This is the Week 16 AFC Playoff Picture. For the NFC Playoff Picture, click here.
I play chess. I am decent but often favor a simple board over a crowded one.
Maneuvering into space and calculating the best move becomes a monumental task when each side has all 8 pawns, both knights, and both bishops on the board.
I love trading down and simplifying the board. Capture a couple pawns and lose a few in return. Take a knight with my bishop and allow the opponent to do the same. Things become clearer when the board simplifies.
Right now the playoff race in the AFC is the most complicated of all chess boards. 13 of the conference’s 16 teams are still very much alive in the playoff hunt with only 3 weeks left to play.
There are literally tens of millions of possible endings to the season in just the AFC alone. 0 teams have clinched yet in the conference, meaning it is entirely possible we see a playoff bracket without Kansas City, or without New England, or without Tennessee.
Of course the Jets, Texans, and Jaguars with their combined 8-34 record are deep in the cellar. All other teams have legitimate shots at a playoff berth!
Those Dolphins who were once 1–7? Yep, they are now 7–7, the second-hottest team in the NFL, and in hot pursuit of the clump of teams ahead of them.
Those Steelers who tied the Lions in the ugliest game of the season, have an old man at quarterback, and suffer from constant wide receiver immaturity issues? Yep, 7-6-1 and very much alive.
With so many 8–6 and 7–7 teams in a murky mess of codependent outcomes, the AFC playoff picture is still quite unclear and unpredictable despite there being only 3 weeks left in the regular season.
Week 16 will trade off some of the pieces that crowd this chessboard.
The “pawns” like the Raiders or Broncos might be sacrificed this week, clearing up space for the Browns, Ravens, or Dolphins.
A couple bishops might come off the board in the form of a Bills loss, a Colts loss, or a Titans loss.
We could even lose our queen if the Chiefs stumble against Pittsburgh this week.
Here is a snapshot of the terribly crowded AFC standings before Week 16 action.
Each piece of the puzzle is contingent on the outcome of every other game. We will not get a crystal clear playoff picture with succinct scenarios until a few of these teams that are hanging around finally lose their grip strength and fall off.
Kansas City Chiefs 10-4
Frontrunner for 1st-Round Bye
The Chiefs were left for dead after a 3-4 start but now possess the league’s longest win streak at 7 games and hold the top record in the AFC at 10-4.
Just two months ago Andy Reid was on the hot seat, Patrick Mahomes’ $500 million contract was a mistake, X Factor was booted, and the Chiefs’ dynasty was over.
Today, Kansas City is a mere tie (or win, of course) away from clinching a postseason berth. The AFC West division is nearly locked up as well – as Kansas City’s 95% division equity can increase to 100% with a win and a Chargers loss.
These scenarios are boring and rather straightforward for the Chiefs. While they can never admit it, I’m sure Andy Reid and his coaches have already begun planning some playoff strategy under the assumption that they’ll easily qualify for the tournament.
As the AFC’s top seed, Kansas City holds a 62% chance of earning the first-round bye. Let’s discuss clinching scenarios for that:
What Needs to Happen for Kansas City to Clinch the First-Round Bye
Kansas City wins out
- The Chiefs control their own destiny in the AFC
Kansas City wins 2 of their remaining 3 games AND New England loses 1 game AND Tennessee loses one game
- Should the Chiefs win twice and reach the 12-win mark, the Pats and Titans could only hope to tie by winning out.
- The Chiefs would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker versus either the Patriots or Titans – so finishing ahead of these teams is paramount. The Patriots would win a 3-way tiebreaker scenario.
Kansas City only wins 1 of their remaining 3 games AND receives a ton of help
- Dropping 2 of their last 3 would put KC at 11-6 and in a vulnerable spot. The Patriots, Titans, Colts, Bills, and Ravens would all have opportunities to catch the Chiefs – with New England holding the most equity.
New England Patriots 9-5
Nearly a Lock for Postseason and the Favorite in AFC East
The Patriots are back in title contention after one season in the cellar thanks to Bill Belichick and his diamond in the rough at QB Mac Jones.
The Pats will almost certainly be in the postseason while hopes of an AFC East title and even a first-round bye are plausible.
What Needs to Happen for New England to Clinch a Playoff Berth
New England wins or ties in Week 16 vs Buffalo
- The Pats are in with a win – so long as that win occurs vs the Bills. Losing to Buffalo would mean New England is no longer 1 win away.
New England loses to Buffalo in Week 16 AND then wins out
- The Patriots would still control their own destiny for a playoff bid even after a loss to Buffalo in Week 16.
New England loses to Buffalo in Week 16 AND New England loses to Miami in Week 18 AND the Steelers lose at least 1 game AND the Bengals lose at least 1 game AND the Dolphins lose at least 1 game
- There are a lot of stipulations with this one but they’re all pretty likely. The Steelers finish with 3 stout opponents, the Bengals play the same 3 teams, and the Dolphins might not be favored in any of their remaining 3 games.
- Even if New England drops 2 games down the stretch, they are in very good shape.
What Needs to Happen for New England to Clinch the AFC East
New England beats Buffalo in Week 16 AND wins or ties at least 1 of their remaining games
- This Week 16 Pats-Bills matchup in Foxboro will sway the division equity heavily in favor of the winner.
New England loses to Buffalo in Week 16 AND New England wins their last 2 games AND Buffalo loses 1 of their last 2 games
- Two wins down the stretch would put New England in decent shape. They would just need Buffalo to drop either their Week 17 or Week 18 matchup to win the AFC East. The problem is that Buffalo plays Atlanta and the Jets in those 2 weeks – both very winnable games and both at home.
What Needs to Happen for New England to Clinch the First-Round Bye
The Patriots are the 2nd-most likely team to secure the first-round bye in the AFC. Leaving the odds out of it doesn’t make the situation sound so bad, but New England has only 23% equity in the chase for the bye.
The Chiefs don’t win out AND the Patriots win out
- This simple scenario is easy to understand but unlikely to occur. Kansas City finishes with the Steelers, Bengals, and Broncos. New England finishes with the Bills, Jags, and Fins.
The Chiefs lose 2 of their remaining 3 games AND the Patriots win 2 of their remaining 3 games AND the Colts don’t win out AND the Titans don’t win out
- Should the Chiefs drop 2 of their last 3, the door is wide open and the Pats become favorites for the bye. It is not very likely the Chiefs drop 2 of their last 3.
Tennessee Titans 9-5
Huge Chance of Making Playoffs and Winning AFC South
Mike Vrabel has his team in the right place – with an excellent shot of both reaching the postseason and topping the Colts for AFC South supremacy. Tennessee even has an outside shot of earning a first-round bye (11%).
What Needs to Happen for the Titans to Reach the Playoffs
Tennessee wins 1 of their remaining games AND wins or ties 1 other game
- The Titans are very close. 2 more wins or a win and a tie put Tennessee in the playoffs with no outside help.
Tennessee loses 2 of their remaining games AND the Colts don’t win out
- Indy finishes with the Cardinals, Raiders, and Jaguars. The Titans would need Indy to drop one of those remaining contests should Tennessee lose 2 games and finish 10-7.
Tennessee loses 2 of their remaining games AND a couple teams need to lose 1 game
- Even if the Titans lose 2 of 3 down the stretch and the Colts win out, Tennessee is still a 99% favorite to secure a spot in the AFC playoffs.
What Needs to Happen for the Titans to Win the AFC South
Tennessee wins 2 of their remaining 3 games
- 2 more wins give the AFC South title to the Titans
Tennessee wins 1 of their remaining 3 games AND the Colts lose 1 of their remaining 3 games
The Titans lose out AND the Colts drop 2 of their remaining 3 games
- It’s not likely, but the Titans could lose out and still win the AFC South. The Colts would have an 81% chance to win the division should Tennessee drop their last 3.
What Needs to Happen for the Titans to Clinch a First-Round Bye
Titans win out AND Chiefs lose at least 1 game AND Patriots lose at least 1 game
- While it’s not absurd to think that neither the Chiefs nor the Pats will win out, there is only a 23-24% chance that Tennessee wins out – rendering this scenario far easier said than done.
Titans win 2 of their remaining 3 games AND Kansas City loses 2 of their remaining 3 games AND New England loses 2 of their remaining 3 games AND the Chargers lose at least 1 of their remaining games AND the Bengals lose at least 1 of their remaining games
- The Titans really need to win out to have a shot at the bye. Sure, there is a path for an 11-6 Titans team to lead the AFC but it involves both KC and NE losing 2 games which isn’t likely at all.
Cincinnati Bengals 8-6
A Coin Flip for the Playoffs
The Bengals find themselves in a 5-way tie with the Chargers, Colts, Bills, and Ravens at 8-6 in the crowded AFC. Of these 5 teams, only 4 at most can make the postseason.
What Needs to Happen for Cincinnati to Make the Playoffs
The Bengals either win out or win 2 and tie 1 of their remaining 3 games
- Cincinnati controls their own destiny in the AFC. Win and you’re in!
The Bengals beat both the Ravens in Week 16 and the Browns in Week 18 AND the Steelers lose 1 game
- The Bengals final 3 games are vs the Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns. Bookending it and winning the first and last of these puts Cincy in an excellent spot. Only a table run through those same 3 teams from Pittsburgh could keep the Bengals from clinching.
The Bengals beat both the Ravens in Week 16 and the Browns in Week 18 AND either the Chargers, Bills, or Colts lose 2 of their remaining 3 games
- Even if Pittsburgh wins out from the previous scenario, 2 losses from either the Chargers, Bills, or Colts down the stretch gets Cincy in. This does not mean 2 losses total from the 3 teams. It means one of them needs to lose twice.
What Needs to Happen for Cincinnati to Win the AFC North
The Bengals win out or have 2 wins and a tie in their final 3 games
- Cincinnati controls their own destiny in the AFC North.
The Bengals lose to Baltimore in Week 16 AND the Bengals win their last 2 games AND the Ravens lose at least 1 of their remaining games AND the Steelers don’t win out
- Should Cincinnati slip up and drop a game to the Ravens in Week 16, their chances of winning the AFC North drop from 38% to 9%. Conversely, winning this matchup boosts Cincy’s division equity to 64%.
What Needs to Happen for Cincinnati to Secure the First-Round Bye
Albeit extremely unlikely, FiveThirtyEight gives the Bengals a 1% shot at finishing this regular season as the AFC’s 1 seed.
Here’s what needs to go down:
Bengals win out AND Chiefs lose at least 2 of their remaining games AND Patriots lose at least 2 of their remaining games AND Titans lose at least 1 of their remaining games
Indianapolis Colts 8-6
Big Postseason Favorites
Indy started 0-3 and has been one of the NFL’s strongest teams since Week 4.
The Colts boast an impressive track record. They went into Santa Clara and beat the Niners by 2 touchdowns. They annihilated Houston twice by a combined score of 62-3. They went into Buffalo and took down the Bills by 26. Most recently, they defended home field against New England and snapped Belichick’s 7-game winning streak.
What Needs to Happen for Indianapolis to Make the Playoffs
The Colts win out or win 2 and tie 1 of their remaining 3 games
- Pretty simple. Indy controls their own destiny in the AFC Wild Card chase.
The Colts beat Vegas in Week 17 and Jacksonville in Week 18 AND the Chargers lose at least 1 of their remaining 3 games
The Colts beat Arizona in Week 17 and Jacksonville in Week 18 AND a couple of teams need to lose
- Should Indy win 2 of 3 and drop the Vegas game in Week 17, they will have a 99% shot at reaching the playoffs. With so many teams in the mix, the scenarios that see Indy into the playoff field are endless. It would take many teams winning out for the Colts to miss out on playoff football with a 10-7 record.
What Needs to Happen For the Colts to Nab a First-Round Bye
The Colts win out AND Kansas City loses at least 2 games AND New England loses at least 1 game AND Tennessee loses at least 2 games AND Cincinnati loses at least 1 game
- The Colts only have a 35% chance of winning out – so that first stipulation itself is quite unlikely. On top of that, Kansas City needs just 2 more victories to ensure Indy can never get the bye. There is a 20% chance of KC dropping 2 games.
Los Angeles Chargers 8-6
Three-Quarters Chance We See Them in the Playoffs
What Needs to Happen For the Chargers to Get Into the Playoffs
The Chargers win out
The Chargers win 2 of their 3 remaining games AND receive a very small amount of help
- The Chargers’ playoff scenarios are still extremely broad and dependent. Los Angeles could clinch a playoff berth in Week 16 with a win and losses from Miami, Buffalo, and either Indy or Pittsburgh.
- While it may not be very likely for LA to clinch this week, winning 2 games and finishing 10-7 grants them greater than 99% equity in the playoff hunt.
What Needs to Happen For the Chargers to Win the AFC West
A full 2 games behind Kansas City with 3 to go, LA is holding onto a slim 5% share of the AFC West equity. Here is what would need to happen for Los Angeles to represent the West in the AFC playoffs:
The Chargers win out AND the Chiefs either lose out or lose 2 and tie 1 of their remaining 3 games
- This is just about the only way to do it when you’re down 2 with 3 to go.
The Chargers win against both Denver in Week 17 and Vegas in Week 18 AND the Chiefs lose out
- There is only a 2% chance that Kansas City loses out against Pittsburgh, Cincy, and Denver – so don’t hold your breath on this one.
- LA can survive 1 loss and still be alive in the AFC West, but it has to be the Houston game in Week 16 that they lose. Losses to either division rival Denver or Vegas down the stretch would eliminate LA from division contention.
Buffalo Bills 8-6
A Solid Playoff Pick
Once the no-brainer pick out of the AFC after about Week 5, the Bills have regressed back down into the pack and are part of that 8-6 log jam.
What Needs to Happen for Buffalo to Reach the Postseason
The Bills win out
The Bills beat New England in Week 16 but drop 1 of their last 2 games AND the Patriots lose to Miami in Week 18
- This would lock Buffalo and New England in a 10-7 tie with the Bills getting the playoff berth and the division title
The Bills beat New England in Week 16 but drop 1 of their last 2 games AND the Chargers lose to Houston in Week 16 AND the Browns lose to Green Bay in Week 16 AND the Steelers lose to the Chiefs in Week 16 AND the Bengals lose both their Week 16 and Week 17 games
- This is the earliest possible clinching scenario for Buffalo. 2 wins put the Bills at 10-7 and in very good shape.
- This Week 16 matchup with New England is huge! The Bills’ playoff chances drop from 76% to 63% with a loss and increase all the way to 98% with a victory.
Steelers (7-6-1), Raiders, Browns, Dolphins, Broncos 7-7
This conglomeration of hopeful teams could be another article in itself. The possibilities and contingencies are too vague this far out from the finish to mean anything. Let another week pass and things will become much more cut and dry for these 5 teams.
I’ll leave you with this: All 4 teams are still alive in the AFC West race, all 4 teams could still win the AFC North. The Chiefs, Patriots, Colts, Titans, Dolphins, Browns, Steelers, Bills, Bengals, Chargers, Ravens, and Broncos each have at least a sliver of a chance to be the 1 seed in the AFC!
See you on top, boppers! Merry Christmas!