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AFC Playoff Picture at the Halfway Point: A Look At the Key Games

The first half positioning is over, and teams in the AFC are now going to have several faceoffs for playoff spots. Eleven teams in the AFC have a realistic chance at the postseason as we hit the season’s epicenter. The games this week include three huge matchups that could swing team fortunes. The AFC appears to be very bunched this year. Last year at this point, the New England Patriots exploded offensively, and finished 8-0. A team can get hot and win the key swing games and get to 13+ wins, but if we base it on performance to date, the projected wins are very bunched. Here’s what I have in the AFC in assigning win percentages for remaining games.

  • Pittsburgh (10.8 wins)
  • New England (10.8 wins)
  • Baltimore (10.8 wins)
  • Houston (10.5 wins)
  • Buffalo (10.5 wins)
  • Cincinnati (9.7 wins)
  • NY Jets (9.4 wins)
  • Tennessee (8.4 wins)
  • Oakland (8.3 wins)
  • San Diego (8.3 wins)
  • Kansas City (8.0 wins)

I’ve got 5 teams with roughly the same projected win total at the top, and the team that can win those 50/50 and 60/40 type games can emerge. The #1 seed is wide open. The others all play each other, but Houston only plays at Cincinnati and at home against Tennessee. The Texans should be favored or at least a pick’em in every remaining game, which is why they project there despite being the only one with 3 losses in that group currently.

I currently have the Jets and Bengals on the outside, but they play teams in front of them and have a chance to alter that. The Titans are projected to be off the pace, and will have to get some upsets, or have the Texans struggle, to challenge Houston so that they can go into that week 17 matchup with a chance.

The AFC West winner looks locked into the #4 seed, with little chance of a second team. It’s close enough to basically be a wash, especially considering that the Chiefs have the tiebreaker advantage right now. Maybe one team can win the swing games and get to 10, but not two.

With that in mind, here are the most important remaining head to head games that could swing the playoff outlook.

  1. Baltimore at Pittsburgh (this week). They are projected evenly, and this is close to a toss-up game, with slight advantage to Pittsburgh. The winner would have a 1.5 game lead, because Baltimore would clinch the tiebreaker. The winner moves to the favorite’s role for the top seed; the loser drops to barely ahead of the Jets and Bengalson remaining wins.
  2. Buffalo vs. NY Jets (this week & week 12). The Bills just need to hold serve and split, especially with the NE win in hand. The Jets need to re-define the outline by sweeping Buffalo, and they would shoot up from just on the outside to playoff participant.
  3. Buffalo at New England (week 17). This one may mean nothing, or it could mean everything if these teams are within one game of each other going into the last game.
  4. Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati (week 10 & 13). Cincinnati is right there at 5-2, but will have to move past the Steelers and Ravens head to head, like they did back in 2009 when they swept the division.
  5. Baltimore vs. Cincinnati (week 11 & 17). Baltimore may need to hold off the Bengals if they lose to Pittsburgh this week.
  6. New England at NY Jets (week 11). If the Jets lose to Buffalo, it must beat the Patriots to get back in the mix. The Jets have beaten New England in the last two meetings at home.
  7. Cincinnati at Tennessee (this week). Neither of these teams is guaranteed to be in the playoffs, but the loser here is hurting. Tennessee needs to win these type of games to stay with Houston, while Cincy would likely need to go 3-2 against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston to have a realistic chance at the postseason.
  8. Oakland vs. San Diego. (week 10 & 17). Will the AFC West come down to a game between these teams in week 17, or will the Chiefs get some wins during their rough stretch in late November and early December? The Chiefs should be rooting for a split here, because a sweep by one of these teams may be enough.
  9. Oakland at Kansas City (week 16). A win here would give the Chiefs the tiebreaker over Oakland and likely San Diego.
  10. Houston at Cincinnati (week 14). This may be Houston’s biggest hurdle, in the cold in Cincinnati, to a run toward a first round bye and the division. Cincinnati may desperately need this one unless they got victories against the Steelers and Ravens previously.

[photo via Getty]

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