New England destroyed Houston Monday, getting both the bounces (two fumbles near the red zone, once which bounced to Lloyd for a touchdown) and the precise play from Brady to put up a 42-14 victory. Before we declare that the Texans cannot compete, just remember that a couple of years ago, the Patriots beat the Jets 45-3 in a late season Monday Night game, and lost the rematch in the playoffs at home. In fact, the playoffs are littered with such cases. Houston will have to play much better (and get the third down conversions, fumble recoveries, etc.) to have a chance.
Even with that, though, any rematch may still come in Houston. The race for the #1 seed, though, became a race when it could have been a foregone conclusion. Let’s go through the playoff scenarios for each eligible team in the AFC:
Houston Texans: Houston is still in the lead in the AFC, but has not clinched the division thanks to the Colts improbable 9-4 record. Houston wins the AFC South with a win over Indianapolis this week OR a win vs. Minnesota and an Indianapolis loss in week 16 OR a win over the Colts in the finale.
As for the top seed, win all remaining games, and the Texans get the #1 seed. If they go 2-1 in the final three games, they cannot finish lower than a #2 seed. Houston would lose a head to head tiebreaker to New England, or a three way tiebreaker to New England that also involves Denver. They would still finish ahead of Denver thanks to the earlier win, though.
New England Patriots: The Patriots have clinched the AFC East. Win out against San Francisco, Jacksonville and Miami, and they can do no worse than a #2 seed. The Patriots hold the tiebreaker over Houston and Denver in a two or three way tiebreaker. The Patriots are now a game clear of Baltimore, but would lose a 2-way or 3-way tiebreaker involving Baltimore at 12-4 (which assumes a win by the Ravens over Denver).
Denver Broncos: Denver is within a game of New England and Houston, but trails both in the tiebreaker thanks to losses against each. Denver can for all practical purposes clinch the #3 seed with a win at Baltimore. In order to get a bye, Denver needs to win out against Baltimore, Cleveland, and Kansas City, and then have New England lose a game (or the Texans lose two).
Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore clinches a playoff spot and the AFC North with a win over Denver. If they get to 10 wins, they would win a tiebreaker over either Cincinnati (division record) or Pittsburgh (conference record) even if one of those teams won out. They would also clinch a playoff spot, even with a loss, if Pittsburgh or Cincinnati lose, and clinch the division if both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lose this week. This is because Baltimore would hold the tiebreaker over any team that can get to 9-7 (Steelers, Bengals, Jets).
Indianapolis Colts: Indianapolis can win the AFC South by winning out, including a sweep of Houston, or can win by sweeping Houston if the Texans also lose to Minnesota. The Colts clinch a playoff spot with one more win the rest of the year.
They can also clinch a playoff spot even with a loss this week if the Jets lose (since New York would have a tiebreaker over them at 9-7), AND the Bengals lose this week. This would insure a playoff spot because either Cincinnati would win over Pittsburgh (giving the Steelers seven conference losses), or get their eighth loss against Pittsburgh in week 16, meaning no one could catch Indianapolis at 9-7.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh is currently in front in the wildcard. They still play Cincinnati at home, and that game is largely determinative. If Pittsburgh gets to 9-7, and it includes a 2nd win over Cincinnati, they are in the playoffs unless there is a three-way tie at 9-7 with Indianapolis and the NY Jets. (In that case, the Steelers’ bad conference record would come into play, since not all three teams played each other).
Pittsburgh cannot finish below Cincinnati in a tiebreaker with another head to head win. They could still win a tiebreaker over Cincinnati at 9-7 with a loss to the Bengals in week 16, IF Cincinnati’s remaining loss came to Baltimore (division record).
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals need to win at Pittsburgh in week 16. The scenarios where they get in with a loss to Pittsburgh while winning the other two games to get to 9-7 would require two of the following: (1) the Steelers to lose the rest of their games to finish 8-8, (2) the Jets to lose a game, or (3) the Colts to lose all remaining games to finish 9-7, and Bengals win Strength of Victory tiebreaker (currently virtually even).
The Bengals get in at 10-6. At 9-7 with a win over Pittsburgh, they would make the playoffs so long as they did not lose to Baltimore and Pittsburgh also finished at 9-7. The Colts at 9-7 would go to a tiebreaker on Strength of Victory again, if the Bengals lost to Baltimore. If they beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati is in, regardless of what happens this week.
New York Jets: New York is still alive at 6-7, and has a manageable closing schedule with Tennessee, San Diego at home, and Buffalo. If they get to 9-7, the Jets would still need help. They would lose a tiebreaker with Pittsburgh. They would win a three-way tiebreaker that included the Colts at 9-7, however. They could win a tiebreaker with the Bengals, but that would go to Strength of Victory, something that is too close to call right now.
New York could also make it at 8-8, but those scenarios are crazy right now, and would require Cincinnati to beat Pittsburgh but lose all other games, Pittsburgh to lose twice to Cincinnati and Cleveland, and host of other things.
Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, and Miami Dolphins: These teams are alive, mathematically. They would each have to win out, and could then conceivably win a tiebreaker if none of the Steelers, Bengals, and Jets wins more than 8 games. Cleveland is best positioned because they play Pittsburgh in the finale, thus being able to give them a loss directly.
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