Debrief: Breaking down AFC playoff picture entering Week 17

The NFC playoff picture has a lot at stake in Week 17, but it's straightforward. The AFC playoff picture is messy. Four playoff spots are still up for grabs, and some team with double-digit wins, possibly 11 wins, will miss the postseason.

Let's break it all down, examining every AFC team that is either in possession of or fighting for one of the seven available berths.

Rank
1
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
14-1-0

It's been a weird season for the Chiefs. They often look unstoppable within games, but they haven't won by more than one score since Week 8. Patrick Mahomes passes the eye test more than the analytics test late in the season. Clinching home-field advantage with a tight 17-14 win over the Falcons was typical. The line play on both sides of the ball was not what you'd expect from a 14-1 team -- a return to health by right tackle Michell Schwartz, who is on injured reserve with a back injury, in time for the playoffs would be massive.


With all that said, they are still the most likely team to win the Super Bowl. Their best players may also have two weeks off. Andy Reid has a history of resting starters and has already indicated he could look to get some young players extra playing time. Don't be surprised if Mahomes plays only a portion of the Week 17 game against the Chargers, if he plays at all. 

Rank
2
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
12-3-0

The biggest remaining X-factor in the AFC playoff race is how much the Bills and Steelers value seeding. After another Josh Allen smoke show on Monday night against the Patriots, the Bills are one win (or one Steelers loss) away from clinching the No. 2 spot. So will they want to play Allen and the rest of their starters for 60 minutes on a short week against Miami? 


My guess is that the higher seed and the potential of another home game (or two) would be worth the risk of playing Allen. Coach Sean McDermott may also not want to change the team's routine, because no quarterback and no team in the NFL played any better in December.  

Rank
3
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
12-3-0

The impact of Pittsburgh's second-half comeback against the Colts can't be overstated. Not only did it remind the Steelers offense what they are capable of, it took the pressure off Week 17. 


The Steelers have looked like a tired team down the stretch. They have spoken with broadcast teams about it, noting to Jim Nantz and Tony Romo how they never truly had a bye week, thanks to COVID-19-related scheduling changes. In theory, Week 17 is their chance to get that break. It's up to Mike Tomlin to decide whether resting key players is worth more than trying to earn the No. 2 seed and a home game in the Divisional Round. (Knocking the division-rival Browns out of the playoffs would have its charms, too, after last season's drama.)  


It's also possible the Steelers could play to win against the Browns, lose, and stay at the No. 3 seed. That would be the worst of all worlds. My gut says the Steelers will prize rest for key players like Ben Roethlisberger.  


(UPDATE: The Steelers will start Mason Rudolph in place of Ben Roethlisberger in Week 17, Mike Tomlin announced Tuesday.)

Rank
4
Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
10-5-0

This is where the AFC starts to get complicated. Five teams are fighting for four spots. The Titans are in the best position of the five teams, with a highly winnable road game against a Texans team that last won on Thanksgiving and just lost to the Bengals.


Then again, the Texans still have Deshaun Watson and took the Titans to overtime back in October. It appears that Watson will play this week despite his arm getting looked at by trainers late in the Texans' Week 16 loss.


The Titans could also lose to the Texans and still get into the playoffs if any of the Colts, Ravens or Dolphins lose. The Titans are essentially first in line and have the tiebreaker advantages. If they blow this one, they'll be both unlucky and deserve it. 

Rank
5
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
10-5-0

For a few short minutes Saturday night, the Dolphins' playoff chances looked cooked. One epic FitzMagic moment later -- along with helpful Sunday losses by the Colts and Browns -- and the Dolphins are up to the No. 5 seed. It's anyone's guess as to whether the Bills will go all-out to beat Miami in Week 17. If so, the Dolphins have the toughest matchup on paper for their win-and-in scenario. If they lose and fall to 10-6, the Colts will be ready to pounce to take their spot. 


The Dolphins' "lose and get in" scenarios are still more plentiful than those of any team entering Week 17 written about below. The Dolphins win every single tiebreaker situation except one: a scenario in which the Titans and Dolphins are the only 10-6 teams. It's also possible, of course, that the Dolphins miss out because they are the only 10-6 team. No one said this would be easy.

Rank
6
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
10-5-0

The Ravens are in the best position of any team that has yet to clinch a playoff spot besides the Titans. This is because of the Ravens' opponent (Cincinnati) and because they are the Ravens, now the NFL leaders in point differential. 


I've been so impressed with the Ravens' revived running game over the last month. Even though the Bengals have been playing better lately, it's hard to imagine Brandon Allen holding up for four quarters against this blitzing Ravens defense. The Ravens are officially The Team No One Wants to Face in the Wild Card Round. 

Rank
7
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
10-5-0

Sunday's loss to the Jets was rough, a combination of terrible luck and terrible execution that was reminiscent of a lot of bad Browns experiences over the last 25 years. But the Colts' loss in Pittsburgh was a silver lining. The Fighting Stefanskis remain in a win-and-in scenario, against a Steelers team that ostensibly has little to play for. 


Still, the Browns have a tougher Week 17 matchup than the Colts or the Ravens. The Browns lose most tiebreak scenarios. If the Browns lose, they probably won't be saved again. 

Rank
8
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
10-5-0

No AFC contender had a worse Sunday. After a near-perfect first 35 minutes in Pittsburgh -- during which I wrote down the words, "The Steelers are so lucky to be down only 24-7," -- the Colts were manhandled down the stretch. The Browns' loss helped the Colts' path, but they are on the outside looking in entering Week 17.


At least the Colts get the easiest possible matchup on Sunday, albeit against a Jaguars team that won its only game of the season in the opener against Indianapolis. Seemingly every analytics playoff projection system still gives the Colts a better than 50-50 chance to make the tournament by winning Sunday and getting help from someone, anyone. While the Colts lose basically every tiebreak scenario, there's still a good chance they finish at 11-5 and some team slips up, falling to 10-6. If the Titans happen to lose, the Colts could get a home playoff game as AFC South champs. 

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.