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2021 NFL Playoff Picture: Ranking AFC teams fighting for wild card spots with Colts rising after beating Pats

The NFL had a thriller to start Week 15 of its first 17-game season — and still no team in the AFC has clinched a playoff berth. No team in the league has clinched a playoff spot, the first time since the league expanded to 16 games in 1978 no team can stake a claim to a playoff berth through 14 weeks. 

The AFC continues to be wild and unpredictable, as 11 of the 16 teams are .500 or better. All four teams are separated by 1.5 games in the AFC North, while the biggest margin between first and second place of any team in AFC divisions is two. Nine teams still have a shot at the three wild card spots in the conference, setting the stage for an unpredictable final week. 

Only one team seems to be in good shape for one of the wild card spots in the AFC, but so much can change from week to week. Let’s take a revised look at the top contenders for the three wild card spots in the conference following the Colts’ thrilling victory over the Patriots on Saturday night.

Current AFC division leaders

The AFC division leaders as Week 15 begins with two thrillers. All currently have a playoff spot locked up if they claim the division crown. 

  1. Chiefs (10-4) West*
  2. Titans (9-4) South
  3. Patriots (9-5) East#
  4. Ravens (8-5) North
  • *Played Thursday
  • #Played Saturday

AFC wild card contenders, ranked

This is a ranking of the teams competing for a wild card spot in the AFC. Only three teams can make the playoffs, so the top three obviously have the best chance to make the postseason as we dive into Week 15. 

Remaining schedule: at Texans, vs. Broncos, at Raiders

Even with Thursday’s tough loss to the Chiefs, the Chargers are still in sole position of the No. 5 seed in the AFC standings — a half-game ahead of the madness of 7-6 teams in the conference. With a 5-4 conference record and two under .500 teams left on the schedule, the Chargers are in great position to make the playoffs. Ten wins should be enough to grab one of the three wild card spots, which is very attainable for Los Angeles. The Chargers’ division title hopes may be dashed, but they should land a wild card spot — barring a major collapse. 

2. Bills (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Panthers, at Patriots, vs. Falcons, vs. Jets

Even with two consecutive losses and falling to the No. 7 seed in the AFC standings, the Bills still are in strong shape to snatch one of the wild card spots in the conference. Buffalo plays three teams that currently have an under .500 record that close the season (and Buffalo plays well against under .500 teams) — with all three games at home. The Bills aren’t out of the AFC East race yet, but they need a win over the Patriots and some help from two other wild card contenders (Colts and Dolphins) in order to steal the division. There’s no reason to panic yet in Buffalo.

3. Colts (8-6)

Remaining schedule: at Cardinals, vs. Raiders, at Jaguars

The Colts’ huge win over the Patriots on Saturday night has them currently sitting in the top wild card spot ahead of the Chargers. Indianapolis’ chances of winning the AFC South are all but dead, so the best way for the Colts to make the playoffs is via the wild card.  

Remaining schedule: at Broncos, vs. Ravens, vs. Chiefs, at Browns

A tough loss to the 49ers dropped Cincinnati to ninth in the conference standings, so why are the Bengals’ playoff chances so high? The Bengals are still just one game out of first place in the unpredictable AFC North, with a showdown coming against the Ravens in two weeks (and Cincinnati already beat Baltimore). The Bengals control their own playoff fate with Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Cleveland remaining on their schedule — all teams that are over .500 and battling for playoff spots. Cincinnati still has a shot at the AFC North — and can help eliminate the remaining teams on its schedule. 

Remaining schedule: vs. Raiders, at Packers, at Steelers, vs. Bengals 

Fortunes changed for the Browns over the last week after Cleveland won the rematch against Baltimore. The Browns are second in the AFC North in one game behind the Ravens for first in the division as the two teams split the season series. Cleveland is No. 8 in the AFC standings, tied with Indianapolis, Buffalo and Cincinnati for the final playoff spot in the conference. That win over Cincinnati looms large for division and playoff tiebreakers — as the two will meet the final week of the regular season. Cleveland has a tough finish to the year — like Cincinnati — but the Browns control their own destiny too. If Cleveland can find a way to upset Green Bay.

6. Steelers (6-6-1)

Remaining schedule: vs. Titans, at Chiefs, vs. Browns, at Ravens

The loss to the Vikings was brutal for the Steelers, who could have the No. 6 playoff spot in the AFC if they would have beaten Minnesota. Instead, the Steelers sit last in the AFC North as the No. 11 seed in the conference — just a half game out of the final playoff spot. Their schedule to close the season is brutal, as Pittsburgh has to go 1-1 to stay afloat in the playoff race before closing the year against two divisional opponents. That tie is going to be the Steelers beat friend if they get to nine wins — or their worst enemy if they end up with eight wins. Remember, Pittsburgh is just 1.5 games out of the AFC North. 

Remaining schedule: vs. Jets, at Saints, at Titans, vs. Patriots

The Dolphins didn’t gain any ground in the playoff standings, yet are just one game out of the final playoff spot. Miami can actually get over .500 if the Dolphins take care of business over the next two weeks, making this playoff race even more intriguing. The Dolphins will get in the playoffs if they run the table — which would be nine in a row to close the season. If Miami finishes with nine wins and a .500 conference record, they also have a shot. If the Dolphins are upset in one of the next two weeks — they can forget about the postseason. 

Remaining schedule: vs. Bengals, at Raiders, at Chargers, vs. Chiefs 

The Broncos are tied for the final playoff spot in the AFC after taking care of business against the Lions. Their playoff chances come down to this week against the Bengals — a game Denver can’t afford to lose with losing teh conference record tiebreaker to the other four teams tied with them. A brutal finish with the AFC West doesn’t help the Broncos either, but this team has a chance to get to nine wins. Beating Cincinnati will be the signature win Denver needs to be taken seriously as a playoff threat. 

9. Raiders (6-7)

Remaining schedule: at Browns, vs. Broncos, at Colts, vs. Chargers

A blowout loss to the Chiefs pushed the Raiders down to 12th in the conference standings. If Vegas falls to Cleveland this week, the Raiders can essentially kiss their playoff chances goodbye — as there are too many teams to overcome for a playoff berth. Vegas has to go 3-1 down the stretch to have a shot at the postseason. 

Eliminated

Only three teams are officially eliminated from the postseason through Week 14:

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