- The race for the NFL playoffs is on, with five teams essentially competing for one remaining spot in the AFC.
- The Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos, and Cleveland Browns are all still alive but will need an impressive final three weeks to sneak into the postseason.
- Each team has reasons to believe they can be the one to rise above the rest, but it will be a tough road to get there.
There are only three weeks left in the NFL regular season, leaving teams on the edge of the playoff race scrambling to ensure that they play into January.
In the AFC, five of the six spots in the playoffs are already spoken for. The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers will both advance out of the AFC West, the New England Patriots and Houston Texans are walking away with their divisions, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while stumbling, look well-positioned to win the AFC North for the third straight year.
Competing below them are six teams with a realistic shot at claiming the final playoff spot in the AFC.
Below, we break down the case each team has for potentially making a postseason run, the biggest thing standing in their way and the chances that 538 gives them of pulling it off.
Remaining schedule: vs. Buccaneers, at Chargers, vs. Browns
Chances of making the postseason: 55%
The case for the Ravens: Two ways in
The biggest advantage the Ravens have in making the postseason is that they have two paths to get there. Currently, they lead the wild-card race thanks to a series of tiebreakers. But with four teams knotted at 7-6, it only takes one of them t0 run the table and knock Baltimore out of the hunt.
Luckily for the Ravens, the Steelers have been in a tailspin the past few weeks, and have to take on the Patriots this Sunday. Should Pittsburgh keep falling, Baltimore could win themselves an AFC North title without having to worry about the rest of the conference.
The case against the Ravens: Pressure cooking
The biggest knock on the Ravens right now might be the stakes they’re playing under. Baltimore has opted to stick with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback after he went 3-1 in Joe Flacco’s absence due to injury.
It’s a big mantle for a rookie quarterback to take on, and Jackson already had plenty of questions from doubters when he entered the league. Now that he’s in charge of leading his team through the homestretch of the season, the pressure is even higher.
If he can handle it, it will go a long way towards silencing those who didn’t believe he could cut it as an NFL quarterback.
Remaining schedule: vs. Cowboys, vs. Giants, at Titans
Chances of making the postseason: 27%
The case for the Colts: Andrew Luck
It’s possible that no quarterback in the NFL has been hotter than Andrew Luck over the past few weeks. The Colts have won six of their last seven games en route to vaulting into the AFC playoff picture. In those six wins, Andrew Luck has never posted a quarterback rating lower than 103.
If he can keep up his play through the final stretch of the season, Indianapolis would be a tough draw for any team in the playoffs.
The case against the Colts: Too little, too late
The biggest mark against the Colts is their dismal start to the season. After starting 1-5, the Colts have done all they can to get back into the playoff hunt, but they still need to be perfect through the final stretch of the season if they are going to play into January.
Similar to the Chargers last season, who won seven of their final eight games of the year only to miss out on the postseason due to tiebreakers, how hot you’re playing at the end of the year doesn’t matter if you’ve already shot yourself in the foot in September.
The Colts might be playing like one of the 10 best teams in football right now, but if they can’t make it to the postseason, it will all be for naught.
Remaining schedule: at Vikings, vs. Jaguars, at Bills
Chances of making the postseason: 20%
The case for the Dolphins: Miracles happen!
As Miami proved last week, they’re a team capable of making miracles happen.
Beating the Patriots on a last-second hook-and-ladder is about as rare an occurrence as you can imagine in the NFL, and every team that goes on a deep playoff run tends to have one or two of those games where you can look back and see that it was simply their year.
At the very least, you can trust that the Dolphins will always be playing until the final whistle sounds.
The case against the Dolphins: Recent history
The team that takes the final wild-card spot in the AFC will have at the very least nine wins, and there’s a good chance one of the four teams knotted at 7-6 runs the table and gets to 10.
For Miami, this has proven difficult. Since 2018, the Dolphins reached nine wins just once, when the team went 10-6 in 2016 before losing to the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card.
Miami has consistently been a 7-9 or 8-8 team for the past decade, and despite their unexpectedly strong start to 2018, it’s likely they end up there once again.
Remaining schedule: at Giants, vs. Redskins, vs. Colts
Chances of making the postseason: 34%
The case for the Titans: Clear skies ahead
While the Titans are in last place amongst 7-6 teams in the AFC thanks to a series of tiebreakers, they have the distinct advantage of having the easiest remaining schedule of the teams competing for the final spot.
If the three teams ahead of them all fail to run the table, the Titans have a solid chance of sneaking in. They also still have an outside shot of capturing the AFC South, though they’d need some help from the Texans and Colts above them.
The case against the Titans: They can play down to anyone
Tennessee has been a tough team to get a read on all season, as they always seem to play right to their opponents’ abilities. While the Titans came away with strong victories against the Texans and Patriots, but also have a loss to the Bills on their resume.
Even if they do have the easiest schedule left amongst AFC contenders, there’s no guarantee the Titans will be able to take advantage of it.
Remaining schedule: vs. Browns, at Raiders, vs. Chargers
Chances of making the postseason: 5%
The case for the Broncos: Defence wins championships
The Broncos defence has remained pretty dominant this season, even as their offence has sputtered from time to time.
Denver is currently ranked fourth in defensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders, putting them alongside the Bears, Ravens, and Bills as a force in the league.
With so many offenses surging this season, a strong defence is a good thing to have when every game becomes a must-win.
The case against the Broncos: They missed their best chance
The Broncos’ Week 14 loss to the 49ers was genuinely baffling.
Denver was the better team, and in need of a win to keep pace in the race for the AFC Wild Card. But rather than step up to the moment, the Broncos crumbled, losing a winnable game and falling behind the crowd of 7-6 teams above them.
Had they beaten the 49ers, there’s a good chance they’d be favourites for the final spot in the AFC side of the bracket. But now, even if they are the best team in the race, their chances of reaching the postseason look rather slim.
Remaining schedule: at Broncos, vs. Bengals, at Ravens
Chances of making the postseason: <1%
The case for the Browns: Baker Mania
Cleveland has played like a brand new team since letting go of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
With rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield now the de facto leader of the team, the Browns have played with renewed vigour, winning three of their past four games.
Maybe the spell has finally been lifted, and what better way to show that times have changed for the Browns than an unexpected, out-of-nowhere run to the playoffs?
The case against the Browns: Maths, and the collective history of the Browns
Even if Mayfield played out of his mind for the next three weeks, it would still take something of a miracle for the Browns to sneak into the postseason.
Easiest path to the playoffs for the Browns:
-BAL lose 2 of 3
-IND lose 2 of 3
-TEN lose 2 of 3
-MIA lose 2 of 3
BONUS: Browns WIN AFC North if PIT also loses out. pic.twitter.com/mLdssvU4Ma
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) December 13, 2018
Good luck Baker, you’re going to need it.
Now check out our best bets for Week 15 of the NFL season.
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