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Breaking down the AFC Wildcard race with 6 games to go

The Colts currently are in possession of the seven-seed in the AFC playoff picture. Can they finish strong and make the tournament?

NFL: Wild Card Playoff-Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Week 13 and the month of December, all the AFC playoff spots are very much up for grabs, and the Colts are currently holding one of the seven tickets.

The standings will inevitably reshuffle tomorrow, but at this moment the Colts (6-5) have possession of the 7-seed in the AFC.

Incredibly, after all the setbacks and adversity this year - the loss of franchise quarterback Anthony Richardson to injury, the decline and release of Shaq Leonard, the Jonathan Taylor injuries and contract drama, etc. - the Colts have a legitimate shot to make the postseason.

Indianapolis is hanging on to the final playoff slot thanks to a tiebreaker (conference record) over AFC South rival Houston (6-5) and the Denver Broncos (6-5).

Technically, all 16 AFC teams still have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, but I think it’s safe to eliminate a few stragglers at the bottom. According to the New York Times Playoff Simulator, the Chargers (4%), Bengals (2%), Raiders (1%), Titans (<%1), Jets (<1%) and Patriots (<1%) all have less than a 5% chance to qualify for the postseason. For the sake of this analysis, let’s cross them off.

None of the four division leaders have clinched a title - Ravens (9-3), Chiefs (8-3), Jaguars (8-3), Dolphins (8-3) - but let’s pencil them in for now.

That leaves us with these six teams battling for the three available Wildcard spots:

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4)

6. Cleveland Browns (7-4)

7. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

8. Houston Texans (6-5)

9. Denver Broncos (6-5)

10. Buffalo Bills (6-6)

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Let’s take a look at each playoff hopeful:

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4)

Playoff Predictor: 72%

Key Matchup: at Indianapolis (Week 15)

The Steelers rank highest amongst the current Wildcard contenders, but Pittsburgh still has its sights set on the AFC North division title. A win tomorrow over the lowly Arizona Cardinals (2-10) would move Pittsburgh to 8-4, just one game behind division leader Baltimore. The Steelers beat the Ravens 17-10 in Week 5 and will get another shot at John Harbaugh’s bunch in Week 18.

Pittsburgh has a favorable schedule down the stretch with three of its final six games looking very winnable on paper. Pittsburgh plays Arizona tomorrow, the floundering New England Patriots in Week 14 and the Joe-Burrow-less Bengals in Week 16. From a Wildcard perspective, the key matchup will be at Indianapolis in Week 15. For what it’s worth, the Steelers have defeated the Colts in 8 straight matchups. Painfully, the Colts last win over the Steelers came 15 years ago in 2008.

Cleveland Browns (7-4)

Playoff Predictor: 69%

Key Matchup: at Houston (Week 16)

Does defense still win championships in the modern, offense-heavy era? Is a dominant defense at least enough to secure a playoff spot? Cleveland sure hopes so. The Browns have the best defense in the league, but after injuries to Deshaun Watson and Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Cleveland is starting Joe Flacco at quarterback tomorrow. At age 38, can Flacco do enough to keep the Browns’ offense afloat?

Cleveland’s next two games will be tough ones - at the Rams followed by a home matchup versus Jacksonville. The Rams (5-6) are fighting hard for a playoff spot of their own in the NFC, and their offense seems to be rejuvenated by the return of running back Kyren Williams. After a home date with the Bears in Week 15, Cleveland will play at fellow Wildcard chaser Houston in a key matchup.

The New York Times has the Browns at a 69% chance to make the playoffs. This number feels high to me. It will all depend on how competent an elderly Joe Flacco can be.

Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

Playoff Predictor: 48%

Key Matchups: vs. Pittsburgh (Week 15), vs. Houston (Week 18)

With six games to go, the percentages say the Colts are basically a coin flip to make the playoffs. Colts fans will take those odds after losing their franchise quarterback in Week 5.

On paper, the Colts schedule looks manageable. Indianapolis may in fact be favored in four of their final six contests, but Colts fans know that games at Tennessee and even the home date with the Raiders are far from guaranteed wins. Making matters more difficult, Indianapolis will be without Taylor for at least a few games.

On the bright side, the Colts’ two key matchups against the Steelers (Week 15) and Texans (Week 18) come at home. In the end, it may come down to that matchup with CJ Stroud and company...

Houston Texans (6-5)

Playoff Predictor: 57%

Key Matchups: at Denver (Week 13), vs. Cleveland (Week 16), at Indianapolis (Week 18)

The Houston Texans have found their franchise quarterback and appear to be ascendant in the AFC. CJ Stroud has been mostly brilliant over the past month starting with a 470-yard, 5-TD output against Tampa Bay in Week 9, and he is now the clear-cut favorite to win NFL Rookie of the Year. The Texans are 3-1 over this stretch, losing only to Jacksonville last week in a game that was just inches short of going to overtime as a game-tying 58-yard field goal attempt by Matt Ammendola hit the crossbar late in regulation.

Also working in the Texans’ favor is the fact that they may control their own destiny more so than other playoff hopefuls. Houston will play Denver, Cleveland and Indy down the stretch, giving the Texans the chance to knock off Wildcard opponents directly. Houston will also play at the Jets and twice against the Titans.

Denver Broncos (6-5)

Playoff Predictor: 36%

Key Matchup: at Houston (Week 13)

Denver is technically the hottest team competing for an AFC Wildcard, entering Week 13 on a five-game win streak that includes victories over the Chiefs, Bill and Browns. Can this streak continue with a win tomorrow against the Texans is the big question. A win at Houston would obviously be huge for the Broncos’ playoff outlook, giving them the same 6-6 record as the Texans with the head-to-head tie breaker.

But, the law of averages says that Denver is probably due for a loss, and the Broncos’ schedule down the stretch looks pretty tough: at Houston, at the Chargers, at Detroit, vs. New England, vs. the Chargers and at the Raiders. New England is terrible but games at Houston and Detroit plus three division games is a very challenging slate.

Buffalo Bills (6-6)

Playoff Predictor: 14%

Key Matchup: at Miami (Week 18)

What has happened to the Buffalo Bills? Buffalo has made the playoffs each of the past four seasons and is annually viewed as a Super Bowl contender. After 12 weeks in 2023, the team is .500 at 6-6 with losses to the Jets and Patriots on its resume.

Despite their mediocre record, the Bills took the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles to the brink in overtime just last week. Buffalo has the worst record of the six AFC teams in Wildcard contention, but, when playing up to its potential, probably has the best team. Unfortunately for long-suffering Bills fans, inconsistency may have sunk the 2023 campaign. The Bills have a brutal final five games: at Kansas City, vs. Dallas, at the Chargers, vs. New England and at Miami. It’s possible that the team regroups after the Week 13 Bye and goes on a run, but the odds are heavily stacked against them.

AFC Playoff Predictions

It’s, of course, way to early to make final predictions, but let’s do it anyway:

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

2. Jacksonville Jaguars (13-4)

3. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)

4. Miami Dolphins (12-5)

5. Houston Texans (11-6)

6. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6)

7. Cleveland Browns (10-7)

Colts on the outside looking in at 9-8. An even more painful scenario exists where the Colts tie the Browns for the 7-seed at 10-7, and Cleveland gets in with the head-to-head tie breaker. The egregious officiating at the end of Colts-Browns in Week 7 could cost Indianapolis a trip to the playoffs.