Friday, January 21, 2022

Ranking AFC teams battling for a wild-card spot: Three AFC West clubs competing for playoff berths

The AFC continues to be the most unpredictable conference in years, with 12 teams still .500 or better through 12 weeks in the season. The Las Vegas RaidersLos Angeles Chargers, and Denver Broncos are all tied for the final playoff berth (with the Chargers holding the tiebreaker) — and are in the same division! The Baltimore Ravens are the new top seed in the conference, yet are just two games up on the final playoff spot.

The AFC wild card playoff race looks poised to come down to the final weekend of the regular season. With 13 teams in the mix for seven spots, every game in the AFC matters — especially with all three tight division races. 

Soon teams will start eliminating each other in these division battles. Let’s take a revised look at the top contenders for the three wild card spots in the conference. 

Current AFC division leaders

The AFC division leaders through the first 12 weeks. All currently have a playoff spot locked up if they claim the division crown. 

  1. Ravens (8-3) North
  2. Patriots (8-4) East
  3. Titans (8-4) South
  4. Chiefs (7-4) West

AFC wild-card contenders ranked

This is a ranking of the teams competing for a wild-card spot in the AFC. Only three teams can make the playoffs, so the top three obviously have the best chance to make the postseason through the first 12 weeks of the year. 

1. Bills (7-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Patriots, at Buccaneers, vs. Panthers, at Patriots, vs. Falcons, vs. Jets

The Bills have control of their own destiny in the AFC East, getting to face the Patriots twice in a four-week span that will certainly determine the division winner. A sweep of the Patriots and the Bills are essentially a lock for the division crown, but the AFC East appears to have two teams as a lock for the playoffs. Thursday’s win against the Saints was crucial for the Bills in gaining momentum for the stretch run. Going 2-1 against the Patriots and Buccaneers will be huge for Buffalo’s playoff fate (Buffalo is still only one game out of earning home field in the AFC). 

2. Bengals (7-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Chargers, vs. 49ers, at Broncos, vs. Ravens, vs. Chiefs, at Browns

Huge win for the Bengals, who blew out the Steelers and emerged as the Ravens’ biggest threat in the AFC North. For now the Bengals are a wild-card team, but they’ve had the look of a division champion several times this season. A brutal schedule awaits Cincinnati as every team the Bengals play for the rest of the year has a record of .500 or better. The Bengals have a top-10 offense and defense to handle the challenge, but going 3-3 over the final six games should be enough to get them in the postseason. 

3. Colts (6-6)

Remaining schedule: at Texans, Bye Week, vs. Patriots, at Cardinals, vs. Raiders, at Jaguars

Falling to the defending Super Bowl champions is not ideal, especially since the Colts had a commanding lead in that game at one point. Their hopes of making the playoffs aren’t dashed (even if their division title chances are). The Colts have a tough stretch with the Patriots and Cardinals, but going 1-1 will be huge for their playoff chances. Indianapolis is 10th in the standings, yet only a half game out of the final playoff spot with the Texans and Jaguars on the schedule. The Colts are still in good shape. 

4. Chargers (6-5)

Remaining schedule: at Bengals, vs. Giants, vs. Chiefs, at Texans, vs. Broncos, at Raiders

The Chargers may be the No. 7 seed in the AFC, but losing to the Broncos didn’t help their postseason chances. A win would have put Los Angeles in first place in the AFC West and in excellent shape to reach the playoffs. Instead, they have a showdown with the Bengals coming up that could ultimately determine one of the wild-card spots. Los Angeles still has Justin Herbert at quarterback, a huge advantage in the weeks ahead — even with his struggles. Having the Giants and Texans on the schedule helps as well. 

5. Browns (6-6)

Remaining schedule: Bye Week, vs. Ravens, vs. Raiders, at Packers, at Steelers, vs. Bengals 

A loss to the Ravens hurt the Browns in the AFC North, but Cleveland is still a half game out of the final playoff spot in the conference — despite being 12th in the standings. Their playoff outlook isn’t terrible even with the inconsistency on offense plaguing a resurgent defense. The Browns will have to go 2-1 against the AFC North to keep within striking distance of the postseason. If Cleveland can finish strong and get to 10 wins …

6. Raiders (6-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. Washington, at Chiefs, at Browns, vs. Broncos, at Colts, vs. Chargers

An upset of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving changed the Raiders’ playoff outlook. Vegas is the No. 8 seed in the conference, losing a head-to-head tiebreaker to Los Angeles from earlier in the year. The Raiders will be overcoming a lot of adversity the rest of the year, yet have handled the challenge of an interim coach and the Henry Ruggs incident well. Unfortunately for Vegas, the schedule is not easy the rest of the season. 

7. Broncos (6-5)

Remaining schedule:  at Chiefs, vs. Lions, vs. Bengals, at Raiders, at Chargers, vs. Chiefs 

Upsetting the Chargers was huge for Denver, which has one of the top defenses in the conference. Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, the Broncos remain in striking distance for a playoff spot thanks to a strong defense and rushing attack. The Broncos have a tough road to the playoffs in a crowded conference with better teams. They’ll be in every game, but the margin for error is slim — especially with two matchups with the Chiefs in their final six games. 

8. Dolphins (5-7)

Remaining schedule: vs. Giants, Bye Week, vs. Jets, at Saints, at Titans, vs. Patriots

The Dolphins still have the longest of long shots to make the playoffs, but have won four in a row and are one of the hottest teams in the AFC. Their schedule is very favorable with the Giants and Jets coming up, followed by a struggling Saints team. Miami could be looking at seven in a row and an over .500 record if they take care of business. Add Tennessee struggling and Miami’s success against New England — the Dolphins have a shot. Miami is 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot after all. They’re not done yet. 

9. Steelers (5-5-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Ravens, at Vikings, vs. Titans, at Chiefs, vs. Browns, at Ravens

That tie could be the Steelers’ best friend come Week 18, but this team looks like it’s on the verge of falling apart. Hard to count out any Mike Tomlin-coached team, but the Steelers have an aging roster with a quarterback that could be spending his last year with the only pro franchise he’s ever played for. The Steelers don’t have a single game left on their schedule against a team that’s under .500 in their conference. Their chances of going to the postseason in a loaded conference aren’t good. 

Not good enough

None of these teams are good enough to make the playoffs, but they are not technically out either in a crazy AFC:

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