Dolphins still have hope in crowded AFC playoff race
At 7-6, the Miami Dolphins are no longer in control of their playoff destiny after their third loss in the past five weeks.
They could win out, but it still might not be enough to make it the postseason for the first time since 2008. Of course, there isn't much lately to be confident about after Sunday's 28-13 loss at home to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Dolphins must also reverse a trend of lackluster play in December; they're 6-6 under head coach Joe Philbin.
First up is the AFC East-leading New England Patriots on the road Sunday. After that, they close out the regular season by hosting the Minnesota Vikings (6-7) and the New York Jets, who are 2-11 but played Miami well in their Week 13 home loss.
Of teams in the thick of the wild-card race, San Diego is the only team Miami owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over. The Dolphins split their season series with Buffalo and lost to Kansas City and Baltimore.
Below we break down best-case scenarios versus the competition for the Dolphins' playoff hopes should they win out and finish 10-6 (8-4 in conference):
1. New England Patriots (10-3); 2. Denver Broncos (10-3); 3. Indianapolis Colts (9-4)
We're going to assume these three teams take care of business and clinch playoff berths as they are poised to do.
It should be noted, however, that if the Dolphins win out and Patriots lose out, Miami would win the division by virtue of a season sweep. The Patriots finish vs. Miami, at New York Jets and vs. Buffalo.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1 overall, 5-4 in conference)
Remaining schedule: at Cleveland (7-6), vs. Denver (10-3), at Pittsburgh (8-5)
The AFC North-leading Bengals have the toughest closing stetch of any of the AFC playoff contenders. An 0-3 finish is not out of the realm of possibility.
Though a pair of losses would vault the Dolphins over the Bengals, a victory over the Browns and/or Steelers could prove more beneficial to Miami's playoff hopes.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5 overall, 7-3 in conference)
Remaining schedule: at Falcons (5-8), vs. Chiefs (7-6), vs. Bengals (8-4-1)
The Steelers are a tough nut to crack. They somehow lost to the Jets in Week 10 and suffered a close defeat to the New Orleans Saints in Week 13, but they looked impressive in their 42-21 smackdown of Bengals on the road last Sunday.
Best-case scenario here is for the Steelers to lose twice. Barring that, a loss to the Chiefs or Bengals would be necessary so that the Steelers would not own a conference tiebreaker over the Dolphins. If the lone loss is to the Chiefs, that could serve the Dolphins better in deeper tiebreakers.
Pittsburgh winning out could also possibly benefit the Dolphins, depending on how the Bengals fare in the two games prior to the season-ending Cincinnati-Pittsburgh matchup.
6. San Diego Chargers (8-5, 6-4)
Remaining schedule: vs. Broncos (10-3), at 49ers (7-6), at Chiefs (7-6)
After losing to the Patriots on Sunday, the Chargers retain the sixth spot after defeating the Ravens in Week 13 and therefore holding the tiebreaker.
This is a tough slate of opponents for San Diego, beginning with their home game against Denver. The Dolphins, who own a head-to-head edge over the Chargers in the event of two-team tiebreaker by virtue of their 37-0 victory in Week 8, need San Diego to lose at least once.
A perfect scenario for the Dolphins here would be for the Chargers to lose to the Broncos, thus giving the Dolphins the head-to-head and conference tiebreaker edge over San Diego, and beat the Chiefs, eliminating Kansas City from any 10-6 playoff tiebreakers.
7. Baltimore Ravens (8-5, 4-5)
Remaining schedule: vs. Jaguars (2-11), at Texans (7-6), vs. Browns (7-6)
Ravens are tricky are far as whether its better for the Dolphins' hopes for the Baltimore to win or lose. In winning out, they'd knock out the Texans and Browns from contention, but the Dolphins would then need the Steelers or Chargers to lose at least once as well.
Then again, any loss by the Ravens in their next three could be good for the Dolphins. As long as they're not the only two teams tied at 10-6, there's a good chance the Dolphins would win out in a tiebreaker. However, if they're the only teams tied at 10-6, the Ravens have the head-to-head tiebreaker following last week's victory.
8. Houston Texans (7-6, 6-3)
Remaining schedule: at Colts (9-4), vs. Ravens (8-5), vs. Jaguars (2-11)
The reality is simple here. The Dolphins can't overtake the Texans if both win out.
Figuring they'd win at home in their season finale against the Jags, Dolphins fans must hope for a Colts victory first and foremost. It is currently unclear whether a loss or victory against the Ravens is more beneficial to Miami.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (7-6, 5-4)
Remaining schedule: vs. Raiders (2-11), at Steelers (8-5), vs. Chargers (8-5)
Though the Dolphins currently rank ahead of the Chiefs in the playoff seeding, if they were the only two teams sharing identical records, Kansas City would win the tiebreaker based on its 34-15 victory over Miami in Week 3.
The Chiefs stayed in the playoff picture with their win over the Jaguars and face another weak team with the Raiders at home next week. Ideally for the Dolphins' playoff hopes, the Chiefs would lose to the Raiders and then defeat both the Steelers and Chargers.
11. Buffalo Bills (7-6, 4-6)
Remaining schedule: vs. Packers (10-3), at Raiders (2-11), at Patriots (10-3)
It doesn't look good for the Bills after their loss to the Broncos on Sunday, with games against two teams tied with the best record in the NFL. They're above the Browns because they've previously defeated them but are behind the Dolphins and the Chiefs because of division and conference record tiebreakers.
Expectations are the Bills will not finish 3-0, but even if they did, the Dolphins should prevail in a tiebreaker any way you slice it.
12. Cleveland Browns (7-6, 4-6)
Remaining schedule: vs. Bengals (8-4-1), at Panthers (4-8-1), at Ravens (8-5)
Cleveland drops to 12th after losing to the Colts on Sunday. Miami is ahead of them based on conference record and, like the Dolphins, the Browns know a thing or two about postseason futility.
It's a tough closing stretch for the Browns, who will turn to rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel to lift their offense from their doldrums, but if they managed to go 3-0 it could be beneficial to the Dolphins, depending on what the Bengals and Ravens did in their other two games.
Brian De Los Santos contributed to this report