It’s that time of year when we start seeing graphics on X (formerly known as Twitter) from ESPN, FOX and CBS about who is eliminated from playoff contention and who has clinched a playoff berth.
While the AFC has some frontrunners the race for the wildcard spots is encapsulating viewing, for example, the AFC South has three teams on 8-6 alone.
Let’s dive into the playoff picture, see who everyone still has to play and how the playoff picture may end up working itself out.
While this article is mostly about discussing the convoluted wildcard picture, we should pay homage to the teams at the top of the conference who are already locks to make it in.
The Baltimore Ravens have already clinched their place in the playoffs, while the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs are definitely making the playoffs and will be playing at least one home game this January.
Watch out for the week 17 clash as Miami heads into Baltimore in a matchup that could define who earns the all-important one seed in the AFC.
The Jaguars get their own tier because they’re definitely in, but aren’t 100% locked into the top of the AFC South (yet).
Their schedule is one of the easiest down the stretch, they travel across Florida to play the resurgent, playoff-chasing, Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend before playing the Carolina Panthers and Tennesee Titans who are both out of the playoff picture.
Jacksonville should win out from here thanks to their head-to-head record against the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans, if they can achieve that they will be top of the AFC South and earn themselves the fourth seed in the AFC.
The Browns are in and Kevin Stefanski needs to be nominated for Coach of the Year after his miraculous work with this team despite all of their injuries.
They’re 9-5 and probably need one more win to solidify their position in the playoffs, (albeit a wildcard place due to the Ravens’ record atop the AFC North) their schedule is a tough one though.
Facing exclusively AFC opponents, Joe Flacco will be the signal-caller as they head to the Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals on either side of a home meeting with the New York Jets.
While they’re all but in themselves the Browns could play a huge role in the rest of the AFC Wildcard picture playing two of the chasing pack both on the road.
Now, we’ve named five teams who are in for sure, most seasons we’d be discussing three or four teams who are fighting it out for the final two wildcard spots.
Not in 2023, this year the AFC is a gauntlet, we have a six-horse race for the final two wildcard spots as we head into the latter part of December.
As of week 15, the Bengals and Colts are occupying the final two spots with 8-6 records, just outside because of tiebreakers are the Bills and Texans, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are a game back at 7-7.
Four of the six are playing backup quarterbacks and the Broncos and Bills have both experienced torrid runs at some stage this season.
Yet somehow, with three weeks to go, every team is in the thick of the playoff race and it’s looking to be the most compelling run-in we’ve seen in a while.
Who does everyone face? :
Buffalo Bills (8-6) – @ Chargers, vs Patriots, @ Dolphins
Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) – @ Steelers, @ Chiefs, vs Browns
Denver Broncos (7-7) – vs Patriots, vs Chargers, @ Raiders
Houston Texans (8-6) – vs Browns, vs Titans, @ Colts
Indianapolis Colts (8-6) – @ Falcons, vs Raiders, vs Texans
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) – vs Bengals, @ Seahawks, @ Ravens
Who’s in and who’s out? :
It’s impossible to call, none of these teams convince you that they’re going to run away with it and stroll into the wildcard places, but we can make some educated predictions.
By the end of week 18, there’s the possibility that we see three teams with 11-6 records in the wildcard spots and two teams sitting on the outside looking with 10 wins and no postseason to show for it, on the contrary, in the NFC we could see teams with losing records make it into the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills (Current record: 8-6, vs division 2-2, vs AFC 4-5, AFC games remaining – 3, Ninth seed)
Starting with the Bills, they have been rampant since losing to the Broncos on Monday Night Football in early November, despite being unlucky in the early half of the season they’re now earning their own luck and convincingly stringing together strong performances.
They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead and blew out the Dallas Cowboys at home, building some strong momentum ahead of their final three games.
Given their form they should brush past the Chargers and the Patriots and Bills Mafia will have their trip to division rivals, the Dolphins in week 18 earmarked as a potential ‘win and in’ game.
What complicates that, of course, is Miami could still be playing for the one seed in week 18 so won’t be pulling any punches, conversely, the Bills could find themselves in a situation where, if they win they win the entire AFC East, but if they lose they don’t make the playoffs at all.
Either way, it promises to be a show-stopping game that will likely head the national Sunday Night Football billing in week 18.
Key game: Week 18 @ Miami Dolphins
Cincinnati Bengals (Current record: 8-6, vs division 0-4, vs AFC 3-6, AFC games rem. 3, sixth seed)
When Joe Burrow got hurt it felt like most of the league had given up on the Bengals, no one would have been talking about them being a leading horse in the AFC playoff picture as of week 16.
As it turns out, Lou Anarumo’s defence has done excellently keeping them in games allowing backup quarterback Jake Browning to play with little pressure and do enough to get them across the line in close games.
The Bengals face a tough schedule though and it’s difficult to see them going any better than 1-2 over this stretch.
The best they can hope for is beating Pittsburgh on the road (an extremely tough task) and then beating the Browns who may have nothing to play for in week 18 at home.
Key game: Week 16 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Denver Broncos (Current record: 7-7, vs div. 2-2, vs AFC 4-5, AFC games rem. 3, 11th seed)
The Broncos have the easiest schedule of the chasing pack and do hold the tiebreaker over the Bills as well as facing three beatable AFC opponents in their final three games.
After starting 1-5 no one expected the Broncos to be anywhere near this conversation and it’s a credit to Sean Payton and Vance Joseph that the Broncos have a chance to make it in.
The Texans hold a tiebreaker over the Broncos which could be a key factor to follow but facing three backup quarterbacks against teams that have nothing to play for may come into the Broncos’ favour.
Already being a game back at 7-7 their task is simple, you MUST win out and hope some of the teams around them drop games against other playoff chasers, or perhaps even slip up on a nonchalant game against a team that is already eliminated.
Key game: Week 18 @ Las Vegas Raiders
Houston Texans (Current record: 8-6, vs div. 2-2, vs AFC 5-4, AFC games rem. 3, eighth seed)
Demeco Ryans is the probable front-runner for Coach of the Year, and for good reason. He’s totally transformed the Texans from a number-one pick candidate to a playoff contender overnight.
CJ Stroud’s play at quarterback has been phenomenal and stands him in good stead to pick up the Offensive Rookie of the Year award at NFL Honours this February.
However, with Stroud in concussion protocol and Case Keenum starting at quarterback, partnered with a tough schedule featuring two playoff contenders and a division rival, the Texans face a huge challenge to make it in.
They’re capable of beating anyone on their day and their next two games being at home helps massively, but they won’t want to be in a position requiring them to win on the road in Indianapolis in week 18 if they can help it.
Key game: Week 18 @ Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts (Current record: 8-6, vs div. 3-2, vs AFC 6-4, AFC games rem. 2, seventh seed)
The Colts have been on a rollercoaster ride in 2023, going from inconsistent, yet mesmerising play under rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, to the return of ‘Minshew Mania’, the Colts have continued to defy the odds.
They have the best standing of any of the teams we’ve discussed because their divisional and conference records are superior to any team, but they also have one of the more inconsistent track records of any of the teams that we’ve looked at.
They scraped past the Patriots in Germany, had a shootout with the Browns, were blown out against the Bengals and blew the Steelers out themselves, it’s so difficult to try and place the Colts on this list because they can go toe-to-toe with the best, but drop a game to absolutely anyone.
In week 16 they will head to the Atlanta Falcons who are a game back from the playoffs in the NFC South but are coming off the back of an embarrassing loss to the Carolina Panthers last week and somewhat mirror the Colts in their inconsistencies.
Arthur Smith is on the hot seat and has resorted to his third quarterback change of the year opting for Taylor Heinicke and this is a game that the inconsistent Colts could drop given their record across the season as previously highlighted.
In their last two games, they welcome the Raiders who can cause any team problems on their day under interim head coach Antonio Pierce, and then fellow AFC South playoff hopefuls the Houston Texans in week 18.
They’re the toughest team to place but given their divisional and conference records they’re certainly the favourites to make the wildcard round out of all the teams in the race.
Key game: Week 18 vs Houston Texans
Pittsburgh Steelers (Current record: 7-7, vs div. 3-1, vs AFC 5-5, AFC games rem. 2, 10th seed)
It’s well-documented that the Steelers have never had a losing record under head coach Mike Tomlin in his 16 years as head coach in the Steel City.
While that streak could very much continue it’s difficult to see a scenario where the Steelers come out of their last three games as a wildcard team.
They’d need to run the table due to their 7-7 record and they face three teams all with their eyes set on the post-season themselves.
They welcome the Bengals in a huge game on Saturday before travelling across the country to Seattle to play the Seahawks who are currently one game out of the NFC wildcard picture before heading back across to Baltimore in week 18 who may be playing to secure the one seed.
It’s certainly plausible that the Steelers win two of those games to preserve Tomlin’s streak but they will need to win out to even stand a chance, of getting into the playoffs.
Key game: Week 16 vs Bengals
- Baltimore Ravens (13-4)
- Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) Head-to-head tiebreaker vs Miami
- Miami Dolphins (12-5)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6)
- Cleveland Browns (11-6) Head-to-head tiebreaker vs Indianapolis (WC)
- Indianapolis Colts (11-6) (WC)
- Denver Broncos (10-7) Head-to-head record vs Buffalo (WC)
- Buffalo Bills (10-7) (OUT)
- Houston Texans (9-8) (OUT)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (8-9) Division record tiebreaker (OUT)
- Cincinnati Bengals (8-9) (OUT)