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Everything You Need to Know About the AFC Playoff Scenarios

Five 10-5 AFC teams––The Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, and Colts–– are fighting for four playoff spots. One of them will be the odd man out come Sunday night. Here’s a breakdown of the Week 17 AFC playoff scenarios for these teams.

Things to Know

  1. The Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, and Browns control their own destiny. If they win, they’re in. The Colts do not control their own destiny. They would need to win AND have one of the aforementioned teams lose.
  2. The Dolphins are the only one of the five teams who are underdogs in their Week 17 game. The others are each at least a touchdown favorite.
  3. The spreads for the Week 17 games for the five teams of note, as of Saturday afternoon, are: Dolphins (+2) @ Bills, Titans (-7.5) @ Texans, Ravens (-13.5) @ Bengals, Steelers @ Browns (-10), and Jaguars @ Colts (-14)
  4. The Ravens hold the tiebreaker over the Browns because they went 2-0 against the Browns head-to-head. The Browns hold the tiebreaker over the Colts because the Browns beat the Colts head-to-head.
  5. The Titans and Dolphins hold the tiebreaker over the Ravens, Browns, and Colts because they have a better record in conference games, as of now (7-4 vs. 6-5).
  6. The Titans currently hold the tiebreaker over the Colts in the AFC South because they have a better record in divisional games (4-1 vs. 3-2).

Some Scenarios

A user on Twitter compiled all the scenarios and the subsequent Wild Card matchups/seedings:

It’s a tremendously helpful way of understanding what’s going on here, but it’s misleading because it assumes that every game this Sunday has a 50-50 win probability for each team. In reality, we know that’s not the case. (For the purposes of the graphic, though, it kind of had to be “misleading” in order to simplify things) The two scenarios that seem to be most likely, are:

  • All the favored teams win, leaving the Dolphins out at 10-6: Bills-Colts would be the 2-7 matchup, Steelers-Browns would be the 3-6 matchup, and Titans-Ravens would be the 4-5 matchup. This means that the Browns and Steelers would play each other in back-to-back weeks, and the Ravens would get a third crack at the Titans within the last 365 days, but this time the game would take place in Nashville.
  • All five 10-5 teams win, leaving the Colts out at 11-5: Bills-Browns would be the 2-7 matchup, Steelers-Ravens would be the 3-6 matchup, and Titans-Dolphins would be the 4-5 matchup. This means that the Steelers would have to do what is not very common, beat the same team three times in the same season.
  • Just for the sake of it, the Browns and Colts win (the two teams I’m rooting to make the playoffs), and the Dolphins, Ravens, and Titans lose, leaving the Ravens out at 10-6: Bills-Dolphins would be the 2-7 matchup, Steelers-Titans would be the 3-6 matchup, and Colts-Browns would be the 4-5 matchup. This means that the Dolphins and Bills would play each other in back-to-back weeks, the Titans would seek revenge against the Steelers from earlier in the season when both teams were still undefeated, and the Colts would seek revenge against the Browns.

Football Outsiders Simulations

Football Outsiders simulated Week 17 30,000 times, and calculated the following playoff probabilities: Dolphins, 65.4%; Browns, 78.7%; Colts, 80.8%; Ravens, 82.5%; Titans, 92.5%

According to NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund, here are the following win probabilities for each of the five teams of note in their respective Week 17 games:

  • Dolphins to win @ Bills: 42%
  • Browns to win vs. Steelers: 70%
  • Ravens to win @ Bengals: 84%
  • Titans to win @ Texans: 67%
  • Colts to win vs. Jaguars: 85%

My Simulations

With that as a baseline, here are the win probabilities that I’ll be assigning each team for my simulation:

  • Dolphins to win @ Bills: 46% (I think they’re going to rally around Brian Flores, and if the Bills see that the Steelers are down in Cleveland, they might pull their starters early. However, Tua is still questionable, and Fitzpatrick won’t be available for heroics due to COVID)
  • Browns to win vs. Steelers: 63% (I think that the Browns should win this game, I mean, it’s Mason Rudolph they’re going up against. But at the same time, it would be a very Browns thing to screw themselves over by choking against a divisional foe. Cleveland continues to rack up positive cases, while the Steelers continue to announce key players that they’re resting)
  • Ravens to win @ Bengals: 78% (I think that Lamar and the Ravens should pull away in this one, but my hesitation is that Cincinnati has shown life in the last two weeks. They played spoiler a few years ago against the Ravens in Week 17)
  • Titans to win @ Texans: 74% (I think we see Derrick Henry run all over the Texans and lead the Titans to a big win to secure the division)
  • Colts to win vs. Jaguars: 77% (There could be some “we can beat these guys again and now that we have the first overall pick locked up, there’s no downside to us winning” from the Jags, but c’mon now, the Colts should handle business here. However, if they see that the Dolphins, Browns, and Ravens all won in the early time slot, they could hand this game away.)
The results of my simulation.


Instead of 30,000 trials, I did 30 trials for each of the five teams. In it, the Dolphins won 18 times (60%), the Browns won 15 times (50%), the Colts won 23 times (77%), the Ravens won 27 times (90%), and the Titans won 24 times (80%). Obviously 30 trials is less accurate than, say, 30,000, but it’s fun to see the percentages with a low number of trials. Based off of these 30 trials, Cleveland would be the odd man more often than the other four teams, and the Wild Card seedings would be Steelers-Colts, Bills-Ravens, and Titans-Dolphins.

May there be mayhem this Sunday!