AFC playoff seeding predictions

How will the AFC playoff seedings shake out over the next three weeks? Nathan Jahnke breaks down the most-likely scenarios.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Don Wright)

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

AFC playoff seeding predictions


Yesterday, we looked at how the NFC playoff picture should look in three weeks from now once the games are played, and the most import games that will determine these teams’ fates. Today, we move on to the conference with even more drama: the AFC. Here are our prediction for how the AFC will be seeded at the end of the regular season, and the biggest matchups that matter most.

1. New England Patriots

The Patriots have a very talented roster, but they are hurting. They have 16 players on the roster with a PFF grade above 75—over half of them are either injured or just came back from injury. Just in the past week, their best running back, LeGarrette Blount (76.0) and best defensive tackle, Dominique Easley (81.5), landed on injured reserve, and free safety Devin McCourty (84.9) is missing practice.

Despite all of the injuries, they are the favorite to get the top seed, because they have a one-game lead over Denver and Cincinnati, and their schedule is easier. They end the season with a home game against the Titans, and then they travel to face the Jets and Dolphins. Even if they just win two of those three games, they should still comfortably get the top seed. If the Bengals win out, the Patriots own the tiebreaker. If the Broncos win out and the Patriots lose a game, the Broncos own the tiebreaker. It’s unlikely the Broncos will win out, with games against the Steelers and Bengals coming up. Even with all of the injuries, the Patriots can afford to get healthy to make their playoff push.

2. Denver Broncos

The first step towards the postseason for the Broncos is winning the AFC West. The easiest path to the division is winning two of their next three games. In Week 17, they should win in a home matchup against the Chargers, which means they need to beat the Steelers or Bengals before then. The key matchup to both ensure the division, as well as the second seed, is the Week 16 game against Cincinnati.

The Broncos should be favorites in the game, with A.J. McCarron as the Bengals’ quarterback. Although it was on a small sample size, last weekend it became clear that the way to stop McCarron is to get pressure on him. When there was no pressure, he completed 75 percent of his passes and averaged 10.9 yards per attempt. When he was under pressure, he was sacked 20 percent of the time, completed just 58.3 percent of his passes, and averaged 3.4 yards per attempt. The weak point in the line is Andre Smith, who has a 41.0 PFF pass block grade. He has two games where he has allowed five or more pressures this year, and he will be facing Von Miller, who is averaging more than five pressures per game.

As long as the Broncos can defeat the Bengals and Chargers, even if the Chiefs win out and the Bengals win the rest of their games, the Broncos will wrap up the first round bye.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

As mentioned above, a loss to the Broncos would likely mean Cincinnati won’t be taking Wild Card weekend off. It’s impossible for them to fall to the fourth seed, due to their lead over the AFC South teams, but they still need to win the AFC North to avoid falling to the fifth or sixth seed. The easiest way for the Bengals to do that is by defeating the Ravens in Week 17. With a win, they (at worst) would tie the Steelers’ record, but win the tie-breaker for the division record.

The Ravens’ offense has 11 players who have a PFF grade above 68, but four are on injured reserve and one is suspended. As long as they can stop Baltimore’s biggest weapon, Kamar Aiken (84.2), they should win the game and the division. While there are other scenarios in which Cincinnati keeps the division lead, this one is the most clean-cut, and most likely.

4. Houston Texans

Regardless of what happens, the AFC South winner will be the fourth seed, and not any higher. Technically it’s a three-team race between Houston, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville, but the odds are not in the Jaguars’ favor. They are currently one game behind both the Colts and Texans. The victor between the Texans and Colts in Week 15 will get another win, and both teams face the Titans, which should be a second win. Due to the Jaguars’ poor division record, they won’t win tiebreakers, so that leaves the Texans and Colts. Chances are the winner of this week’s Texans and Colts game ends up with the AFC South title.

Both teams are hurting at quarterback, but the Texans’ players outside of the quarterback position have outplayed the Colts’ players this season. In the first matchup of the season, the Colts ended up winning, but their best players from that game are unlikely to play as well this time around. Two of their top-five graded players were Henry Anderson and Khaled Holmes, but one is on injured reserve, and the other hasn’t been starting. Matt Hasselbeck and Andre Johnson had their best games of the season, but with how well the Texans’ defense has been playing of late, that is unlikely to continue.

The Texans started Ryan Mallett (51.1) that day, and T.J. Yates (57.8) has outplayed Mallett in his small sample size this year. It should be a close game that’s a toss-up, but the Texans have the better players overall, which should give them the edge.

5. Kansas City Chiefs

In the wild card race, the Chiefs, Steelers, and Jets all have the same record. If all three team’s win out, and none of them get a division victory, the Chiefs gets the fifth seed. It’s perfectly possible for the Jets to lose to the Patriots and the Steelers to lose to the Broncos, which means the Chiefs could very well lose one of their next three games and get the third seed. The Chiefs play at Baltimore, home against the Browns, and against the Raiders.

The most difficult game on that schedule is the matchup with the Raiders. In Week 13, the Chiefs came out victorious. More often than not, the Raiders had success in the game, but lost the turnover battle. It was Derek Carr’s only three-interception game of his career. The Chiefs have the third-best defense in the league by PFF cumulative grading, but have the 10th-worst offense. The Raiders, on the other hand, are better-rounded with the seventh-best offense and 13th-best defense, anchored by Khalil Mack (97.1). As mentioned before, even if the Chiefs lose this one, they could very well end up with the fifth seed anyway; but this could be one of the best Week 17 matchups to watch.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

The final spot in the AFC might be the most exciting playoff race remaining, since the team that doesn’t make it could very well be the only team in the NFL with a winning record, but without a postseason bid. Plenty of teams in the AFC are two games back of the Steelers and Jets, but they both have enough games they should win remaining that none of those trailing teams have a strong chance. The Steelers end the season with the Ravens and Browns, while the Jets play the Cowboys this week.

Assuming those three games go as expected, the games that will decide the sixth seed are the Broncos versus the Steelers this week, the Jets and Patriots the following week, and the Jets and Bills in Week 17. All three would need to go in the Jets’ favor in order for the Jets to make it over the Steelers. Even if you consider each game a coin flip, the Jets would need the coin to land heads three times in a row. It’s possible, but difficult.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • anon76returns

    If the Broncos win this weekend, then I think they have a decent shot at the #1 seed. The earlier Patriots-Jets game was a fairly narrow affair, and the Jets have gotten better since then while the Pats have gotten worse, not to mention that the prior meeting was in Foxboro.

    I don’t like Cincinnati’s chances in Denver, especially without Dalton, and when Denver’s been up for big games (Packers, Patriots) they’ve been pretty difficult to beat. We’ll see how it goes, but I think PFF is substantially overestimating the ease with which the Pats could get the first seed (“Even if they just win two of those three games, they should still comfortably get the top seed.”).

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      not sure the 1 seed is the best thing this year, not with the way PIT is playing, lol. i hope we go into PIT and win, of course, but if not the 2 seed has it’s advantages this year. not slighting KC who should slaughter the AFC south 4 seed, i’ve personally been predicting them to win out for nearly two months now, but they aren’t as dangerous as PIT right now

      • anon76returns

        KC’s a funny contrast to Pittsburgh. Assuming Denver doesn’t turn the ball over 5 times again, it’s hard to imagine how KC could score on our defense. On the other hand, as the Denver offense is currently playing, it’s hard to imagine them scoring much either. Maybe an affair with a 3-5 score, and much cursing by fantasy owners. As for me, I won’t count on the Chiefs ending their long playoff drought until they actually do it. They shouldn’t have lost the Colts in 2013, but they managed to find a way. They could pull off an equally mystifying performance this year.
        As for Pittsburgh, if we beat them and NYJ beat the Patriots, then it will be tough for the Steelers to reach the postseason, no matter how dangerous and deserving they are. Go Broncos!

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          this sunday’s game is gonna be a big one, tough no doubt, glad CBS used their one “schedule-flexing block move” on this game. would only be that much harder if it was SNF. i’m excited, win or lose @ PIT, gonna be a fun AFC playoffs this year

        • Benjamin Andrew Lindberg

          KC scored fine in the first game only they were the ones turning it over 5 times. But look at the difference…KC was ahead most of the game despite all the turnovers. The donkeys couldn’t compete when they were the ones turning it over.

          Much the same when KC played Oak…KC was -2 in turnovers for awhile and the game was even…once KC was +1, it was a blowout. That kind of shows how legit KC is.

    • Pete

      The Broncos suck…they won’t get past the Steelers….and the road to the SB goes through Foxborough…stop kidding yourself…..

  • Anon_81

    meh

    *Strictly unemotional analysis above

  • Anon_81

    Nah. This is how it is going down.

    #1 – Patriots 13-3

    #2 – Steelers in reg-season ridiculous fashion 11-5 (tiebreaker over DEN)

    #3 – Broncos 11-5

    #4 – Houston 8-8

    #5 – Cincy 10-6 (tiebreaker over KC)

    #6 – Chiefs 10-6

    Cincy gets Dalton back, overcomes the Texans for Marvin’s first-ever playoff victory (which is going to feel like their Super Bowl), only to proceed to get destroyed by a healed-up Patriot team. Dalton blew their momentum with that interception-thumb injury Week 14.

    Broncos manage the game against the Chiefs, in Denver, with Manning back at the helm. They then travel back to Pitt in a wild finish that leaves Pitt with their second win over Kubiak in 5 weeks. Outstanding matchup with a Pats and Steelers AFC showdown. Brady wins out in OT for another opportunity to solidify his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever.

    *Strictly unemotional analysis above

    • crosseyedlemon

      Steeler fans unemotional? LOL ….next you’ll be trying to tell us that those Bumble Bee costumes really are attractive.

      • Anon_81

        Steeler fans what? Why post random negativity?

      • Dan Elgin

        Actually, the Bumble Bees have grown on me! Actually bought one and wear it proudly!

        • crosseyedlemon

          Just be careful when wearing it on the street Dan….the cops might think you just broke out of prison.

      • Jerome Jerry Beers

        They are attractive, simply because all other NFL fans hate them so much!

    • Izach

      I’d love steelers getting the 2nd seed and is actually still possible. Even if unlikely bengals would have to lose to Ravens and that’s asking a lot given Ravens injuries lately. Broncos finishing 11-5 would mean they lose to steelers but beat bengals… Then lose to chargers…. While again possible it’s unlikely.

  • crosseyedlemon

    As thing stand now you have 3 teams that are 2 games better than the AFC South representative and one of those 3 teams is going to get shafted and be excluded from the playoffs. Roger Goodell should start preparing now for the hate mail he’ll be receiving from either Steeler, Chief or Jet fans.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      while one can argue with the seeding procedures, division titles should always secure a playoff berth, the home game is up for debate still tho imo

      • crosseyedlemon

        If the season weren’t already too long the NFL could experiment with aggregate scoring in the playoffs allowing each team to have a home game. I think the aggregate system is still used in division 2 or 3 college football and the CFL used it several years ago.

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          first i’ve really heard of that.

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    this is pretty damn accurate imo. should make for one crazy divisional weekend, assuming both wildcards win on the previous weekend. who doesn’t want to to see KC @ DEN and PIT @ NE ???