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Playoff possibilities in the AFC

Posted by Chase Stuart on November 7, 2010

Here are the updated SRS standings through the afternoon games on Sunday:

Team Gms MOV SOS SRS W L Div
Pittsburgh Steelers 7 7.4 2.5 9.9 5 2 AFC North
Tennessee Titans 8 8.6 0.9 9.5 5 3 AFC South
Indianapolis Colts 8 6.9 -0.3 6.6 5 3 AFC South
New York Jets 8 6.2 -0.1 6.1 6 2 AFC East
Green Bay Packers 8 5.8 0.0 5.7 5 3 NFC North
Baltimore Ravens 8 4.8 0.5 5.3 6 2 AFC North
New York Giants 8 6.3 -1.1 5.2 6 2 NFC East
Atlanta Falcons 8 5.4 -0.4 5.0 6 2 NFC South
Philadelphia Eagles 8 2.3 2.0 4.3 5 3 NFC East
New England Patriots 8 3.9 0.3 4.2 6 2 AFC East
Kansas City Chiefs 8 4.6 -1.0 3.6 5 3 AFC West
San Diego Chargers 9 4.0 -0.7 3.3 4 5 AFC West
Detroit Lions 8 -0.1 1.8 1.7 2 6 NFC North
Cleveland Browns 8 -1.1 2.8 1.7 3 5 AFC North
New Orleans Saints 9 5.1 -3.5 1.6 6 3 NFC South
Oakland Raiders 9 3.3 -1.8 1.5 5 4 AFC West
Chicago Bears 8 2.4 -2.7 -0.3 5 3 NFC North
Washington Redskins 8 -1.5 1.0 -0.5 4 4 NFC East
Miami Dolphins 8 -3.1 2.3 -0.8 4 4 AFC East
Houston Texans 8 -3.8 2.7 -1.2 4 4 AFC South
Cincinnati Bengals 7 -1.9 -0.4 -2.3 2 5 AFC North
Minnesota Vikings 8 -3.0 0.7 -2.3 3 5 NFC North
St. Louis Rams 8 -0.6 -3.3 -3.9 4 4 NFC West
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8 -3.6 -1.1 -4.7 5 3 NFC South
Dallas Cowboys 7 -5.7 0.7 -5.0 1 6 NFC East
Jacksonville Jaguars 8 -6.6 0.9 -5.7 4 4 AFC South
San Francisco 49ers 8 -5.0 -1.3 -6.3 2 6 NFC West
Denver Broncos 8 -7.8 1.3 -6.5 2 6 AFC West
Seattle Seahawks 8 -4.9 -1.8 -6.7 4 4 NFC West
Arizona Cardinals 8 -6.9 -0.8 -7.7 3 5 NFC West
Buffalo Bills 8 -10.6 2.2 -8.3 0 8 AFC East
Carolina Panthers 8 -12.3 -1.1 -13.4 1 7 NFC South

And how the divisions look, according to the standings:

Team Gms MOV SOS SRS W L Div GB
New York Jets 8 6.2 -0.1 6.1 6 2 AFC East --
New England Patriots 8 3.9 0.3 4.2 6 2 AFC East --
Miami Dolphins 8 -3.1 2.3 -0.8 4 4 AFC East 2
Buffalo Bills 8 -10.6 2.2 -8.3 0 8 AFC East 6
Team Gms MOV SOS SRS W L Div GB
Baltimore Ravens 8 4.8 0.5 5.3 6 2 AFC North --
Pittsburgh Steelers 7 7.4 2.5 9.9 5 2 AFC North 0.5
Cleveland Browns 8 -1.1 2.8 1.7 3 5 AFC North 3
Cincinnati Bengals 7 -1.9 -0.4 -2.3 2 5 AFC North 3.5
Team Gms MOV SOS SRS W L Div GB
Tennessee Titans 8 8.6 0.9 9.5 5 3 AFC South --
Indianapolis Colts 8 6.9 -0.3 6.6 5 3 AFC South --
Houston Texans 8 -3.8 2.7 -1.2 4 4 AFC South 1
Jacksonville Jaguars 8 -6.6 0.9 -5.7 4 4 AFC South 1
Team Gms MOV SOS SRS W L Div GB
Kansas City Chiefs 8 4.6 -1.0 3.6 5 3 AFC West --
Oakland Raiders 9 3.3 -1.8 1.5 5 4 AFC West 0.5
San Diego Chargers 9 4.0 -0.7 3.3 4 5 AFC West 1.5
Denver Broncos 8 -7.8 1.3 -6.5 2 6 AFC West 3

And the AFC standings/wildcard standings. Note that Pittsburgh travels to Cincinnati for Monday Night Football before week 9 can be put in the books:

Team Gms MOV SOS SRS W L Div GB
Baltimore Ravens 8 4.8 0.5 5.3 6 2 AFC North DW
New York Jets 8 6.2 -0.1 6.1 6 2 AFC East DW
Tennessee Titans 8 8.6 0.9 9.5 5 3 AFC South DW
Kansas City Chiefs 8 4.6 -1.0 3.6 5 3 AFC West DW
New England Patriots 8 3.9 0.3 4.2 6 2 AFC East WC
Pittsburgh Steelers 7 7.4 2.5 9.9 5 2 AFC North WC
Indianapolis Colts 8 6.9 -0.3 6.6 5 3 AFC South 0.5
Oakland Raiders 9 3.3 -1.8 1.5 5 4 AFC West 1
Miami Dolphins 8 -3.1 2.3 -0.8 4 4 AFC East 1.5
Houston Texans 8 -3.8 2.7 -1.2 4 4 AFC South 1.5
Jacksonville Jaguars 8 -6.6 0.9 -5.7 4 4 AFC South 1.5
San Diego Chargers 9 4.0 -0.7 3.3 4 5 AFC West 2
Cleveland Browns 8 -1.1 2.8 1.7 3 5 AFC North 2.5
Cincinnati Bengals 7 -1.9 -0.4 -2.3 2 5 AFC North 3
Denver Broncos 8 -7.8 1.3 -6.5 2 6 AFC West 3.5
Buffalo Bills 8 -10.6 2.2 -8.3 0 8 AFC East 5.5

The A.F.C is shaping up to have a fascinating finish. For a moment, let's put aside the 4-loss teams from Oakland, Miami and Houston. The Jets, Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Colts and Titans are battling for, at most, five playoff spots. The Jets and Colts were in the A.F.C title game last season; the Steelers and Colts were the last two A.F.C. teams to win the Super Bowl; the Jets and Ravens were trendy Super Bowl picks entering the season; the Patriots and Colts have been the two dominant teams of the past decade. And the Titans have the league's most explosive player, in addition to the most dominant receiver of the last decade and the most dominant college player in recent history. Oh, and they were held the league's best record as recently as two seasons ago. One of these six powerhouses are seeing their season end after 16 games. Maybe even two. So which will it be?

Over the last eight weeks, these six teams play each other seven times. In week 10, New England goes to Pittsburgh. The following week the Colts travel to Foxboro. Two weeks after that, two divisions may be decided as the Pats host the Jets and the Steelers travel to Baltimore. Three days after that, in a Thursday night special, the Colts travel to Tennessee. On December 19th, the Jets head to Pittsburgh. And on the last Sunday of the season, the Titans head to Lucas Oil.

On paper, the big winner there is Baltimore, who only has one game against the rest of the other six, and none on the road. The Colts are the biggest losers, with three such games and two on the road. The Titans have one at home and one on the road; the Jets play only two games but both are on the road; the Steelers and Pats play three but two are at home.

With all of these teams already having two or three losses and a bunch of tough games left, I don't think we'll see another situation where an 11-win team misses out. In fact, it's plausible that the Titans could be 10-5 entering the final week against the Colts, and a win gets them a bye and a loss knocks them out of the playoffs. At this point, I think a 10-win team will miss out on the playoffs in the conference.

How do the strength of schedules look for these six? Here's the average SRS ratings, adjusted for game location, of each of these six teams' final eight opponents:

Team                     SOS
New England Patriots     2.6
Indianapolis Colts       1.1
Tennessee Titans         0.9
New York Jets            0.4
Baltimore Ravens        -0.4
Pittsburgh Steelers     -1.4

In addition to three games against other Big Six teams, the Pats also have to go to Detroit and Chicago (in December) and face the Packers. Outside of a game against the Bills, there are no gimmes left on New England's schedule. The Steelers? They get the Panthers at home (-16.3) bringing down their average; still, Pittsburgh should fatten their record when they travel to Buffalo and in a home game against Cincinnati.

At this point, it's too difficult to handicap these races with so many key tiebreakers undecided. That said, what happened in week one may decide who plays in week 18. In their respective openers, the Ravens beat the Jets and the Steelers topped the Titans. New England holds a tiebreaker over the Ravens, but needs to avoid a sweep against the Jets. On the other side, the Ravens are halfway towards a sweep of the Steelers with the rematch coming in Baltimore. The luckiest team here? The Colts. They haven't played any of the other five teams yet, and were fortunate enough to have the A.F.C. South line up against the West division. Even better, they got a break because the Bengals, and not the Steelers or Ravens, come to Indianapolis by virtue of Cincinnati winning the North in 2009.

The SRS likes the Patriots the least, and they face the toughest schedule. The Titans already have that crucial third loss, are capable of losing to the Broncos, and have to figure out how to make Randy Moss happy. The Jets and Ravens appear in good shape but have inconsistent offenses that combined for 10 points in ugly losses to the Bengals and Packers. Pittsburgh has fallen on hard times the past two weeks: they were beneficiaries of a huge break to beat Miami and then lost to the Saints. Indianapolis is caught in a race to the bottom with the Chargers to see which quarterback can win the M.V.P. by sacrificing one receiver each week. At this point, injuries and attrition are as likely to decide the fates of these six teams as anything else.

The A.F.C. West

Unless several teams in the other three divisions implode, the West is only sending one team to the playoffs. With a win over the Raiders today, the Chiefs would have had a stranglehold on the division. Instead? Chaos, chaos and chaos. And the Broncos. Stop me if you've heard this one: the Chargers shot themselves in the foot a dozen time early in the season, and were written off, and then won the division. Believe it or not, San Diego is only 1.5 games out of first place right now, and the Raiders are tied in the loss column with the Chiefs. This division is wide open because only four of the 12 division games have been played so far. The Raiders are 3-0 in the division. Let that sink in. They obliterated the Broncos and escaped tight games against the two division heavies. The only other division game occurred back in week 1, when the Chiefs topped the Chargers. San Diego's therefore 0-2 in the division, but can make up a lot of ground. If San Diego wins rematches against Oakland and Kansas City -- both of which are at home -- they'll need to make up only one game out of the remaining seven against each team to steal the division. A 7-1 finish will all but guarantee a division title, and a 6-2 finish with the right combination of wins could make them 9-7 and division champs.

The Raiders have the toughest remaining schedule, with an average SRS of +1.9; the Chiefs and Chargers both have easy schedules with the average opponent grading out as a couple points below average. Oakland's tough schedule includes trips to Pittsburgh, Kansas City and San Diego, along with having to battle the Colts. The Chiefs and Chargers both have two games left against Denver, while San Diego gets the 49ers and the Chiefs face the Cardinals. Of course, in San Diego's case, the question is rarely which opponent shows up but rather which San Diego does.

Kansas City doesn't have many pitfalls left -- even (for the sake of argument) assuming losses to the Titans and Chargers, games against St. Louis, Denver (x2) and Arizona are the ones that good teams win. A win at home against the Raiders would bring them to double digits if they can take care of business in their easy games. Let's say the Chiefs run the table outside of games against Tennessee and San Diego, while the Chargers win out save for a game against the Colts. That puts both teams at 10-6 -- who gets in? The two teams would have split H2H and share 4-2 division records. In that case, the Chargers would get in with the better record in common games. All division teams play 14 games in common, except for the one-off games against the other two divisions in the conference outside of your own division and the division against which you play the full slate. The Chiefs swept those games against Buffalo and Cleveland, while the Chargers lost to the Patriots (and we assume beat the Bengals). That would give San Diego the H2H tiebreaker over Kansas City assuming they win the rest of their division games and lose one fewer game than Kansas City the rest of the way. And Vincent Jackson will come back just in time for the Nov. 28th matchup against the Colts. San Diego's next four games include three in the division: if they can sweep those, they'll become the instant favorites. That's a lot to ask for, though, so at this point the smart money is still (barely) on the Chiefs.

Any wildcard hope?

The Dolphins, Texans and Raiders have four losses. Can any of them end the year 11-5 or 10-6 and crash the playoff party? Houston's schedule is just brutal (+2.8 average SRS), which is likely more curse than blessing. Sure, they still have a series with the Titans so they can capture the division, but they'll take too many body blows in games against the Jets, Ravens and Eagles. Ditto the Raiders, whose best hope thanks to that difficult schedule is to sweep the Chiefs and Raiders. Miami can still salvage spits against the Jets and Pats, but already lose on tiebreakers to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Dolphins have home games against Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit left on their schedule. If -- and it's a big if -- they can manage to go 2-0 against the Jets and Patriots, they may only need a split against the Titans and Raiders to go 11-5 and win the division. A lot has to go their way, and they don't have great tiebreaker scenarios, but they're not dead yet. Just on life support.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 7th, 2010 at 8:43 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.