AFC playoff picture: Can Dolphins edge Broncos?


It's rare that this much is up for grabs with three weeks left in the season. Half of the AFC playoff field could be clinched this week, but seven other teams have legitimate routes to the other three spots. Don't expect those three berths to be settled until the season finale. Until then, let's speculate:

Miami still in good position

The Dolphins and Broncos are co-favorites for the second wild-card spot for an obvious reason: Both teams are a game up on the competition at 8-5. While Ryan Tannehill's knee injury is a huge letdown, backup Matt Moore was a capable starter the last time we saw him. (Then again, the last time we saw him was around when Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were campaigning against each other ahead of the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary.)

Miami's schedule provides real hope. Even with Moore behind center, the Dolphins' next two games are eminently winnable: at the Jets and at a slumping Bills squad. The Broncos, meanwhile, may not be favored again this season, given that they have the Patriots, Chiefs and Raiders on tap. The Dolphins could also hope that the Patriots clinch the No. 1 seed before facing Miami in Week 17 and rest their starters in time for Tannehill to return to the lineup. In short: Miami has an easier path to go 2-1 over the next three weeks than the Broncos, despite Denver's scary assets in the pass rush and secondary.

The rest of the conference should be rooting for Miami. The defending champions would be a much more imposing playoff opponent, especially if they arrived battle-tested after a brutal finishing slate.

Will two AFC North teams make it?

Fans of the Broncos and Dolphins now have a rooting interest in the AFC North race. When the Ravens and Steelers face off in Week 16, a win by Pittsburgh would all but eliminate the Ravens from contending in the division. It would also cap Baltimore's potential win total at nine, a welcome development for a Miami team that lost to the Ravens head-to-head.

The Bengals get to play the role of spoiler in the division. Cincinnati hosts Pittsburgh this week and the Ravens in Week 17. The Bengals have the quarterback and the overall talent to pull off an upset.

The Steelers should be considered heavy favorites to win the North at this stage. (Football Outsiders' playoff odds gives them a 67 percent chance.) Their young defense finds more playmakers every week, with rookie safety Sean Davis and second-year pass rusher Bud Dupree stepping up. The Ravens won the first matchup with Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are playing much better now, are a game up in the standings and get the Ravens in Pittsburgh in Week 16.

The AFC South's next biggest game of the year ...

Houston's Week 14 win over the Colts put Andrew Luck's squad in a desperate spot. They likely need to win out for a chance to win the division. It's more likely that the worst division in football's playoff spot comes down to Texans at Titans in Week 17. Houston has a realistic chance to clinch even before then.

With a 4-0 division record, the Texans could clinch before the finale if they win the next two weeks at home against Jacksonville and Cincinnati and the Titans go 1-1 over that stretch. Tennessee has a rough road test this week in Kansas City, so the Texans resting starters in Week 17 is a real thing that could happen on this planet. Bring on Tom Savage!

(There's also an outside chance the Texans and Titans could both get in, but we don't think they have it in them.)

About those byes

Sunday's AFC Championship Game rematch in Denver is the toughest tilt the Patriots have left. FootballOutsiders gives the Pats an 84 percent chance of winning the No. 1 seed, and that percentage will go up dramatically if New England beats the Broncos.

The other bye should go to the AFC West winner. The Raiders and Chiefs both don't have any "gimmes" left on their schedules, although K.C. is clearly in better position to win the division. Not only do the Chiefs hold the tiebreaker over Oakland because of their season sweep, but the Raiders have the most difficult game left between the two squads: at Denver.

Don't be shocked if the very last game of this NFL regular season features the defending champions fighting for their playoff lives against a Raiders team trying to win a division crown. It would be a fitting finale, worthy of Al and Cris, in a season where old rivalries in the AFC West have taken center stage once again.