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Playoff picture: Every possibility for the last AFC wild card spot

By Denny Burkholder | CBSSports.com Staff

The Ravens and Dolphins own the vast majority of AFC wild card scenarios.
The Ravens and Dolphins own the vast majority of AFC wild card scenarios. (USATSI)

There are four teams still alive for the final AFC wild card spot, and a total of five teams that can actually play a role in determining who wins that spot.

Right now, the Dolphins (8-7) are sitting in the No. 6 seed as we enter Week 17. The Ravens (8-7) and Chargers (8-7) are still alive and tied with Miami on overall record, which means they've both got a clear shot at the wild card if things go their way.

The Steelers (7-8) are hanging on, but they would need plenty of help to get in. (And honestly, they needed help to survive this long, but it happened, so...)

As for the New York Jets, they've been mathematically eliminated since Week 15. But they're 7-8 overall, which means they could still end the season as part of a massive five-way tie at 8-8. And the Jets' last game is against none other than the AFC East rival Dolphins. So even though there is no scenario in which the Jets can steal that final wild card spot, they are absolutely in a position to send a nice parting shot to the rest of the bunch and to play a role in which team gets in. So while the Jets are finished themselves, they could still spoil somebody's playoff dreams.

For a full understanding of what can happen with that last AFC wild card spot, you have to consider the four teams that are still alive, plus the Jets, and every possible win-loss combination. (NOTE: I have purposely excluded ties for the sake of simplicity. If you want to see who can clinch with the aid of a tie game here or there, check in with the master, Joe Ferreira, and his Week 17 NFC and AFC scenarios.)

All five teams are playing division rivals in Week 17, which means wins and losses count toward both their division and conference records (which is often the determining factor in a tiebreaker). Here's who plays who:

  • New York Jets at MIAMI DOLPHINS
  • BALTIMORE RAVENS at Cincinnati Bengals
  • Kansas City Chiefs at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
  • Cleveland Browns at PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Number of possible combinations of game outcomes from the above (not counting tie games): 16.

Of those 16 possible combinations:

  • The Ravens win the wild card in 7 out of 16 scenarios
  • The Dolphins win the wild card in 6 out of 16 scenarios
  • The Chargers win the wild card in 2 out of 16 scenarios
  • The Steelers win the wild card in just 1 of the 16 scenarios (a five-way tie at 8-8 that would include the New York Jets).

Here's a breakdown of each team's winning scenarios and -- where necessary -- the tiebreaker math that would get them into the playoffs:

BALTIMORE RAVENS WILL BE THE AFC NO. 6 SEED if the following combinations happen:

1) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens lose, Chargers lose, Steelers lose.

HOW? Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and the N.Y. Jets would be tied at 8-8 (Pittsburgh would be 7-9 and eliminated).
The Jets are ahead of Miami in the AFC East based on conference record (3-3 to the Dolphins' 2-4).
The Ravens are ahead of The Jets and Chargers based on conference record (6-6 to the Jets' 5-7 and Chargers' 5-7).

2) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens win, Chargers lose, Steelers lose.

HOW? The Dolphins and Ravens would be tied at 9-7 overall. The Ravens are ahead of the Dolphins in a two-way tie based on head to head (1-0).

3) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens win, Chargers lose, Steelers lose.

HOW? The Ravens would be 9-7 and the other teams would be 8-8 at best.

4) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens win, Chargers lose, Steelers win.

HOW? The Ravens and Dolphins would be tied at 9-7 (Steelers, despite winning, would be locked out at 8-8 overall). The Ravens are ahead of the Dolphins in a two-way tie based on head to head (1-0).

5) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens win, Chargers lose, Steelers win.

HOW? Baltimore would be 9-7 overall and every other team would be 8-8 at best.

6) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens win, Chargers win, Steelers win.

HOW? The Ravens and Chargers would be tied at 9-7; all other teams drop out since they'd be 8-8 at best. Baltimore is ahead of San Diego based on conference record (7-5 to the Chargers' 6-6).

7) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens win, Chargers win, Steelers lose.

HOW? The Ravens and Chargers would be tied at 9-7 overall, with the other teams finishing 8-8 at best. The Ravens would beat the Chargers based on conference record in this scenario (7-5 to the Chargers' 6-6).

MIAMI DOLPHINS WILL BE THE AFC NO. 6 SEED if the following combinations happen:

1) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens lose, Chargers lose, Steelers lose.

HOW? The Dolphins would be 9-7 overall, and everyone else would be 8-8 at best.

2) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens lose, Chargers win, Steelers lose.

HOW? The Dolphins and Chargers would be tied at 9-7 overall. Dolphins are ahead of Chargers in a two-way tie based on head to head (1-0).

3) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens lose, Chargers lose, Steelers win.

HOW? The Dolphins would be 9-7 overall and the other teams would be 8-8 at best.

4) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens win, Chargers win, Steelers lose.

HOW? Three-way tie at 9-7 for the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers. The Dolphins are ahead of Ravens and Chargers based on conference record (8-4 to the Ravens' 7-5 and the Chargers' 6-6).

5) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens lose, Chargers win, Steelers win.

HOW? The Dolphins and Chargers would be tied at 9-7 each; all other teams are 8-8 at best. The Dolphins are ahead of Chargers in a two-way tie based on head to head (1-0).

6) Dolphins beat Jets, Ravens win, Chargers win, Steelers win.

HOW? Three-way tie at 9-7 for the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers. The Dolphins are ahead of the Ravens and Chargers based on conference record (8-4 to the Ravens' 7-5 and the Chargers' 6-6).

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS WILL BE THE AFC NO. 6 SEED if the following combinations happen:

1) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens lose, Chargers win, Steelers lose.

HOW? The Chargers would be 9-7 and the others teams would be 8-8 at best.

2) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens lose, Chargers win, Steelers win.

HOW? San Diego would be 9-7 overall and every other team would be 8-8 at best.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS WILL BE THE AFC NO. 6 SEED if the following combinations happen:

1) Jets beat Dolphins, Ravens lose, Chargers lose, Steelers win.

HOW? Five-way tie at 8-8:
Jets are ahead of Miami in the AFC East based on division record (3-3 to the Dolphins' 2-4).
Pittsburgh is ahead of Baltimore in the AFC North based on division record (4-2 to the Ravens' 3-3).
Jets-Steelers-Chargers tiebreaker:
Steelers are ahead of the Chargers and Jets based on conference record (Steelers' 6-6 and to the Chargers' 5-7 and the Jets' 5-7).

Got all that? Good.

Now, it's important to note that some of these scenarios are more likely to happen than others. If you're into the whole probability thing, consider the following:

-- If all of the home teams win (Miami, Cincinnati, San Diego, Pittsburgh), the Dolphins get the No. 6 seed (all of the home teams winning is the Dolphins scenario No. 5 listed above).

-- If all of the favored teams win (per the latest betting odds -- subject to change), that is currently the same as all of the home teams winning. Again, the Dolphins take it.

That's everything that can happen with the AFC No. 6 seed barring ties, which absolutely can happen and absolutely could change everything. But if you're betting a tie doesn't occur in Week 17 and you're looking for a game-day guide for how each set of games might play out, this should cover it.

Denny Burkholder is the producer/editor of CBSSports.com's NFL content. Follow him on Twitter: @DennyBurkholder.

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