The AFC playoff picture is about as clear as a Louisiana lake as Week 14 comes to an end. There are nine AFC teams that have a 25 percent chance or greater of nabbing one of the conference’s six playoff spots, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.
FiveThirtyEight says the Broncos have less than a 1 percent chance to win their division, the AFC West. That means they’re almost assuredly going to need to get the AFC’s final wild card spot to qualify for the postseason.
(Quick reminder: The four division winners in each conference automatically earn a playoff spot, and then the two wild card spots in each conference are determined by best record.)
The Broncos will compete with five other teams that have a realistic (read: greater than 5 percent) chance to get that final AFC wild card spot. Those teams can be broken up into four groups.
Group No. 1: Whoever finishes second in the AFC North
3. Pittsburgh Steelers | Current record: 8-5 | Remaining schedule: @ CIN (5-7), vs. BAL (7-5), vs. CLE (0-13) | FiveThirtyEight playoff odds: 85%
8. Baltimore Ravens | Current record: 7-5 | Remaining schedule: @ NE (10-2), vs. PHI (5-8), @ PIT (8-5), @ CIN (5-7-1) | FiveThirtyEight playoff odds: 34%
The Ravens play the Patriots on Monday Night Football tonight. If the Ravens somehow find a way to win in Foxborough — no easy task, mind you — that’s bad news for the Broncos’ playoff hopes. If Denver and Baltimore tie for the sixth-best record in the AFC, the tiebreaker is each team’s conference record. Baltimore is 7-2 in the conference now, while Denver is 5-4.
Group No. 2: The Denver Broncos
6. Denver Broncos | Current record: 8-5 | Remaining schedule: vs. NE (10-2), @ KC (10-3), vs. OAK (10-3) | FiveThirtyEight playoff odds: 46%
No team in football has a tougher remaining schedule than Denver. New England, Kansas City and Oakland are a combined 30-8. The Broncos could get into the playoffs if they go 1-2 in that stretch, but they would help their chances greatly by winning two of those games.
Group No. 3: The Miami Dolphins
7. Miami Dolphins | Current record: 8-5 | Remaining schedule: @ NYJ (4-9), @ BUF (6-7), vs. NE (10-2) | FiveThirtyEight playoff odds: 30%
The Dolphins’ remaining schedule isn’t too bad, but they’ll likely be without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill exited Miami’s win over Arizona on Sunday with a knee injury.
Matt Moore will start in Tannehill’s place until —if? — Tannehill can return.
Denver and Miami have the same record right now. But the Broncos would go to the playoffs ahead of them if the season ended today because (a) the teams have the same record in the conference (5-4), and (b) the Broncos have a better win percentage against common opponents.
Group No. 4: Whoever finishes second in the AFC South
4. Houston Texans | Current record: 7-6 | Remaining schedule: @ KC (10-3), @ JAX (2-11), vs. HOU (7-6) | FiveThirtyEight playoff odds: 75%
9. Tennessee Titans | Current record: 7-6 | Remaining schedule: vs. JAX (2-11), vs. CIN (5-7), @ TEN (7-6) | FiveThirtyEight playoff odds: 26%
It doesn’t seem right that football’s worst division could have two teams make the playoffs, but it’s true. The Titans helped their odds immensely with their win over Denver on Sunday. In a fair world, the top three AFC West teams — Oakland, Kansas City and Denver — would get in. This is not a fair world. If Denver and Tennessee tied for the sixth-best record in the AFC, Tennessee would go the playoffs because it won the head-to-head matchup.
Soooo, should I panic?
No, not yet. The Broncos have the best chance of grabbing the AFC’s final wild card spot out of any of these teams.
But you should know that there isn’t a guaranteed road to the playoffs for Denver even if it wins out. The Dolphins would get the last AFC wild card spot if they went undefeated the rest of the way and so did Denver. That’s extremely unlikely, but it’s on the table.
The Broncos must win one of their final three games to make the playoffs, and would likely be in if they win two. If all of this is making your brain hurt, you’re not alone.
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