Friday, June 9, 2023

Ranking AFC teams fighting for wild card spots: Bills still in excellent shape after loss; Steelers rise up

The AFC continues to remain one of the most unpredictable conferences in NFL history. Twelve teams in the conference are still .500 or better through 13 weeks — and the Miami Dolphins can enter the party after their bye week (they face the New York Jets in Week 15). The Patriots lead the conference with a 9-4 record and three teams are tied for second in the conference at 8-4, setting the stage for a wild finish in December and January — with the margin of error slim from first place to 12th (all teams are separated by 2.5 games in the conference standings). 

Soon teams will start eliminating each other in these division battles, but that hasn’t occurred yet. After the crazy Week 13 slate of games, 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 13 weeks. All currently have a playoff spot locked up if they claim the division crown. 

  1. Patriots (9-4) East
  2. Titans (8-4) South
  3. Ravens (8-4) North
  4. Chiefs (8-4) 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 13 weeks of the year. 

1. Bills (7-5)

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

The Bills fall to the No. 7 seed in the AFC after Monday’s loss to the Patriots, also dropping to 1.5 games back in the division. Buffalo can still win the AFC East, but the road is much harder after losing to New England. The schedule is still very favorable for the Bills, especially if they can find a way to upset the Buccaneers this week. There’s little reason to panic in terms of reaching the playoffs for Buffalo, but this team were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders. Good news — the conference is still wide open. 

2. Chargers (7-5)

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

The Chargers earned a big victory over the Bengals to seize control of one of the three wild card spots up for grabs — and kept pace with the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West (trail by a game). They have a win over the Bengals and the Steelers — owning both head-to-head tiebreakers over them for one of those wild card spots (and have a better conference record than Buffalo — so they are the No. 5 seed). With the Giants and Texans on the schedule, Los Angeles should have at least nine wins. Ten wins should be enough to earn a playoff spot. 

3. Bengals (7-5)

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

A loss to the Chargers hurts Cincinnati in a game that determines playoff seeding, but the Bengals did sweep the Steelers — who are a half game behind them for the final playoff spot. That tie by Pittsburgh eliminates any tiebreakers between the Bengals and Steelers, so it’s hard to gauge where Cincinnati is actually at. The Bengals play great one week and horrible the next — the definition of inconsistency. They’re the No. 6 seed right now and in a pretty safe spot, but would have been in great shape if they would have beaten Los Angeles. 

4. Colts (7-6)

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

The Colts have a much easier finish to the season than a lot of these teams, so getting 10 wins is still possible if Indianapolis can find a way to split between New England and Arizona. Pittsburgh beating Baltimore didn’t help Indianapolis in its wild card chase, which is basically the only way the Colts can get in with the Titans having full control of that division. The Colts have the talent to beat New England and Arizona. If they can do both, they’re in incredible shape for a playoff spot heading into January. Let’s see how the bye week goes for Indianapolis in the playoff standings (remember the Colts have a tiebreaker over Buffalo).

5. Steelers (6-5-1)

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

Amazing what happens when a team whose playoff chances were left for dead a week ago beats the AFC North leaders — and the No. 1 seed in the conference. All of a sudden that tie helps the Steelers as they are just a half game out of the final playoff spot, even though Pittsburgh has lost to Cincinnati and Los Angeles (they do have the tiebreaker over Buffalo). The Steelers still have a shot at the division with their final two games against Cleveland and Baltimore — and they are just 1.5 games out of the division race with a win over the Ravens. The Steelers are far from done. 

6. Browns (6-6)

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

A bye week didn’t hurt the Browns, who got back in the AFC North race with the Ravens and Bengals both losing. The Steelers did jump ahead of Cleveland in the division and playoff standings, but Cleveland still has a shot since the Browns face Baltimore this week. Three of the last five games are against AFC North teams, but this game against Baltimore is the one Cleveland needs to win if it wishes to stay in the playoff picture. 

7. Raiders (6-6)

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

Losing on a last minute field goal to the Washington Football Team wasn’t ideal for Vegas, especially since the Raiders needed a win to keep pace with the Chiefs in the AFC West. Two games back with a loss to Kansas City doesn’t help, so Vegas’ best chance to make the playoffs is the wild card. Being 10th in the conference gives Vegas an outside shot, especially since the Raiders are just a game out of the final playoff spot. Unfortunately, falling to Cincinnati last month — and Los Angeles earlier — hurts Vegas here. 

8. Dolphins (6-7)

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

The Dolphins have won five in a row to get back in the AFC playoff picture. Was the 1-7 start too little, too late? They get the Jets and a reeling Saints team after the bye — so the Dolphins could be 8-7 with two games to play. Will that be enough to be within striking distance of the final wild card spot? Plenty can change in this wild conference over the next three weeks — and Miami is just 1.5 games out. The 4-5 conference record hurts. 

9. Broncos (6-6)

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

A loss to the Chiefs didn’t help the Broncos, whose margin of error was already slim to begin with heading into that AFC West clash. Denver is two games behind Kansas City for the division lead with the Chiefs having the head-to-head tiebreaker, so the Broncos’ best chances at the postseason are via the wild card. Losing head-to-head tiebreakers to the Raiders and Browns don’t help a team that’s 12th in the AFC. Their chances at reaching the postseason are a long shot — but the Lions are on the schedule this week. 

Not quite good enough

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


Only one team is officially eliminated from the postseason through Week 13:

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