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Week 15 AFC Playoff Picture

The Steelers took a couple of steps toward the Playoffs in week 14 of the regular season. Their win against the Bengals combined with losses by 5 of the potential contenders for a Wild Card berth, puts them in better position to get into the postseason (either as Division Champions or a Wild Card). Currently, the Steelers hold the AFC #5 seed.

Once again, the Steelers control their destiny: win out and grab the AFC north Division title.

The same 12 teams from week 14 are still alive in the playoff hunt going into week 15. Each team’s situation, divided in 4 categories:

  • Control their path to division title: New England, Denver, Indianapolis,Bengals, and Steelers.
  • Control their fate for a Wild Card berth, need help for division title: Ravens, Chargers.
  • Control their destiny for a Wild Card, no chance at Division Title: Chiefs
  • Need help (Winning out, no guarantee they will get in) Browns, Texans, Bills, Dolphins.

Here’s what happened in week 14, in terms of Playoff seeding: Of 12 contenders still alive in the AFC, half of them won and half lost.

  • All 4 current AFC Division Leaders had a shot at contenders, and 3 of them won their games: New England handled San Diego, Indianapolis won with a last minute drive over Cleveland, and Denver won vs Buffalo. Only one division leader lost (Cincinnati against Pittsburgh).
  • Outcome this week for the rest of the AFC contenders: Baltimore won at Miami, Houston won vs Jacksonville, and Kansas City lost at Arizona.

How do the outcomes of this week’s games affect the Playoff picture?

  • The Steelers win against the Bengals mantains them in control of their fate, while it also opens the door to the Ravens for a Division title (if they win out and the Steelers lose at least one more). If both, the Steelers and Ravens end up winning out, at 11-5, the Steelers will be Division Champions based on Division record.
  • New England and Denver win, good news for the Steelers. With the #1 and #2 AFC seeds practically out of reach for Pittsburgh, watching these two teams fight for seeding means both will remain competing with their starters for at least two more weeks while playing for the #1 spot. The Patriots still have on their schedule games against the Dolphins and Bills, and Denver still faces the Chargers and Bengals.
  • Losses by Buffalo, San Diego and Kansas City, potential competitors for a Wild Card berth.
  • Baltimore beating Dolphins was a tricky pick: while it closes the competition for the AFC North title, keeping in mind Baltimore’s remaining schedule (16-23 combined), it can potentially benefit the Steelers for the Wild Card race (because the Dolphins had a stronger Conference record, which is a tiebreaking criteria).
  • Indianapolis beating Cleveland: tricky pick, too. If the Steelers are able to handle their own business and win out, a loss by Indy could have meant a #3 seed for Pittsburgh. For the Wild card race, a loss by Cleveland benefits the Steelers.

A first approach at different scenarios, based on the outcome of the Steelers remaining games:

  • Lose all 3 remaining games (8-8); out of contention.
  • Lose 2 games (9-7): A slim chance, while in some scenarios the Steelers could get in based on the outcome of several games.
  • Lose 1 game (10-6): Most likely would get in, by winning some tiebreakers (also could be held out, depending on the outcome of several games and who they end up tied with). The Steelers would boost their chances if the loss is against Atlanta, and win both vs KC and Cincinnati.
  • Win out (11-5): Division Title, without mattering whatever happens in other games. Their seeding depends on Indianapolis: if they lose one more game, the Steelers would be #3, if they don’t, Pittsburgh will be #4. A long shot at #1 and #2 is still possible, if somehow NE and/or Denver get into a 2 or 3 week slump.

With 11 games still to be played among AFC contenders, a universe of scenarios are still possible (all of them can be simulated here)

Week 15 features 4 games between 8 of the AFC contenders:

  • Dolphins at Patriots, Texans at Colts, Bengals at Browns, Broncos at Chargers
  • Other games involving AFC contenders: Steelers at Falcons, Raiders at Chiefs, Jaguars at Ravens, Packers at Bills.

*A full breakdown of the remaining schedule involving AFC contenders can be found at the end of this article.

A quick look at each contender’s scenarios (NFL Official standings and Playoff Picture, here):


Patriots (10-3) Remaining schedule: vs. Dolphins (7-6), at Jets (2-11), vs. Bills (7-6). Currently, on the driver’s seat for the #1 AFC seed, holding the tiebreaker over Denver (head to head).

  • They can help the Steelers: Patriots won against the Chargers, and can drop both Dolphins and Bills to 7 loses, most likely eliminating them  from contention.

Broncos (10-3) Remaining schedule: at Chargers (8-5), at Bengals (8-4-1), vs. Raiders (2-11). Still playing for the #1 seed (if they win one more game than NE). They need to beat the Chargers to maintain control of the Division.

  • They can help the Steelers by: Already sent the Bills to 6 loses, and still have a chance to compromise Chargers and Bengals chances if they are able to beat them, both of them competing with the Steelers for playoff spots.

Colts (9-4) Remaining schedule: vs. Texans (7-6), at Cowboys (9-4), at Titans (2-11). Can clinch the Division this week if they beat the Texans. With a game against the Cowboys, a loss is still possible, and that could open the door for the Steelers to be AFC #3 if they win out.

  • They can help the Steelers by: Beating the Texans will most likely eliminate them from playoff contention, and that eases the Steelers path to a Wild Card berth. Although, that can play two ways for the Steelers, remembering that another Colts loss will give the Steelers #3 seed if they win out (Steelers own the head to head tiebreaker).

Bengals (8-4-1) Remaining schedule: at Browns (7-6), vs. Broncos (10-3), at Steelers (8-5). They have the hardest remaining schedule among AFC North teams. While they remain in control of their destiny if they are able to win out, they dropped advantage over division foes. All of their upcoming games are against winning teams playing for their lives (Steelers and Browns), or a better seeding (Broncos). A win against Cleveland will most likely eliminate them from Playoff contention, but could also mean the Steelers will still be ½ game behind them for the division title.


Steelers (8-5) Remaining schedule: at Falcons (5-8), vs. Chiefs (7-6), vs. Bengals (8-4-1). The Steelers are still in control of their own destiny, while winning out will give them the AFC North title. The win against the Bengals was huge. It boosted their division and conference record, while keeping them within striking distance of the Division Title..

  • Losing one more game could still let them get into the Playoffs, with a stronger possibility if it’s against Atlanta (meaning the Steelers conference record would be 9-3, beating most opponents with similar record on tiebreakers criteria).
  • The Steelers home games versus the Chiefs and Bengals are key. Winning at least one of those could keep them alive, and with even a slim chance to get in at 9-7.

Chargers (8-5) Remaining schedule: vs. Broncos (10-3), at 49ers (7-6), at Chiefs (7-6). A brutal schedule, with all remaining games against contenders. Most probably, they will be facing a SF team playing for their lives, and a Chiefs team that could either be eliminated since week 16, or figting for a Wild Card berth on week 17. Losing to the Broncos will mean they can only play for a Wild Card berth.


Ravens (8-5) Remaining schedule: vs. Jaguars (2-11), at Texans (7-6), vs. Browns (7-6). They control their destiny for a Wild Card, and need the Steelers and Bengals to lose one more game each at least to have a shot at the Division Title. They handled their hardest remaining game last Sunday against the Dolphins, and while on paper they have the easiest schedule of the AFC North, those games at Houston and against the Browns will be critical for them, since they both could still be in playoff contention coming weeks 16 & 17.

Texans (7-6) Remaining schedule: at Colts (9-4), vs. Ravens (7-6), vs. Jaguars (2-11). While still alive for their Division title, they need to beat the Colts this week for that to be an option after next Sunday. Their way for a Wild Card berth relies on the outcome of many games if they finish with 9 wins (and they can still get in at 9-7). If they somehow beat the Colts, their approach against the Ravens will be a must-win, which could benefit the Steelers. Also, keep in mind that the Steelers own the tiebreaker over the Colts, so a win by the Texans over the Colts could benefit the Steelers too. Can be major spoilers in favor of the Steelers.

They can help the Steelers chances by beating the Ravens. If the Texans get into week 16 after beating the Colts, they’ll still be playing for a Division title, and will fight for their lives against the Ravens. Can also help the Steelers have a legitimate shot at #3 if they beat the Colts.

Dolphins (7-6) Remaining schedule: at Patriots (10-3), vs. Vikings (6-7), vs. Jets (2-11). Just blew a golden opportunity to hold the driver’s seat into the Wild Card berth. Still with a long shot at the Division title, for which they must win out and hope the Patriots lose all 3 remaining games. They no longer control their destiny, as winning out doesn’t’ guarantee a playoff spot for them.

Chiefs (7-6) Remaining schedule vs. Raiders (2-11), at Steelers (8-5), vs. Chargers (8-2). After 3 straight loses, they can only play for a Wild Card berth and still control their path into it: win out, and get a WC. Games against the Steelers and Chargers (weeks 16 & 17 respectively) will be critical, such as handling their business against the Raiders this week (who already beat them a couple of weeks ago).

Bills (7-6) Remaining schedule: vs. Packers (10-3), at Raiders (2-11), at Patriots (10-3). They no longer control their destiny, while they have a 4-6 conference record, and will lose most tiebreakers even if they win out. At 7 loses, could be eliminated if they lose to the Packers this Sunday.

Browns (7-6) Remaining schedule: vs. Bengals (8-4-1), at Panthers (4-8-1), at Ravens (7-6). Playing for their lives against the Bengals, they can’t afford to lose one more game. Could be major spoilers if they beat the Bengals or/and Ravens.

 So, who gets in?

While the AFC north remains in open competition, all other Divisions can have a front runner or winner after week 15. With 9 teams fighting for 3 spots, those who have a 7-6 record right now are against the wall: one more loss and they could be eliminated from contention.

  • Most likely headed to the postseason and division title: New England, Denver and Indianapolis are most likely headed to the Post Season.
  • Still in the Driver’s seat for division title: Steelers, Bengals
  • In the driver’s seat for a Wild Card, need help for division title: Ravens, Chargers.
  • Control their destiny for a Wild Card: Chiefs
  • Need help (Winning out, no guarantee they will get in) Browns, Texans, Bills, Dolphins.

Steelers must take care of their own business, win out and grab the Division title. Losing one more game probably means a Wild Card, if that loss is against Atlanta. There are some scenarios in which a 9-7 Steelers can qualify for the playoffs, but depends on a lot of different outcomes from games involving AFC rivals.

  • Good news: there are still 11 more games between AFC contenders, meaning, at least, 11 more Ls for contenders (assuming no ties).
  • Keep an eye on: spoilers. Teams with losing records can always pull an upset on contenders.

What could happen after week 15:

  • Bills, Dolphins and Texans with a real possibility of falling to 7-7
  • The loser of Browns-Bengals will be looking for tons of help to get in.
  • Patriots and Colts with a legitimate chance of closing in a Division title
  • If the Steelers, Chiefs and Ravens are able to take care of business, all of them will get one step closer to the Playoffs.
  • Broncos vs Chargers: If Denver wins, they will win their Division Title, and the Chargers will no longer control their destiny. Otherwise, both will remain in control of their destiny for a Wild Card, with the Broncos holding the upper hand at the Division Title.


The rest of the Schedule, week by week, for AFC Contenders after week 15:

Week 16 features just 3 games between AFC contenders: Chiefs at Steelers, Ravens at Texans, Broncos at Bengals

And 6 teams play against non-AFC contenders: Chargers at 49ers, Vikings at Dolphins, Browns at Panthers, Patriots at Jets, Bills at Raiders, Colts at Cowboys

Week 17 features 4 games between AFC contenders: Bengals at Steelers, Browns at Ravens, Chargers at Chiefs, Bills at Patriots

And 4 teams play against non-AFC contenders: Colts at Titans, Jaguars at Texans, Jets at Dolphins, Raiders at Broncos

About Ricardo M.

Ricardo (WWW) has been a member of the Steelers message board for years, and a Steelers fan for much, much longer.