The AFC Playoff Picture going into Week 11

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down the AFC Playoff picture heading into week 11, including some intuitive visuals on tie-breaking scenarios. What do the San Diego Chargers need to do to make it into the NFL postseason?

After the home loss at the hands of the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and all the dust from the other week 10 games had settled, the San Diego Chargers' path to the playoffs may not have taken as big as hit as you may think. Before we go in depth on the Chargers outlook, however, let's first establish what we know about the teams that are likely to make the 2013-2014 AFC Playoffs.

The "locks"

It's really, really likely that these four teams reach the playoffs:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Indianapolis Colts
  4. Denver Broncos.

All of those teams are at least two games clear in their respective race, and the ones with just a two game cushion also happen to have relatively easy schedules the rest of the way.

The Cincinnati Bengals have a 1.5 game lead in the AFC North, as well, and are still penciled in as the four seed.

Here's a look at those teams, along with their remaining opponents.

Team Seed W L Opponents
Kansas City Chiefs 1 9 0 @DEN, SD, DEN, @WSH, @OAK, IND, @SD
New England Patriots 2 7 2 @CAR, DEN, @HOU, CLE, @MIA, @BAL, BUF
Indianapolis Colts 3 6 3 @TEN, @AZ, TEN, @CIN, HOU, @KC, JAX
Cincinnati Bengals 4 6 4 CLE, @SD, IND, @PIT, MIN, BAL
Denver Broncos 5 8 1 KC, @NE, @KC, TEN, SD, @HOU, @OAK

While the Chargers aren't actually eliminated from the AFC West, it's virtually a guarantee that (at 4-5) their playoff path will have to come via the sixth slot in the AFC.

The fight for the six seed

Here are the contenders for that sixth slot, along with their remaining games:

Team Seed W L Opponents
New York Jets 6 5 4 @BUF, @BAL, MIA, OAK, CAR, CLE, @MIA
Miami Dolphins 7 4 5 SD, CAR, @NYJ, @PIT, NE, @BUF, NYJ
Tennessee Titans 8 4 5 IND, @OAK, @IND, @DEN, AZ, @JAX, HOU
Cleveland Browns 9 4 5 @CIN, PIT, @JAX, @NE, CHI, @NYJ, @PIT
Baltimore Ravens 10 4 5 @CHI, NYJ, PIT, MIN, @DET, NE, @CIN
San Diego Chargers 11 4 5 @MIA, @KC, CIN, NYG, @DEN, OAK, KC

Tie-breakers

Recall that the first few tie-breakers for the Wild Card slot are as follows, per NFL.com:

  • If the tied clubs are from different divisions, apply the following steps.

Two Clubs

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
  4. Strength of victory.
  5. etc...

Three or More Clubs

  1. Apply division tie breaker to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tie breaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild-Card participants.
  2. Head-to-head sweep. (Applicable only if one club has defeated each of the others or if one club has lost to each of the others.)
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
  5. Strength of victory.
  6. etc...

The head-to-head tie-breaker

I went ahead and made this graphic to help everyone visualize where the Chargers stand in relation to the rest of the AFC race in the important head-to-head tiebreaker:

Playoffs11_medium

As is, the Chargers are really struggling in the head-to-head tiebreaker department. This week's game against Miami holds increased importance, not just in order to keep pace in the Wild Card race, but in order to help give the Chargers the ability to win a tie-breaker in the (likely) event of a Wild Card tie at the end of the season.

Remember, though, that a tie between more than two teams requires a head-to-head sweep in order for it to be used as a tie-breaker. As the Chargers are only "owned" by the Tennessee Titans, so long as Baltimore or Cleveland, (and possibly the Miami Dolphins, pending this week's game), tie for the Wild Card along with the Chargers and Titans, it will head to the next tie-breaker.

And that next tie-breaker is...

Conference record

Like the previous tie-breaker, the conference record tie-breaker doesn't bode too well for the Chargers. Here's a table holding the conference record for each AFC contender, as well as the number of conference games remaining:

Team Conference Wins AFC Games Left
New York Jets 2 6
Miami Dolphins 3 6
Tennessee Titans 3 6
Cleveland Browns 3 6
Baltimore Ravens 4 4
San Diego Chargers 2 5

The San Diego Chargers are in awful shape in this department, too, as they have the least current conference victories and the least possible conference victories. As far as the rest of the field is concerned, the only other team in poor shape is the New York Jets. I say this for two reasons: they are tied with the Chargers with the least conference wins and, since they currently have a one game lead in the Wild Card, if another team catches the Jets it implies that they lost another game...probably a conference one.

While the Chargers could theoretically end up in a tie with a handful of teams in this category, it's not very realistic. With two games against Kansas City, a game in Denver, and a game against Cincinnati left on the docket, if the Chargers are to end up in a Wild Card tie, it's more likely that it'll come through a set of victories that includes a win over the New York Giants...further setting back the team in the in-conference wins tie-breaker.

However, should the Chargers pull off a few upsets in Kansas City or Denver, the next tie-breaker would be...

Common games winning percentage

The common games tiebreaker requires that all teams involved share at least four games in common. In order to see how many of these contenders share four games in common with the Chargers, let's consult another pretty graphic:

Common11_medium

Here, the Chargers are about average:

For the head-to-head common games tie-breakers:

  • With the Jets, both teams are 0-2 in common games with three to play.
  • With the Browns, the Browns are 1-2 (with two to play) while the Chargers are 1-0 (with four to play).
  • With the Ravens, the Ravens are 3-1 (with one to play) while the Chargers are 0-2 (with three to play).

The Chargers cannot enter a three-way tie-breaker based on common games, as no two teams share four games simultaneously with the Chargers.

Summary

It doesn't look too good. Besides having a tough schedule, the tie-breaking procedures don't look too favorable to the Chargers either. That said, last week I had this to say about what to root for:

As to what to root for this week: a miracle. No, really. the Browns and the Jets both are on byes, while Tennessee and Miami both get winless teams. Meanwhile, the Chargers face arguably the best team in football.

Well...Tennessee and Miami both lost to winless teams. So even though the Chargers didn't win, they didn't lose much ground. Additionally, Tennessee, who holds the head-to-head tie-breaker over San Diego, lost their quarterback for the season.

If the Chargers want to win that sixth seed, it'll realistically require beating Miami this week and procuring some significant help elsewhere in order to avoid the dreaded tie-breaking scenarios outlined above. With the other contenders facing road challenges in Chicago, Buffalo, and Cincinnati this week, along with the Titans hosting Indianapolis, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that the Chargers sit towards the top of these standings come next week. We can only hope!


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