Technically, there are two wild-card berths up for grabs in the AFC. Really, there is just one.
The Los Angeles Chargers are 8-3, just a game behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. In the NFL's modern era, 130 teams have started the season 8-3, and just 16 (12.3 percent) have missed the playoffs. The Chargers’ playoff odds seem to range from very good (88 percent) to very, very good (93 percent).
Which leaves six other teams realistically in contention for the No. 6 seed over the season’s final five weeks. With their win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, the Ravens held on to the final wild-card spot heading into their game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
The NFL’s tiebreaker procedures read about as well as a terms-of-service agreement, but for now, they favor the Ravens, who are ahead of the Indianapolis Colts by virtue of their superior record in AFC play. The Ravens also have crucial head-to-head wins against other wild-card contenders, a crucial tiebreaker.
The field is bound to shrink in the coming weeks, but here’s where the postseason race stands after Week 12.
6. Ravens (6-5)
Conference record: 6-3
AFC North record: 2-3
Schedule: at Falcons (4-7), at Chiefs (9-2), vs. Buccaneers (4-7), at Chargers (8-3), vs. Browns (4-6-1)
Of the contenders for the AFC’s second wild-card spot, the Ravens are the only team set to face two opponents rated among Las Vegas’ top seven Super Bowl favorites. Worse yet, they don’t face the Chiefs or Chargers at home. The schedule is at least conducive to a sustained Ravens rushing attack, whether that's with Lamar Jackson or Joe Flacco under center. According to Football Outsiders, entering Week 12, the Chargers had the most efficient run defense of the Ravens' upcoming opponents — and they were No. 18 overall. Every other team ranked 26th or worse.
7. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
Conference record: 5-4
AFC South record: 2-1
Schedule: at Jaguars (3-8), at Texans (8-3), vs. Cowboys (6-5), vs. Giants (3-8), at Titans (5-6)
The Colts, victorious in five straight games, would have the AFC’s top winning streak if not for the lone team above them in the AFC South: the Texans, now 8-3 after an 0-3 start. With its Week 4 home loss to Houston, Indianapolis is unlikely to rally to win the AFC South. That puts the pressure on Andrew Luck and Co. to avoid the land mines in a schedule that looked more manageable just a few weeks ago. The Jacksonville Jaguars have moved on from Blake Bortles, the Dallas Cowboys have gotten over their poor start, and the New York Giants have won two of their past three — and nearly all three.
8. Miami Dolphins (5-6)
Conference record: 4-4
AFC East record: 2-1
Schedule: vs. Bills (4-7), vs. Patriots (8-3), at Vikings (5-4-1), vs. Jaguars (3-8), at Bills (4-7)
The Dolphins are here in the pecking order by virtue of their conference record, but their postseason prospects face long odds. FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model gives Miami just a 5 percent chance, worse than every other AFC wild-card contender. The return of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who started Sunday’s loss to the Colts after missing five games with a capsule injury in his right shoulder, will help the Dolphins, but probably not enough. At this point, they might need to run the table.
9. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)
Conference record: 3-4
AFC North record: 1-3
Schedule: vs. Broncos (5-6), at Chargers (8-3), vs. Raiders (2-9), at Browns (4-6-1), at Steelers (7-3-1)
The Bengals have fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. They’ve lost quarterback Andy Dalton to a season-ending injury. They’ve had their doors blown off by the Cleveland Browns. With wide receiver A.J. Green’s availability still uncertain, Cincinnati’s role in the playoff picture will be one of a potential spoiler. Watch out Sunday, Denver.
10. Denver Broncos (5-6)
Conference record: 3-5
AFC West record: 2-2
Schedule: at Bengals (5-6), at 49ers (2-9), vs. Browns (4-6-1), at Raiders (2-9), vs. Chargers (8-3)
In their past four games, the Broncos have fallen to the Chiefs in Kansas City by a touchdown, lost to the Texans at home by two, edged the Chargers and beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now comes the easier part. Their next four opponents are a combined 13-30-1, and Denver ends its season at home against the Chargers. Still, the Broncos’ conference record is, for now, an albatross, and the Ravens have the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker with their Week 3 victory.
11. Tennessee Titans (5-6)
Conference record: 3-6
AFC South record: 2-2
Schedule: vs. Jets (3-8), vs. Jaguars (3-8), at Giants (3-8), vs. Redskins (6-5), vs. Colts (6-5)
Whatever momentum the Titans had after their Week 10 rout of the New England Patriots has been squandered with consecutive losses to the Colts and Texans. Tennessee doesn’t have an opponent remaining on its schedule that has won at least seven games this season — the only team among these contenders with that distinction — but a soft slate can help a hard climb only so much. They won’t be favored to beat the Colts in Indianapolis, costing them a potentially significant tiebreaker. And both the Ravens and Dolphins took early-season meetings against the Titans.