Last night we entered the Twilight Zone. With Baltimore's loss dropping them to 6-6, that leaves 7-5 Jacksonville - yes, Jacksonville - in sole possession of the AFC #6 seed. A trip to the playoffs is now the Jags' prize to lose. Furthermore, with a 6-2 conference record the Jags currently own the tiebreaker over all of the 6-6 hopefuls that want to take their place. That's good news if you like the kitties.
The bad news is that Jacksonville needs all of the help they can get. They have no fewer than four of those 6-6 hopefuls nipping at their heels with a good chance that at least one of them could end up 10-6. Meanwhile the Jags' last four games include two road trips and some pretty nasty competition. The Jags' dismal record against winning teams will have to get a lot better if they want to make it past the first week of January. Read on for a full breakdown.Down the Stretch: Jacksonville
The Jags have what is probably the toughest final stretch of any wild-card hopeful in the AFC:
- Miami (6-6) is coming off of a huge win over New England that pulled them within one game of the Pats. If you ask the Dolphins, they still believe that they're playing for the AFC East title. They will play all-out and try to torch the Jags' run defense the way Chris Johnson did five weeks ago.
- Indianapolis (12-0) might actually be an easier game than Miami. I know it's blasphemy to say so, but if the Colts beat Denver this week to lock up the #1 seed, Caldwell might actually be resting starters already. Of course, if the Colts don't get their 13th win over Denver they will be playing even harder to get it in Jacksonville.
- at New England (7-5) will be an absolutely unholy challenge, especially if the Jags don't manage to beat the Dolphins this week. If Miami is 8-6 at this point then a game against their common opponent becomes an absolute must-win for the Pats. Throw in the usual joys of a warm-weather team visiting a cold-weather team in mid-December and you've got a world of pain.
- at Cleveland (1-11) isn't much to talk about. If the Jags manage to win at least two of the previous three then there is no excuse for not winning this one. If they don't have at least 8 wins at this point then it probably won't matter anyway.
Bottom Line: Going 3-1 down the stretch locks in the wild-card berth. Unfortunately it means winning at least two games from the three toughest opponents the Jags will face this year. I don't see that happening. Going 2-2 is more likely but that only works if none of their rivals win out, something that Baltimore has a real chance to do (more below). Losing three games is also quite possible for the Jags and that would doom them. In my totally subjective opinion, I give Jacksonville a 50% shot at making the playoffs.
Down the Stretch: Everybody Else
- Baltimore Ravens have probably the easiest last four games of any wild-card contender. Their next two - Detroit and Chicago, both at home - should be gimmes. After that is a trip to Pittsburgh which should be pretty rough, although if the Steelers lose one more by this time they will be all but eliminated and playing for nothing but pride. Chance to make the playoffs: 40%.
- Miami Dolphins have a tougher road, starting with their must-win road game at Jacksonville. After that comes another road game at Tennessee that should be winnable, and a home game against Houston which is definitely winnable. Like the Ravens, the Fins also have an away game in Pittsburgh but theirs comes one week later, increasing the odds that the Steelers have dropped one or Big Ben's brain has fallen out. Chance to make the playoffs: 25%.
- Pittsburgh Steelers have five conference losses and are stinging from a four-game losing streak. Fortunately for them they have a bye this week in Cleveland. After that they get a home shot at the Green Bay team that just stuffed the Ravens, followed by another knockdown drag-out brawl with the Ravens at home. If they survive all of that, they get a trip to Miami for what might be both teams' last chance at the postseason. Unless of course the Steelers lose a game down the stretch, in which case they're sunk. Chance to make the playoffs: 10%.
- New York Jets also have five conference losses and are probably the farthest away from any real hope of a wild card. Their next game is in Tampa Bay, a good way to start. After that they host Atlanta but the Falcons probably won't have much to play for. The Falcons are also 6-6 right now but they have to pass a 7-5 team AND a 8-4 team to make the playoffs. Worse for the Falcons, they play the Saints this week, so probably their trip to New York is just for pride. But then the good news ends for the Jets as they travel to Indy and then host Cincinnati. Chance to make the playoffs: 5%.
- Denver Broncos are on this list because they have proven themselves very capable of imploding when it matters most. Also, they travel to Indy this week to face a Colts team that is as healthy as it's been all year and looking to lock up the #1 seed. If the Broncos lose and the Jags win this week, that technically puts Jacksonville in the #5 slot, though I wouldn't expect that to last. Denver's last three are at home against Oakland, away in Philadelphia, at home against Kansas City. They should at least take two of those which is probably just enough to hang on to their wild card ticket. Chance to make the playoffs: 90%.
Still reading? Wow, thanks! Hope you enjoyed my attempt at analysis.