With Thanksgiving safely behind us and December just around the corner, the NFL playoffs are finally in sight. And now that we’re three-quarters of the way through the season, we’ve hit that sweet spot where there’s just enough information to begin outlining the postseason landscape, but there’s also enough wiggle room to imagine many different scenarios playing out. Mathematically, zero teams have clinched a playoff spot yet, so the various postseason permutations can get pretty cartoonish:
When you organize ESPN's playoff machine by defensive rank you get an absolutely hilarious AFC result. I can't believe this is even mathematically possible: pic.twitter.com/3HsEo55fkl— Riley McAtee (@Riley_McAtee) November 29, 2018
This anarchy is especially prevalent in the AFC. While the 10-1 Rams and 10-2 Saints have all but locked up the top two seeds in the NFC, the AFC field is defined by uncertainty. Five teams — the Chiefs, Patriots, Texans, Chargers, and Steelers — are within shouting distance of claiming a first-round playoff bye. Meanwhile another chunk of teams — the Ravens, Colts, Dolphins, Bengals, Titans, and Broncos — all have five or six wins and will likely be competing for the conference’s no. 6 seed. It’s a beautiful mess.
How the top of the AFC race shakes out will have massive implications for each team. So, to make sense of the chaos, here’s a look at each of the five squads competing for a first-round playoff bye, ordered from the teams that should feel most optimistic about their chances to those facing the most daunting obstacles:
Kansas City Chiefs (9-2, 77 percent likely to get a bye per The New York Times)
Reason for optimism: They play the Raiders twice in the last month of the season
Cause for concern: The Chargers and Pats are on their heels
Remaining schedule: At Raiders, vs. Ravens, vs. Chargers, at Seahawks, vs. Raiders
The Chiefs have the best record in the conference, so naturally they have the best odds to earn home field advantage for the postseason. But their position at the top is a precarious one: They lost to the Patriots in Week 6, so should these two teams finish with the same record and need a tiebreaker to determine the no. 1 seed, New England would have the edge. Basically, if Kansas City drops one more game than the Pats down the stretch, they’ll fall to at least the no. 2 seed.
The Chiefs also have the Chargers nipping at their heels within their own conference. L.A. is a game behind Kansas City in the AFC West, but the two play in Week 15, where the Chargers could even up the score. Luckily, because the Chiefs’ 3-0 record in the AFC West is so far ahead of the Chargers’ 2-2 mark, they’d likely own a tiebreaker over their division rivals. But if they stumble, the fall would be incredibly steep — should the Chargers win the division, the best seed the Chiefs could claim would be no. 5.
Of course, we’re still talking about the Chiefs. They control their own destiny, and they’re playing the best football of any team in the conference. Plus, they have the best DVOA in the entire league. The math presents the possibility that Kansas City could lose its grip on the conference, but this team is more than good enough to weather any storm.
New England Patriots (8-3, 54 percent)
Reason for optimism: They own head-to-head tiebreakers over the Chiefs and Texans
Cause for concern: They haven’t been as dominant of a force as usual
Remaining schedule: Vs. Vikings, at Dolphins, at Steelers, vs. Bills, vs. Jets
It just wouldn’t be the playoffs without at least one game in Foxborough. Though the Patriots haven’t been their typical unstoppable selves this season, they’re still positioned to take at least the no. 2 seed, if not the top overall spot.
But the Pats still have an uphill climb, and their form has been questionable throughout the season. Tom Brady has looked off during spurts, especially in the red zone. And remember when the Patriots lost to the Titans by 24? Or to the Lions by 16? New England has laid a couple of eggs this year — and they can’t really afford to do so again in such a competitive field.
The Pats haven’t played on wild-card weekend in eight straight seasons, as they’ve earned byes every year since 2009. They’re still favored to spend the first weekend in January at home, but cracks are showing.
Houston Texans (8-3, 33 percent)
Reason for optimism: A relatively soft schedule
Cause for concern: They’ve never been here before
Remaining schedule: Vs. Browns, vs. Colts, at Jets, at Eagles, vs. Jaguars
Houston hasn’t lost a single game since September, and none of the team’s three losses have come by more than a single possession. Sure, the Texans haven’t beaten many top-tier teams during that stretch, and their most impressive victories were a pair of overtime wins over the Colts and Cowboys, but they don’t have a very tough home stretch — Indy is the only team they’ll face the rest of the season that currently has a winning record, and they play them in Houston.
Could the Texans win out? The team will likely be favored in every game going forward, and a 13-3 record should be enough to get them a top two seed. The Texans have never held a postseason bye before, but Deshaun Watson is having a promising sophomore season and J.J. Watt looks like one of the best defenders in football again. This could be the best Texans team in franchise history, and with an easy road to the postseason, they are better suited than anyone to run the table.
Los Angeles Chargers (8-3, 10 percent)
Reason for optimism: They play two of the teams they need to leap
Cause for concern: Melvin Gordon is week-to-week with an MCL sprain
Remaining schedule: At Steelers, vs. Bengals, at Chiefs, vs. Ravens, at Broncos
The New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, and Football Outsiders all give the Chargers a lower probability of getting a first-round bye than the Steelers -- probably because the Chargers still have the Steelers and the Chiefs on their schedule, and both games will be played on the road. L.A. will surely be the underdog in both contests, and a loss in either could doom the team’s chances of getting one of the top two seeds. It isn’t easy being in the same division as the Chiefs.
But while those games (and matchups against solid teams in the Bengals, Ravens, and Broncos) create a difficult path for L.A., they also represent opportunity: the Chargers can notch wins against two of their biggest competitors. Granted, to win the division they’d still need the Chiefs to drop one additional game, since Kansas City owns the divisional tiebreaker, but the Chargers won’t be relying totally on fate to help them out.
Of course, all of this is predicated on the idea that the Chargers can maintain their pace without superstar running back Melvin Gordon, who sprained his MCL in last week’s win over the Cardinals and is listed as week-to-week. But Philip Rivers has been red hot (he completed a record 25 consecutive passes last week) and with the productive Austin Ekeler at tailback, the L.A. offense should have enough juice to survive Gordon’s absence.
The first step to a Chargers run is a win over the Steelers on Sunday night. A loss would all but eliminate them from contention here, but a win would put the rest of the league on notice.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1, 23 percent)
Reason for optimism: Hey, at least they aren’t 7-4
Cause for concern: A brutal schedule to end the year
Remaining schedule: Vs. Chargers, at Raiders, vs. Patriots, at Saints, vs. Bengals
The Steelers have the worst record of any team on this list, and they also play the toughest schedule. Essentially, they have the hardest road, and it goes straight uphill. Pittsburgh has to wrestle with the Chargers, Patriots and Saints over their next five games, and it’s tough to see a path where the Steelers could lose even one of those contests and still earn a bye.
The one thing going in their favor is that they play the Chargers and Pats, giving them a chance to leapfrog some of the squads higher than them on the list. But that date in New Orleans offers no such upside — it’s just an incredibly difficult draw.
Luckily the only other time the team will travel is to Oakland to take on the tanking Raiders, and when Pittsburgh faces the Bengals, Cincinnati will be without QB Andy Dalton, who is on IR. If the Steelers can find a way to win their toughest matchups, they have a chance.