Barnwell: Sorting the cluttered, chaotic AFC playoff sprint

I broke down the NFC playoff picture two weeks ago, which essentially had two guaranteed spots and then nine teams in a free-for-all for the other four opportunities. The Falcons and Packers have probably played their way out of that race, but we’re still looking at seven teams for four spots. Some good team is going to miss out.

Let’s run through the AFC, where things are a little clearer. Five teams are huge favorites to make the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), but they’re all fighting for seeding and holding off the competition. The sixth spot is going to be fun chaos — Monday night’s game will have a huge impact — and there’s still a reasonable chance one of those five teams could slip and make an unexpected tumble out of the playoff picture.

I’ll start by looking at the bottom of the race and the three teams that would need to string together a big streak to start dreaming about the playoffs:

Jump to a team:

Tier I: The extreme outsiders

These teams basically have to run the table or come close to make it into the postseason. The good news for these fan bases: It happens more than you might think. In 2017, the Bills were at 5-5 after the Nathan Peterman game, but they beat the Chiefs, finished 4-2 and sneaked into the playoffs. The 2015 Steelers were 6-5 and finished 4-1 to win a wild-card berth. The 2013 Chargers were left for dead at 4-6, but they won five of their last six games to make the postseason at 9-7.

FPI playoff chances: 1.8 percent

The Dolphins really needed to win Sunday’s game against the Colts in which they led 24-14 with less than nine minutes to go and failed to come up with a victory. Adam Gase’s playcalling came in for criticism, given that the Dolphins’ final two drives protecting that lead combined for zero first downs, minus-1 yards and less than two full minutes taken off of the clock.

Gase chalked up his decision-making to the Colts’ run blitzes and poor field position, but the Colts aren’t the first team to run-blitz in a close game. The Dolphins had poor field position because Xavien Howard, who had two interceptions on consecutive Colts snaps, took a personal foul for a late hit on Eric Ebron‘s game-tying touchdown, which was followed by a pair of penalties (one of which was accepted) on the ensuing short kickoff. The Dolphins didn’t execute with the game on the line.

While Miami was able to force Andrew Luck into two interceptions and got the first sack on Luck since early October, the Dolphins haven’t had the pass rush needed to hold up against the tougher elements of their schedule. Miami ranks 29th in sack rate despite a roster in which four of the six highest cap hits belong to pass-rushers with Robert Quinn ($11.4 million), Andre Branch ($10 million), Cameron Wake ($9.6 million) and the departed Ndamukong Suh, who is responsible for $9.1 million in dead money.

The Dolphins have wasted their 3-0 start. They’re in rough tiebreaker shape at 4-4 in the AFC, and losses to the Bengals, Colts and Texans will make it tough to win a head-to-head tiebreaker, though they beat the Titans in the season opener. The good news is that they still have a home game against the Jaguars and a home-and-home with the Bills to come, but even if they win those three games, their other two matchups are a home game against the Patriots and a road trip to Minnesota. Their victories have come over the Titans (in a game broken up by multiple lightning delays and with an injured Marcus Mariota), Bears (with an injured Khalil Mack), and then a win over the Raiders and two over the Jets. It’s asking too much of Miami to go 4-1 the rest of the way.

FPI playoff chances: 4.0 percent

It’s tempting to say the Bengals’ season turned on the final two minutes of their game with the Steelers in Week 6. The 4-1 Bengals took a 21-20 lead on a Joe Mixon touchdown with 1:21 left, but a holding penalty on Dre Kirkpatrick extended Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive before Antonio Brown brought in a 31-yard touchdown with 15 seconds left to further Pittsburgh’s spell on its divisional rivals. The Bengals lost and have gone 1-4 since, including a 35-20 beatdown by the Browns on Sunday afternoon.

The more accurate reality is that the Bengals have reacted to a lopsided schedule. Their victories have come against the Buccaneers, Dolphins, Falcons, Ravens and a Colts team with a still-limited Andrew Luck in Week 1. It took an 83-yard fumble return on a would-be game-winning drive against the Colts to seal things against Indy. The Bengals scored with seven seconds left to top the Falcons 37-36. They blew a 34-16 lead before Randy Bullock hit a field goal on the final play of the game to clinch a win over the Bucs. Even at its best, this was not a dominant football team.

Before Sunday, meanwhile, their losses had come against far tougher competition. Carolina. Pittsburgh. Kansas City. New Orleans. The Bengals lost their return engagement to the Ravens in Lamar Jackson‘s debut, and then Baker Mayfield ripped them apart for 245 yards and three touchdowns in the first half on Sunday.

Rightfully, Cincinnati’s absolutely absent defense has been the story. Over the past five games, the Bengals have been allowing 3.3 points per possession on defense. To put that in context, the league average is 2.1 points per drive. The second-worst defense in the league over that time frame has been the Raiders, who are closer to the Jets in 19th place than they are to the Bengals. The Bengals have been allowing 9.3 yards per pass attempt, which is about what Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff are averaging this season.

You can win with a bad defense. The Rams rank in the bottom five in both points per drive and yards per attempt over that same time frame, but they have a great offense. The Bengals haven’t had a great offense since A.J. Green went down. In 2018, Andy Dalton has posted a 96.5 passer rating and a 71.6 Total QBR with Green on the field. In 116 dropbacks with Green on the sideline, Dalton’s passer rating has fallen to 72.6 with a Total QBR of 49.3. In terms of the numbers, that’s like going from Tom Brady (96.3 passer rating, 69.0 QBR) to C.J. Beathard (81.9 rating, 49.0 QBR).

Cincinnati is about cooked. Three of its final five games are on the road, and while its home games are against the Broncos and Raiders, the Bengals are going to need to beat the Chargers or the Steelers away from home to have a realistic shot of making the postseason. There just isn’t much evidence that Marvin Lewis’ team has a win over a big team in it.


The Steelers make some big plays, but the Broncos take advantage of two interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger and two fumble recoveries to win 24-17.

FPI playoff chances: 9.7 percent

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that the Broncos were better than their 3-6 record and likely to improve during the second half of the season. I didn’t expect those developments to take place immediately. The Broncos have saved their season by beating the Chargers and Steelers in consecutive weeks. A team that looked like it might be firing coach Vance Joseph actually has an outside shot at making it back to the postseason.

What has changed? To start, the offense has held on to the football. Denver turned the ball over in each of its first nine games, but Case Keenum & Co. haven’t been turned over once during this two-game winning streak. The defense subsequently hasn’t had to face a single drive starting on Denver’s side of the field and has faced just two drives beginning past the opponent’s 30-yard line.

Both those drives came on Sunday against the Steelers, and Pittsburgh scored zero points across them. James Conner fumbled away a screen at the end of a big gain on the first drive, and Ben Roethlisberger threw a stunning, game-ending interception into the hands of nose tackle Shelby Harris in the end zone to seal the victory.

It’s also realistic to note that the Broncos have been lucky. Roethlisberger could have had a 550-yard game on Sunday if it weren’t for poor throws. The Steelers repeatedly torched Denver’s cornerbacks with double moves, but Roethlisberger overthrew JuJu Smith-Schuster on one would-be long touchdown past Tramaine Brock before hitting him on a double move for a 97-yard score past Bradley Roby. Later in the game, Roethlisberger missed James Washington on a similar move past Isaac Yiadom. Last week, Denver beat the Chargers in a game in which Los Angeles had a key fumble recovery overturned. The Broncos won by one in a game in which Chargers kicker Michael Badgley missed an extra point.

With the win, though, the Broncos unlock the easiest part of their schedule. It includes three road games in four weeks, but the opponents — the Bengals, 49ers, Browns and Raiders — aren’t scaring anyone. The best-case scenario for the Broncos is that they stay on a hot streak while the Chargers struggle without Melvin Gordon in advance of a Week 17 rematch between the two in Denver.

Tier II: The joy of six

With five AFC teams already north of 90 percent, the most likely scenario is that one of these three teams will make its way into the postseason as the sixth seed. Getting into the playoffs might be enough to win one of two rookie coaches a Coach of the Year nod. More pressingly, a playoff berth might also be enough to save one veteran coach’s job.

FPI playoff chances: 20.4 percent

Monday night’s matchup with the Texans might be Tennessee’s last realistic shot at winning the AFC South. They’re coming in with about an 8 percent chance of winning the division, but a loss would put Mike Vrabel’s team at 5-6 while ceding the tiebreaker it has over the Texans, who would hold a three-game lead with five games to play. Stranger things have happened — the Titans just beat the Patriots by 24 points and then lost to the Colts by 28 the following week — but the Texans would be comfortably ensconced atop the South with a victory.

If the Titans pull off the upset as four-point underdogs, though, things could get very interesting. Tennessee would be a game behind Houston with the signed-and-sealed head-to-head tiebreaker in its corner. Both teams have easy schedules over the remainder of the season, but Marcus Mariota & Co. finish with four home games in five weeks. The Titans host the Jets, Jaguars, Washington and the Colts, with only a road trip to the Giants taking them away from Nashville.

The problem, sadly, is that we don’t know which Titans team is going to show up from week to week. I wrote about their inconsistencies last Monday, and it’s difficult to count on Tennessee to win the games it is supposed to win against inferior competition. It’s easier to imagine the Titans slipping on a banana peel against the Jaguars or Giants than it is to picture them running the table.

FPI playoff chances: 38.4 percent

The Colts got away with one Sunday, winning a sloppy game over the Dolphins despite turning the ball over three times. It’s tempting to take this as a positive sign that the Colts can squeeze out victories without their best stuff, but history suggests that blowout wins over mediocre teams like the Bills and Titans are much more meaningful and promising than narrow victories over the Fins and Jaguars. Indy has mixed victories of both types on its five-game winning streak, although the only serious playoff contender among the five was the Titans.

Things get stiffer for Luck and the Colts over the remainder of the season, although each of their final five games is winnable. Indy still has to play its AFC South brethren on the road, including the Jaguars and Texans over the next two weeks. Its home games are against the Cowboys, who are surging, and the Giants, who represent the opposite of surging.

For a thin, inexperienced team like the Colts, the path to the postseason has to include staying healthy. The offensive line really clicked once left tackle Anthony Castonzo got back from injury, but with center Ryan Kelly out this week, Luck was sacked for the first time in more than a month. Marlon Mack left with a concussion, and while he averaged 5.7 yards per carry, replacement Nyheim Hines turned his nine runs into a mere 28 yards. (To be fair, he might have been weighed down by T.J. McDonald‘s soul after Hines juked McDonald out of his cleats on a 16-yard run.) Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Darius Leonard missed five snaps after going down on the opening play of the game Sunday, but one was the 33-yard swing pass to Kenyan Drake for a touchdown.

The Colts don’t have many stars, and their standouts have to stay on the field to keep them humming at a playoff level. Chief among them is Luck, who was targeted for the second consecutive week as a receiver. After stretching out and narrowly missing a touchdown catch last week, Luck leaped for a fourth-and-1 conversion and took a hard shot in the process. Luck continued the drive and led Indy to a touchdown, and he’s big enough to absorb hits from defensive backs, but this is the football equivalent of picking up pennies in front of a steamroller. Frank Reich has done great work with this offense, but turning Luck into a receiver in mid-November is too risky, even for a fourth-down conversion or a possible touchdown.


Mike Clay explains why fantasy managers should sit Tom Brady, start Josh Adams and add Austin Ekeler if he’s available.

FPI playoff chances: 43.0 percent

For the second week in a row, the Ravens pulled out a victory with Lamar Jackson at the helm over a dismal defense. Last week, Jackson set a quarterback rushing workload record while beating the Bengals. This week, the former Heisman Trophy winner ran the ball only 11 times, instead dropping back and throwing 25 passes during a 34-17 win over the Raiders. The advanced metrics were not impressed. Total QBR, which takes into account his impact as a runner, dropped Jackson from a dismal 27.3 mark one week ago to an even worse figure of 26.7 this week.

Why was QBR so skeptical of Jackson on a day in which the Ravens scored 34 points? To start, the Ravens scored on a Terrell Suggs fumble return and a Cyrus Jones punt return, so the offense contributed 20 points against one of the league’s worst defenses. Jackson threw two interceptions, including one in the end zone, and fumbled on an exchange, although he recovered the ball. Seventy-four of his 178 passing yards came on one play, a gorgeous bomb to Mark Andrews.

I’m more optimistic about Jackson than QBR given some additional context. Both of Jackson’s interceptions were on tipped passes, so even if I think Jackson went to the wrong place with the football, those mistakes are more likely to end with an incompletion rather than an interception. He was a clear threat as a runner even without carrying the ball frequently and created running lanes for Gus Edwards, who rushed 23 times for 118 yards. Jackson also had a perfect 48-yard completion to John Brown wiped away by holding on Orlando Brown.

Has Jackson shown enough to justify a permanent role as the starting quarterback ahead of Joe Flacco? It’s difficult to say. The offense we saw against the Bengals in Week 11 had a definite shelf life. On Sunday, we saw a more balanced attack, but the Ravens averaged 6.0 yards per play against a Raiders defense that has allowed more than that in eight of its 10 other games this season. It’s tough to imagine the Ravens thriving with this offense against tough defenses in the postseason.

At the same time, though, it would hardly be a surprise for Jackson to feel more comfortable in a sustainable offense as the season goes along. The Ravens are also entering a two-game stretch in which running the football well could be extremely valuable, given that they’re about to face the high-powered offenses of the Falcons and Chiefs. In both cases, the best game plan might be to focus on the run and keep Matt Ryan and Patrick Mahomes off the field. If that’s the case, Jackson is clearly the better option.

Tier III: The 90 percenters

These teams are basically assured a playoff spot, as their playoff chances exceed 90 percent. Each has seven wins or more, but we only have to go back to the 2014 Eagles to find a team that started 8-3 and still managed to miss the postseason. Barring a dramatic collapse, though, these teams are mostly battling for January seeding and an outside chance at a first-round bye.

FPI playoff chances: 92.1 percent

The Texans aren’t as good as their record. They have the Pythagorean expectation of a 5.9-win team, leaving them more than a full win ahead of their underlying level of play. They’ve played the league’s sixth-easiest schedule per FPI. They’re on a seven-game winning streak, but the toughest team they have played over that stretch is the Colts. Four of those wins have come by a field goal or less, and a fifth was by a touchdown over the Bills. Their only comfortable victories are over the Jaguars, who benched Blake Bortles, and the Dolphins, who were starting Brock Osweiler.

If you’re a Texans fan, I have good news: None of that is going to matter, because things aren’t going to correct themselves for a while. Bill O’Brien’s team already has banked enough wins that merely going 3-3 the rest of the way should guarantee a postseason berth. The Texans’ schedule actually gets easier — they’re facing the third-friendliest slate of opponents over the final six games, including a three-game homestand against the Titans, Browns and Colts. Beating the Titans and Colts would be enough to clinch the AFC South.


Darren Woodson and John Fox agree that the Texans will win their eighth straight overall vs. the Titans.

A 5-1 finish would give the Texans a serious chance of a first-round bye, and they can do that by winning four home games against the Browns and their divisional rivals and beating the Jets on the road. Chances are that the Texans will at least lose one of those seemingly winnable games, but that scenario is hardly implausible.

One subtle factor driving Houston’s turnaround: After years of disastrous performances, the Texans have finally turned around their special teams. After ranking 26th or worse in special teams DVOA for six straight seasons from 2012 to ’17, Houston ranked eighth in the NFL heading into Week 12. The difference between its 2017 and 2018 special teams has been worth about two points per game, which only sounds like a lot when you consider that the Texans have won each of their past two games by that exact margin.

FPI playoff chances: 94.2 percent

I have to admit: When the Chargers went down 10-0 to the Cardinals in the first quarter on Sunday, I was worried there might be a hangover effect from an inconsistent performance against the Raiders and a sloppy loss to the Broncos last week. Philip Rivers took care of that. The 36-year-old quarterback played arguably the most efficient game of his career, going 28-of-29 passing for 259 yards with three touchdowns before giving way to Geno Smith. The Cardinals aren’t slouches, either; this was the league’s fifth-best pass defense by DVOA heading into the week.

The Chargers took out Rivers, but Anthony Lynn might regret leaving in Melvin Gordon long enough to suffer a knee injury. Gordon had to talk his way into the lineup and touched the ball 12 times before taking a hit on a reverse and leaving the game. Early reports suggest Gordon suffered an MCL injury, which should cost him time but not end his season.

I wouldn’t have been concerned about the Chargers missing Gordon in the past, because they’ve been basically the same offense with and without Gordon in the fold. From 2015 to ’17, the Chargers averaged 3.7 yards per rush with Gordon on the field and … 3.7 yards per rush with him on the sideline. Over that same time frame, Rivers posted a passer rating of 93.3 with the first-round pick in the lineup and a passer rating of 91.7 with Gordon not on the field.

This year, though, Gordon and the rest of the Chargers are averaging 5.4 yards per rush with the Wisconsin star on the field and 4.3 yards per rush with Gordon sidelined. Rivers’ passing numbers are essentially the same, but Gordon was having his most productive year by far. Austin Ekeler has rounded into form as a useful complementary back, but it’s asking a lot to expect Ekeler to serve as an every-down player.

The timing also hurts, as the Chargers are off to Pittsburgh to play an angry Steelers team next Sunday night. They’ll have to hope to get Gordon back for a critical Thursday night game against the Chiefs in Week 15, a game the Chargers will realistically have to win to have any shot of hosting a playoff game come January.

FPI playoff chances: 95.5 percent

It felt like this sort of loss was coming for the Steelers, who had managed to survive a near loss in overtime to the Browns, won a game they trailed with 1:18 left against the Bengals, and came back for a victory against the Jags in a dramatic goal-to-go situation last week. Last week, penalties helped the Steelers overcome a James Conner drop to set up a game-winning score. This week, they weren’t as lucky. Conner was stuffed on a run from the 2-yard line before Roethlisberger was picked off on a pop pass by nose tackle Shelby Harris.

The Steelers don’t have much to be worried about. Their offense generated 527 yards Sunday and left 100 more on the field with drops. Most weeks, that’s going to result in more than 10 points. (Xavier Grimble, for one, probably won’t fumble into the end zone for a touchback again.) FPI still thinks they have a 91.9 percent shot of winning the AFC North, owing to a guaranteed tiebreaker win over the Ravens. Pittsburgh’s superior divisional record means that the 6-5 Ravens will have to make up two games over the final six weeks to surpass the Steelers, which is far tougher to pull off without a head-to-head matchup on the calendar.


ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler describes the mood in the locker room after turning the ball over 4 times in a 24-17 loss to the Broncos.

The Steelers don’t have to play the Ravens again, but their remaining schedule is going to be a problem. Over the next four weeks, they host the Chargers, travel to play the Raiders, host the Patriots and then head to New Orleans to play the Saints. Those are three of the eight best teams in football and the Raiders. Two of the three tough games are at home, but the Patriots have won their past five contests against the Steelers. The Upshot’s playoff model gives the Steelers a 27 percent of claiming a first-round bye. Lose to the Patriots and those chances fall to 6 percent.

With the Steelers unlikely to challenge the 9-2 Chiefs for a first-round bye given the head-to-head tiebreaker, Mike Tomlin’s team is more realistically competing for the 3-seed in the AFC with the Texans. The gap between the Chargers (who are overwhelming favorites to finish as the fifth seed) and the range of possible sixth seeds looks to be more significant than the split between most wild-card teams. There’s real value in finishing third and avoiding Joey Bosa & Co. in the first round. That should be Pittsburgh’s goal heading into the postseason.

Tier IV: The locks

It would take an unprecedented collapse for one of the top two seeds in the AFC to miss the postseason. More realistically, they’re battling for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

FPI playoff chances: 99.8 percent

The Patriots can clinch the AFC East for the 10th consecutive season — the 15th consecutive campaign with a healthy Tom Brady, who missed most of the 2008 season — by beating the Dolphins in Week 14. To put this in context, the last quarterback duo to pip a healthy Brady to the division title was Chad Pennington and Vinny Testaverde in 2002. A win over the Steelers the following week would leave New England in great shape to claim a first-round bye, although the Pats will need the Chiefs to slip up one more time to have any chance of making their tiebreaker advantage count.

Naturally, Pats fans are familiar with the traditional story of New England getting off to a slow start before finding its form and getting unbeatable over the second half of the season. By my count, that has been the story of seven out of Brady’s first 16 campaigns in the league, including the 2017 Patriots. The 2018 Patriots also would seem set to qualify, given that they started 1-2 before rolling off a six-game winning streak.

Are the Patriots rounding into form? Depends on where you look. The 24-point loss to the Titans in Week 10 doesn’t lend credence to that claim, and the Pats came out of their bye looking flat in going to a 10-10 halftime tie with the Jets on Sunday before pulling away. Their defensive backs haven’t been consistent, a problem that nagged the Patriots a year ago and never went away. The Pats are going to play the Chiefs or Steelers in the postseason and end up with a mismatch on every snap. The Steelers are a little easier, since the Patriots can go with their usual tactic of sticking Stephon Gilmore on JuJu Smith-Schuster while doubling Antonio Brown with a secondary cornerback and safety help, but that’s not as easy against a Chiefs team that has Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt.

What’s more promising, instead, is the offense. While Brady & Co. haven’t hit the heights their fans perennially expect, they should be OK for January. After shockingly turning the ball over in each of their first seven games, the Patriots haven’t turned the ball over on offense in a month. Over the past decade, the Pats are 57-8 in the regular season and 5-1 in the postseason when they don’t give the ball away.

More importantly, both Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel have rejoined the offense. Gronkowski doesn’t look quite up to his usual speed, but Belichick had enough faith in his star tight end to play Gronkowski on 66 of the 67 offensive snaps Sunday, and Gronkowski responded with a 34-yard touchdown catch among his seven targets. I wrote last week about how an active Gronk transforms Brady from Andy Dalton into Aaron Rodgers.

Michel doesn’t hurt matters, either. While the first-round pick was bottled up during the Titans game, he racked up 133 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Jets, and that’s not including the 41 rushing yards he had called back for penalties. Michel briefly left the game with a hyperextended back before returning, and while Patriots fans might be holding their breath every time he gets the ball and is slow to get up, a healthy Michel has quickly become an essential part of this offense.

FPI playoff chances: 99.9 percent

The Chiefs haven’t technically clinched a spot yet, but they would still be a likely wild card if they lost out. It’s not going to happen. They still have a home-and-home to come with the Raiders, and given that the road game is the Andy Reid bye week special, I don’t like Oakland’s chances of coming away with a split. Sweeping the Raiders and throwing in one more victory over the Ravens, Chargers or Seahawks would essentially lock up a week off for the Chiefs in January.

The bigger picture story revolves around Eric Berry. The Chiefs haven’t had any idea about when Berry might return from the Haglund’s deformity impacting his heel, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve carried their star safety on the active roster all season in lieu of placing him on the physically unable to perform or injured reserve lists. Reports on Friday suggested Berry would start practicing this week in advance of a December return.

It would be unfair to expect the All-Pro safety to play like his normal self after missing nearly two full seasons with the Haglund’s deformity and a ruptured Achilles, but even a limited Berry would be a valuable addition for the Chiefs. It’s fair to wonder if Kansas City might be 11-0 with a healthy Berry, given what has happened late in its two losses. The Patriots isolated Rob Gronkowski against reserve defensive back Josh Shaw for a critical 39-yard catch on the final drive of the game. Shaw hadn’t played on defense before the Pats game and isn’t even on the Chiefs’ roster anymore.

Sean McVay went to the same well with Gerald Everett last Monday night. The Chiefs got Daniel Sorensen, who had served as Berry’s replacement a year ago, back from injured reserve. Sorensen was an upgrade on Shaw, but Everett was still able to beat Sorensen for the final two Rams touchdowns of the game. Put Berry in those situations and we might be looking at a Chiefs team chasing history right about now.

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