This is the AFC Playoff Picture. For the Week 17 NFC Playoff Picture, click here.
Week 16 is in the books and the NFL playoff picture is simplified … a bit.
Prior to Week 16, only the Green Bay Packers had clinched a playoff spot. The Dallas Cowboys locked in their bid with the Cardinals’ loss on Thursday night while the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Rams all punched their tickets with big victories over the weekend.
Here is a snapshot of the AFC playoff picture as it stands today.
Week 15 was a fairytale week for the NFL – only good things happened, no bad. Of course the cloud of controversy surrounding the leagues COVID protocols is far from good, but from a playoff equity standpoint we saw 4 teams clinch last week (3 in the NFC) while 0 teams were eliminated from playoff contention.
That’s right! Those 7-8 Browns? Still in it. The 7-8 Vikings? Very much alive. Even Denver? Well, kinda.
Denver might as well be eliminated as they are now relegated to praying for miracles. Of the 4.2 billion possible ways the final 32 games of the 2021 NFL regular season could pan out, only a couple endgame scenarios will see Denver in.
Several teams increased their playoff equity with big week 16 wins – including the Raiders, Bengals, and Dolphins while others made a strong bid for watching the playoffs from their couch – like Cleveland, Denver, the LA Chargers, and Baltimore.
Last week, I said that the Dolphins were “in dire straits”. Those straits are now less dire. The Fins have amassed 32% playoff equity with their 8-7 record after a 1-7 start!
Most of last week’s clinching was done in the NFC, meaning the AFC is still as crowded and ugly as it was 7 days prior. Here are the clinching scenarios for first-round byes, divisions, and Wild Card spots. Read up to figure out what to root for this Sunday. Enjoy!
Kansas City Chiefs 11-4
The Class of the AFC – 73% for the Bye
The Kansas City Chiefs looked like a very good football team Sunday afternoon – making the Pittsburgh Steelers look like the JV. This was a huge win for Kansas City. It clinched a playoff berth, an AFC West title, and sent a strong message to the league that the Chiefs are back in form and are a terrifying opponent for some poor, low-seeded AFC team.
2021 is now the 6th-straight season the Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West. Kansas City jumped out to a 3-touchdown lead early against Pittsburgh and never looked back – becoming the only team in the AFC who seems to want to separate themselves from the pack and make their lives easier.
Kansas City still has something to play for – that elusive first-round bye. Remember, each conference only has one bye, meaning the days of runaway teams guaranteeing they’ll get Wildcard Weekend off are over. Even the best teams in the league must fight till the very last week to remain on top of the conference.
The Chiefs are alone in first place in the AFC with 11 wins. Only the 10-win Tennessee Titans have a realistic shot of chasing them down. KC has 73% bye equity, Tennessee has 22%, Cincinnati 3%, and a smattering of possibilities make up the last couple percentage points.
Below Tennessee is a cluster of 9-win teams who would need loads of help in order to tie Kansas City’s 11-win total and earn the bye on tiebreakers.
What Needs to Happen For Kansas City to Earn the First-Round Bye
Kansas City wins out
- KC controls their own destiny, obviously, with a full game advantage over Tennessee
Kansas City wins 1 and ties 1 down the stretch
- It would be impossible for the Titans to catch KC at 12-4-1
Kansas City wins 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Titans don’t win out
- Should KC drop a game to either Cincy or Denver, the door is left open for the Titans to swoop in and steal the 1 seed. Back-to-back wins versus Miami and Houston would seal the deal. Any other result gives the bye to Kansas City.
Kansas City loses both of their remaining 2 games AND the Bills don’t win out AND the Colts don’t win out AND the Patriots don’t win out AND Titans either lose out or lose 1 and tie 1 AND the Bengals don’t win in Week 18 vs Cleveland
- Kansas City has practically no shot at earning the bye should they lose out and finish 11-6 – the odds are less than 1%. It would require timely losses from Tennessee, Indy, Buffalo, New England, and Cincinnati for the Chiefs to squeak through.
- Surprisingly, Kansas City can barely beat anyone in tiebreaker scenarios so it is imperative they finish ahead in the standings.
Tennessee Titans 10-5
Should Get a Home Playoff Game, Maybe Even a Bye
Tennessee is alone in 2nd place in the AFC at 10-5 and has the best odds of chasing down Kansas City for the bye.
Tennessee is in prime position to secure the AFC South, which would be their 2nd division title in a row after suffering a long division title drought after their 13-3 season in 2008.
The Titans have reached the postseason in 3 of the past 4 years and have posted winning records each of the past 5 campaigns – this season being the 6th.
As one of the few AFC teams not in a tie in the standings, Tennessee’s clinching scenarios are pretty cut and dry. Let’s go through them:
What Needs to Happen for Tennessee to Earn the First-Round Bye
Titans win out AND the Chiefs lose 1 game
- It’s that simple.
Titans win 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Chiefs lose out AND the Bengals don’t win in Week 18 vs Cleveland AND the Patriots don’t win out
- Getting the bye becomes exponentially more difficult if Tennessee doesn’t win out. It would take back-to-back Kansas City losses and some other help for the Titans to finish on top.
Titans win 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Chiefs lose out AND the Bengals don’t win in Week 18 vs Cleveland AND the Bills win out
- This is the same scenario from above except in this one the Patriots win out. The Titans cannot beat New England in a 2-way tiebreaker at 11-6. They need the Bills to win out, also finish 11-6, and create a 3-way tie.
What Needs to Happen for Tennessee to Clinch the AFC South
The Titans win at least 1 of their remaining games
The Colts lose at least 1 of their remaining games
- Tennessee’s magic number for the division is 1 – meaning it will take a combined total of 1 Titans win and Colts loss to wrap it up with a bow on top for the Titans.
What Needs to Happen for Tennessee to Clinch a Playoff Berth
Tennessee wins or ties at least 1 game
- That’s all it takes. The Titans are at the door. They just need to fall forward.
The Colts lose at least 1 game
- This would give Tennessee the AFC South.
The Patriots lose to Jacksonville in Week 17 AND the Chargers don’t win out
- The Titans would still have a 77% chance of reaching the playoffs even if they lost out and the Colts won out. Each of the following scenarios could occur to get Tennessee in.
The Patriots beat Miami in Week 18 AND the Bengals lose out
The Patriots beat Miami in Week 18 AND the Ravens don’t win out
The Chargers don’t win out AND the Ravens don’t win out
The Bengals lose out AND the Bills lose out
The Bills lose out AND the Bengals lose to Kansas City in Week 17 AND Seattle beats Arizona in Week 18 AND the 49ers win out AND the Saints win out AND the Packers win out AND the Chiefs win out AND the Lions lose out
- This scenario puts the Titans in a tiebreaker situation with Baltimore. Tennessee would need some seemingly insignificant results from around the league to break their way in order to win.
Cincinnati Bengals 9-6
1 Win Away from the Division Title
What Needs to Happen for Cincinnati to Clinch the First-Round Bye
Cincinnati wins out AND the Chiefs lose out AND the Titans lose 1 game AND the Patriots lose 1 game
- The Bengals can help make a large part of this scenario come true in Week 17 as they host the Chiefs.
Cincinnati wins out AND the Chiefs lose out AND the Titans lose exactly 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Bills win out
- This is the same scenario except the Patriots win out also, forcing a multi-way tie atop the AFC at 11-6.
- The Patriots would win such a tiebreaker if the Bills are not involved, which is why the Bengals need Buffalo to win out and reach 11-6. Having Buffalo involved gives the tiebreaker to the Bengals.
- It is also important that the Titans lose exactly 1 game to finish 11-6. Without Tennessee a part of the tiebreaker, the bye would go to the Colts if they won out and reached the 11-6 plateau.
What Needs to Happen for Cincinnati to Clinch the AFC North
The Bengals win at least 1 game or tie both of their remaining games
- Cincinnati is right on the precipice but has a tough final 2 games – Kansas City and Cleveland. Getting a win here down the stretch is far from a given.
The Browns lose to Pittsburgh in Week 17 AND the Ravens lose to the Rams in Week 17 AND the Ravens beat the Steelers in Week 18
- There is still a path to the division title for Cincy even if they finish with 2 losses – it just involves some very specific game outcomes
What Needs to Happen for Cincinnati to Make the Postseason
Obviously, the scenarios above that grant Cincy either a first-round bye or the AFC North division will get them into the playoffs. Here are the postseason scenarios for the Bengals given they lose out and need some help.
The Bills lose out AND the Chargers lose to Denver in Week 17 AND the Ravens lose to the Rams in Week 17 AND the Raiders lose to Indy in Week 17
- A 9-8 Cincinnati team would clinch the playoffs in this scenario and still even have an outside shot at winning the North
The Chargers lose to Denver in Week 17 AND the Ravens lose to the Rams in Week 17 AND the Raiders lose to Indy in Week 17 AND the Steelers don’t win out AND the Browns don’t win out
- Should the Bills win 1 or 2 games down the stretch – which is extremely likely – the Bengals will need neither the Ravens, Browns, or Steelers to pass them while also ensuring the Chargers and Raiders each lose once
Buffalo Bills 9-6
Nearly a Lock for the Postseason – Miracle Chance at Bye
What Needs to Happen for Buffalo to Clinch a First-Round Bye
The Bills win out AND the Chiefs lose out AND the Colts don’t win out AND the Titans lose out AND the Browns beat the Bengals in Week 18
- The chances of this scenario happening? About 0.3% – so yeah, pretty slim.
What Needs to Happen for Buffalo to Clinch the AFC East
The Bills win out
- This would put Buffalo at 11-6, meaning the Patriots could tie at best. Buffalo holds the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the Pats.
The Bills lose 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Patriots lose 1 of their remaining 2 games
The Bills lose out AND the Patriots lose out AND the Dolphins don’t win out
- There could be a 3-way tie in the AFC East if things get crazy. The solace for Buffalo is that they win this tiebreaker, too.
What Needs to Happen for Buffalo to Reach the Playoffs
The Bills beat the Jets in Week 18
- One more conference win would lock it up for Buffalo.
The Bills beat Atlanta in Week 17 AND the Ravens lose to the Rams in Week 17
The Bills beat Atlanta in Week 17 AND the Bengals lose out
The Bills beat Atlanta in Week 17 AND the Patriots lose to Miami in Week 18
- This scenario also hands Buffalo the AFC East title for the 2nd year in a row.
The Bills beat Atlanta in Week 17 AND the Ravens don’t win out
The Bills lose out (extremely unlikely) and receive a decent amount of help in the AFC
- There is still a 31% chance we see Buffalo in the postseason if they lose out and finish 9-8.
Indianapolis Colts 9-6
Almost Assuredly a Wild Card Team
What Needs to Happen for Indy to Clinch the First-Round Bye
Colts win out AND Chiefs lose out AND Titans lose out AND Bengals lose against Cleveland in Week 18
- Although there aren’t very many stipulations to this scenario, asking both the Chiefs and Titans to lose out is a stretch. Each finish with 2 subpar opponents.
Colts win out AND Chiefs lose out AND Titans lose out AND the Patriots don’t win out
- This scenario puts the Colts in a 3-way tie at 11-6 with the Chiefs and Bengals. The Colts win the tiebreaker.
What Needs to Happen for Indy to Clinch the AFC South
The Colts win out AND the Titans lose out
- Very simple, but there is only an 11% chance of this happening
What Needs to Happen for Indy to Clinch a Playoff Berth
Colts win against the Raiders in Week 17
Colts win against the Jaguars in Week 18 AND the Patriots lose at least 1 of their remaining 2 games
Colts win against the Jaguars in Week 18 AND the Bengals lose out
Colts win against the Jaguars in Week 18 AND the Ravens lose at least 1 of their remaining 2 games
Colts win against the Jaguars in Week 18 AND the Raiders lose to the Chargers in Week 18
The Colts lose out AND receive a decent amount of help from the AFC
- Losing their last 2 games and finishing 9-8 would give a 28% shot at reaching the playoffs – needing plenty of help from their conference mates.
New England Patriots 9-6
Was the 1 Seed Just 2 Weeks Ago, Now Probably a Wild Card
What Needs to Happen For New England to Clinch the First-Round Bye
Patriots win out AND Chiefs lose out AND the Titans lose at least 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Bills lose at least 1 of their remaining 2 games
- There is less than a 1% chance of this happening.
What Needs to Happen for New England to Win the AFC East
The Patriots win out AND the Bills lose at least 1 of their remaining games
- New England is currently tied in the standings with Buffalo at 9-6 but Buffalo has the hammer – meaning they win any head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Patriots win 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Bills lose out
What Needs to Happen for New England to Reach the Postseason
The Patriots win out
- Despite 2 consecutive losses, the Patriots still control their own destiny in the AFC Wild Card scene.
The Patriots win 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Titans beat the Dolphins in Week 17
The Patriots win 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Raiders don’t win out
The Patriots win 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Colts lose out
- There are plenty of ways New England gets in if they manage to win just 1 more game and finish 10-7
The Dolphins win in Week 17 against the Titans AND the Raiders lose in Week 17 to the Colts AND the Chargers beat Denver in Week 17 AND the Ravens lose to the Rams in Week 17 AND the Browns beat the Steelers in Week 17
- The Patriots still possess a 17% chance to reach the playoffs if they lose out and finish 9-8.
- This scenario occurs totally in Week 17, meaning the Patriots could lose their Sunday contest to the Jags and still clinch.
Miami Dolphins 8-7
Somehow Now Controls Their Own Destiny
The Dolphins began 2021 with 7 out of 8 losses and now control their destiny in the Wild Card picture – even with an outside shot at the AFC East title.
You probably suspected that no team has ever done that. This would be the greatest turnaround for a season in NFL history and their path is extremely clear. The Dolphins control their own destiny!
Monday night’s win over New Orleans makes it 7-straight victories for the Fins. The Dolphins reaching lucky number 7 pulls them into a tie with the New England Patriots for longest winning streak of the season.
If you recall, New England had their 7-game streak snapped by Indianapolis on Saturday of Week 15. The Patriots have now lost 2 consecutive games after dropping a heated contest to the Bills this weekend.
South Florida football fans are hoping the same feat does not befall their beloved Dolphins. Although Miami is the hottest team in the NFL and controls their own destiny, their playoff equity is just 32% and still very fragile. A couple of losses will nearly guarantee that Miami will be unable to reach the postseason.
What Needs to Happen for Miami to Win the AFC East
Miami wins out AND the Bills lose out
- Simple? Yes. Likely? Hardly. FiveThirtyEight gives this a 0.5% chance of occurring.
What Needs to Happen for Miami to Reach the Playoffs
The Dolphins win out
- Miami does control their own destiny after all.
The Dolphins lose 1 of their remaining 2 games AND the Patriots lose out AND either the Chargers or Ravens lose at least 1 game
- Miami’s path to the playoffs becomes extremely treacherous if they don’t win out. Splitting their final 2 games and finishing 9-8 does not give them good odds (less than 10%) of reaching the postseason.
I’m not going to muck up this article by delving into the scenarios for these teams. Just understand that they need to win and they need the teams ahead of them to lose. Quite simple.
The Raiders do control their own destiny!
Any team still in the hunt next week will receive a full writeup.
Steelers (7-7-1)/Browns/Broncos 7-8
These 3 teams need loads of help. Win win win and then pray for some timely losses!