring them back to playoff contention.

Although the odds still remain stacked against the Bills because of tiebreakers, any projection that has Buffalo having a record that ties it for the sixth playoff spot in the AFC should certainly give the Bills and their fans reason for hope. For as bleak as the season looked after Buffalo lost to Pittsburgh, the Bills’ win against the Jets before their bye week kept their hopes alive.

If the Bills are going to take advantage of that hope, they have to avoid lapses. If they cannot string together a win streak as this formula projects they should capable of, then they have no chance at reaching the postseason. But if Buffalo can win the games it should win, and it has a couple other dominoes fall in their favor, there is a small but still realistic possibility that the Bills could break their 13-year playoff drought.

Tags: AFC, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, Playoff Race, Playoffs, Predictions, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, Tiebreakers, Wild Card

One Response to “Breaking Down the 9-Way Race for the 6th AFC Playoff Spot”

  1. Duncan says:

    Thanks for doing this, it really put things into perspective.




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