The Denver Broncos home loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in painful fashion Sunday night dropped them back to 7-4. The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, won their sixth straight game by holding off Colin Kaepernick two yards from the end zone, and are tied for the final spot in the AFC.
The current standings that you see listed will show Miami in that 6th spot, and Denver as “in the hunt,” because of conference winning percentage. Denver has played all of its games against the NFC, while Miami has one more remaining, and has played one more game against AFC foes.
However, a closer look reveals that Denver is highly likely to win any tiebreaker between the two teams, if it were necessary. The tiebreakers for wildcard teams are head-to-head, followed by conference record, then record against common opponents, then strength of victory.
If they finish in a tie on record, the only practical way that Miami wins that tiebreaker is if they lose the home game to Arizona (one of only two home games remaining for Miami) yet still win enough of the others to finish with the same record. In that scenario, Miami would have the conference record tiebreaker (since the two teams do not play this year).
If they finish with the same record (let’s say, for example, at 10-6), and that includes a Miami win over Arizona, though, Denver will almost certainly win any tiebreaker. The conference records would be identical, and it would go to common opponents. Miami is 1-3 against opponents that will be common by season’s end, having lost to both Cincinnati and Tennessee. Denver is currently 2-1 (against Cincinnati, and San Diego, twice). Miami can do no more than tie that category, which would require a win over New England, and Denver losing to New England and Tennessee. And if that’s the case, Denver will almost certainly win the Strength of Victory tiebreaker, as their 7 wins have come against teams with 40 combined wins, while Miami has over half their wins against the Browns, 49ers, Jets, and Rams (8 wins total), and has a current Strength of Victory of 25 combined wins.
So pay no attention to those current standings. They are likely to change even if both teams keep winning.
Here are the current standings among potential playoff teams in the AFC, listing division and conference record to date:
And here are the remaining schedules for each potential contender (CAPS equals home game, red for division games, orange for conference, blue non-conference; darker colors for teams in playoff position or within 2 games of playoff spot):
Here’s my quick breakdown of some other races:
#1 Seed in AFC
New England and Oakland are in a virtual tie atop the AFC at the moment, and will be tied on conference record if both win this week. Oakland has the much tougher schedule, going on the road to all three AFC West rivals, plus games against the Bills and Colts. New England is still the favorite entering December.
Baltimore currently has the tiebreaker edge, but Pittsburgh has the easier schedule and still gets the Ravens at home in a key matchup in week 16. Advantage: Pittsburgh.
Tennessee has been the feel-good story, but they have significant tiebreaker issues against both the Texans and Colts, based on head-to-head and division record. The Titans get a bye this week, and likely need to close by going at least 3-1, including a win over Houston in the finale, to have a shot.
Houston can all but eliminate the Colts with a win at Indianapolis in week 14, but a Colts’ home win would make things very tight down the stretch, with the outcome of the division and common games tiebreakers to be determined. Advantage: Houston, slightly, but a collapse wouldn’t surprise based on form.
Oakland has the one game lead, but has to go on the road to Kansas City, San Diego, and Denver. The Chiefs have already won in Oakland and the week 14 game between the two can go a long way. Chiefs would clinch tiebreakers over both Denver and Oakland with a win there. Denver is a long shot, but needs to basically win out and add another loss to both the teams in front of them. Advantage: Oakland, barely, since they do have the game in hand, and could still win the division with a loss at Arrowhead.