I have been on record for over fifteen years as hating that division winners in the current 4-division setup get automatic home games, and the way the AFC is shaking out is one reason why. After this weekend’s results, it is highly likely that only one team will have nothing to play for and can rest starters–the Kansas City Chiefs.
If the Chiefs win this week against Miami at home, they clinch the AFC West but will be locked into the #4 seed. If they weren’t guaranteed that home game unless they stayed even in record with the top wildcard, they would have to play it out in Denver to get to 10-6. For whatever you think of the being able to rest starters, it should be an option available to the best team, and not to a team that is getting in with 6 losses.
Meanwhile, the top three teams in the AFC will likely all come down to the final game to decide seeding, thanks to Pittsburgh going to the ground against the Pats. The Patriots now have the tiebreaker over the Steelers with both at 11-3, while Jacksonville lurks at 10-4. Jacksonville would have the tiebreaker over either of the other two if they can get to 12-4, so all three will be incentivized to win out: the Patriots to secure the top seed, the Steelers to get a bye, and Jacksonville to still win the division and hope for a bye.
Here’s a breakdown of each team:
NEW ENGLAND: Is the #1 seed if they win against Buffalo and the Jets at home. A loss puts the Patriots at risk of not getting a bye at all so they are going to have to play it out aggressively to insure the top seed.
PITTSBURGH: The Steelers get a first-round bye if they win out (at Houston, vs. Cleveland). The schedule is very favorable but they will be doing it without Antonio Brown. They get the #1 seed by winning out and New England losing a game. They could drop to the #3 seed if they lose a game and Jacksonville wins both.
JACKSONVILLE: The Jaguars are a longshot to get the #1 seed, are alive for a bye, but also have not yet clinched the AFC South. They can do that by either beating San Francisco, or with a Titans loss at home to the Rams. The only way they don’t win the South is by losing both and finishing tied with the Titans at 10-6. They would win a tiebreaker over KC based on conference record so they cannot drop to the #4 seed.
KANSAS CITY: The Chiefs win the AFC West with one more win (vs. Miami and at Denver) or a loss by the Chargers (at Jets, vs. Oakland) in the final two weeks.
TENNESSEE: The Titans have a tough remaining schedule and must get both a loss by Jacksonville at San Francisco, and a home win over the Rams, to have a chance at the AFC South title. If they win out, even if Jacksonville wins this week, they will get a wildcard slot at 10-6.
In the improbable event of a three-way tiebreaker between Tennessee, Buffalo, and Baltimore, the conference records would be even. [Update: an earlier version incorrectly said that it would go to strength of victory. Tennessee would lose a common games tiebreaker with Baltimore and Buffalo based on losses to Indy and Miami).
If they finish at 9-7, it depends on who the loss comes against. If they lose to the Rams but beat the Jaguars, they would win a tiebreaker over anyone else that can finish at 9-7 based on conference record. If the loss is to Jacksonville, then it could come down to common opponents if there are multiple teams involved.
BUFFALO: The Bills face a tough task in getting to 10-6, with a game at New England this week and then at Miami. If they can get there, they are in.
At 9-7, the Bills would need help. The Baltimore tiebreaker is still in doubt because the Ravens still play Cincinnati. They would win a tiebreaker over Tennessee on common games depending on whether the loss was to Miami or not, and lose the head-to-head to the Chargers.
BALTIMORE: The Ravens have the easiest path to 10-6 of the current wildcard contenders, with games against Cincinnati and Cleveland. If they get there, they are in.
At 9-7, Baltimore is at risk of losing tiebreakers to Tennessee (head-to-head) or Buffalo, if the loss is to Cincinnati.
LA CHARGERS: The Chargers took a big hit with the loss to Kansas City. They now must win out to get to 9-7 and really need Tennessee to lose the last two games (which, they will be an underdog). They also then need to avoid a three-way tiebreaker with Buffalo and Baltimore, since they would be kicked out with the worst conference record.
MIAMI: Yes, still mathematically alive as a longshot. Would win a massive 8-8 multi-team pileup for a wildcard spot based on conference record.
OAKLAND: Also, technically alive. Need to win out, have Miami lose to the Chiefs, and have Buffalo and Baltimore both lose out to finish at 8-8. In that case, they would likely win a strength of victory tiebreaker.