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Making Sense of the Messy, Muddled Race for the Final AFC Playoff Berth

With five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Steelers, Titans, Colts, Browns, and Raiders are vying for the conference’s final wild-card spot. We rank their paths to the postseason.

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Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re looking at the playoff hopes for five AFC squads.

Week 12 is in the books, and the playoff race is in full gear. There are no more bye weeks, so teams have just five games left to make a run at the postseason or get left behind. Some have already been eliminated (either effectively or mathematically), while several others have relatively secure postseason footing. The real intrigue comes from the handful of teams on the precipice of a playoff berth, and the AFC is filled with such squads.

Right now, the 7-4 Texans lead the AFC South, and the 8-3 Bills look like a lock for the conference’s first wild-card spot. If either of those two teams collapses, it will cause chaos in the AFC’s postseason race, but if they stay the course, it’s shaping up to be a five-team hunt for the final playoff spot. The Raiders, Browns, Steelers, Titans, and Colts all have five or six wins and are looking to make a run in the closing month of the season. None of them can expect to make the playoffs—but someone has to. Here are those five teams’ paths to the postseason, ranked by how likely they are to be playing football in January:

5. Oakland Raiders (6-5)

FiveThirtyEight playoff probability: 19 percent
New York Times playoff probability: 25 percent
Football Outsiders playoff probability: 19 percent
Remaining schedule: at Chiefs, Titans, Jaguars, at Chargers, at Broncos

The Raiders have been one of the surprising stories of the season, and they have the type of star-studded rookie draft class that fans dream about. The NFL is more fun when the Raiders are good, and that’s doubly true when their head coach is Jon Gruden. The team came into Week 12 with the seventh-best offense by DVOA, powered by an efficient Derek Carr (who’s posted a career high in adjusted net yards per attempt with 7.22), and Josh Jacobs, an electric rookie running back. Meanwhile, tight end Darren Waller has exploded with 707 receiving yards, and wideout Tyrell Williams has looked good. Antonio Brown’s tenure feels like a lifetime ago.

Unfortunately, a 34-3 ass-whupping at the hands of the lowly Jets has the Raiders trending toward watching the postseason from their couches. This is an exciting season for Oakland (or Las Vegas, really), but the cracks have been apparent for some time: The Raiders have yet to win a single game by more than one possession, but four of their five losses have come by multiscore deficits. They have a point differential of negative-56 for seventh worst in the league. There’s reason to be optimistic about this team’s future even if it misses out on the postseason.

A playoff berth isn’t out of the question (hence the Raiders’ inclusion on this list), but the team’s schedule is not very appetizing. A trip to Arrowhead to play the Chiefs looks daunting, and none of their final four matchups—featuring the Titans and Jaguars at home and the Chargers and Broncos on the road—are gimmes. For the Raiders to give Oakland one final playoff appearance, the team will simply have to play better than it has for the majority of the year.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-6)

FiveThirtyEight playoff probability: 30 percent
New York Times playoff probability: 22 percent
Football Outsiders playoff probability: 26 percent
Remaining schedule: at Steelers, Bengals, at Cardinals, Ravens, at Bengals

I can’t quit the Browns. I refuse to. After an offseason in the spotlight, the team’s 5-6 record stands as a massive disappointment. That optimism wasn’t entirely misplaced: Baker Mayfield had one of the more promising rookie seasons from a passer in recent memory in 2018, and he gained all-everything wideout Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason. Meanwhile, new head coach Freddie Kitchens looked like Mayfield’s perfect quarterback whisperer, and the defense was anchored by a bevy of talent led by Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. This team really looked like it would be fun as hell.

That didn’t happen. The Browns face-planted in their opener to Tennessee and ultimately went 2-6 in their first eight games. Mayfield was playing like he was Jared Goff in 2016, Beckham was finding fewer opportunities than fellow wideout Jarvis Landry, and Kitchen was calling plays with seemingly little plan or philosophy. It was a disaster from every angle.

But the Browns have showed some signs of life in recent weeks with three consecutive wins against the Bills, Steelers, and Dolphins. Mayfield has thrown for seven touchdowns and just one interception in that stretch while averaging 253 yards per game. And Beckham has finally come out of his shell.

The Browns are arguably the most talented team on this list, but at 5-6, they also have the steepest hill to climb. The one thing going for them is their schedule. Next week the team will travel to Pittsburgh, where Cleveland will have the opportunity to beat a team above it in the standings. The Browns then get two dates with the winless Bengals and one against the Cardinals. The one truly tough game on the schedule comes against the Ravens, but the Browns demolished them, 40-25, back in Week 4 and now will host them in the rematch.

This being the Browns, they’ll probably sweep the next four games only to fall flat against the Bengals in Week 17.

3. Tennessee Titans (6-5)

FiveThirtyEight playoff probability: 29 percent
New York Times playoff probability: 24 percent
Football Outsiders playoff probability: 41 percent
Remaining schedule: at Colts, at Raiders, Texans, Saints, at Texans

Who knew that all the Titans needed was … Ryan Tannehill? Since taking over the starting job from Marcus Mariota in Week 7, Tannehill has provided an injection of adrenaline to the Titans’ offense and helped propel the team to a 4-1 record in the past five weeks. In five starts with Tennessee, Tannehill is averaging 255 passing yards, two touchdowns, and 0.6 interceptions to go with a whopping 71.0 completion percentage and 9.3 yards per attempt. He’s added another three scores and 119 yards on the ground. On the season, he’s been the most accurate quarterback in the league, with a completion percentage above expectation (9.4) that far outpaces his peers.

Sure, there’s some small sample-size trickery going on with these numbers, but the Titans were a putrid 2-4 before Tannehill got the job and were coming off a shutout loss to the Broncos. The Titans are the most surprising team on this list, and they’ve earned their spot with a recent run that includes a win against the Chiefs. Derrick Henry has turned into a bona fide star running back, averaging 90.1 rushing yards per game and 12 total touchdowns on the season, and rookie A.J. Brown looks like a future star at wideout and is leading the team with 581 receiving yards.

The Titans’ Week 13 matchup with the Colts is a chance to knock off a competitor for the final wild-card spot with a win. Having already lost to Indianapolis once, Tennessee needs a win, or their playoff hopes will be dire. They then get another direct wild-card competitor in the Raiders and then face the Texans twice in the final three weeks with the Saints sandwiched in between. Every single one of those teams has a winning record—it’s a tough road for the Titans.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)

FiveThirtyEight playoff probability: 31 percent
New York Times playoff probability: 47 percent
Football Outsiders playoff probability: 28 percent
Remaining schedule: Browns, at Cardinals, Bills, at Jets, at Ravens

The Steelers seemingly ended the Mason Rudolph experiment this week by benching him in favor of Devlin Hodges. Though head coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t named a future starter, this feels like it should be the end of the road for Rudolph, who has been a disappointment (at best) in relief of Ben Roethlisberger. In his eight starts this season, Rudolph has averaged 190.5 passing yards, 1.3 touchdowns, and one interception on a paltry 6.3 yards per attempt. He was 32nd out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in QBR and was 36th out of 37 in Pro Football Focus grade. If his time as Pittsburgh’s starter is done for good, Rudolph will be remembered most for being on the receiving end of Myles Garrett’s helmet swing in Week 11.

Enter: Hodges. The undrafted rookie out of Samford (who happens to be the all-time FCS passing yards leader) has been more effective than Rudolph in very limited action this year. He’s played in three games this season, including one start when Rudolph was sidelined with a concussion. On his 40 total passing attempts, Hodges has put up 318 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. He’s averaging 8.0 yards per throw and would rank 13th in QBR if he qualified for that leaderboard.

Hodges will likely regress some in the coming weeks, and his unremarkable performance in relief of Rudolph on Sunday could be a sign of what’s to come. But if the Steelers make the postseason, it won’t be because of who is playing quarterback. Pittsburgh quietly ranks third in defensive DVOA, led by Minkah Fitzpatrick, whom they acquired in a September trade with the Dolphins. The Steelers shouldn’t count on Hodges or Rudolph—they’ll need old-school, grinding game plans to make a playoff push. You know, extremely Steelers Football.

It’s not an easy schedule, but it’s not terrible. The upcoming games against the Cardinals and Jets are must-have wins, but both are away from home. The Steelers will also need to pull out at least a couple of tough victories against the Browns, Bills, and Ravens to stay in the mix.

Paradoxically, Steelers fans should root for the Ravens from here on out. If Baltimore wraps up a postseason bye early, they could rest their starters in that Week 17 matchup. Pittsburgh’s path to the postseason will be a hell of a lot easier if it doesn’t run through Lamar Jackson.

1. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

FiveThirtyEight playoff probability: 34 percent
New York Times playoff probability: 33 percent
Football Outsiders playoff probability: 41 percent
Remaining schedule: Titans, at Buccaneers, at Saints, Panthers, at Jaguars

None of these teams inspire too much confidence—which is partly why this playoff race is so messy—but someone has to be at the top. The Colts take the crown because they are the most complete team on this list.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The Colts have faded in recent weeks and have gone 1-3 in November, including a loss to the Dolphins. I was particularly disappointed with the Colts’ late-game decisions in the team’s 20-17 loss to the Texans on Thursday, which likely let to them squandering their chances of winning the division and put them in the thick of this race for a wild-card spot. The Colts were 5-2 a month ago, so to be 6-5 at this point is a massive disappointment.

But Indy isn’t collapsing, at least not yet. The team’s three losses in the past four weeks have come by a combined nine points, and they blew out the Jaguars in Nick Foles’s return to action in Week 11. They’ve had a rash of injuries to deal with during that stretch, including an MCL sprain to quarterback Jacoby Brissett that caused him to miss a game; a calf injury to receiver T.Y. Hilton that caused him to miss three games; and corner Rock Ya-Sin (ankle), safety Khari Willis (concussion), and running back Marlon Mack (fractured right hand) all missed last week’s game. Both Brissett and Hilton are now back, and the team gets some benefit of the doubt for the rough sailing while they dealt with the absences of key players.

When Andrew Luck retired before the season, it looked like the Colts were doomed. But they’ve built a great roster, and if they get back to full health, they have the chance to make a run. A trip to New Orleans in Week 15 is the most daunting task ahead of the Colts, but all their other games are especially winnable.