Last Thursday, I broke down the chaotic NFC wild-card race. Well, after Week 12, the AFC playoff picture might be an even bigger mess. In a week in which the Bengals and Chargers kept their hopes alive with victories and the Browns and Steelers lost what looked like winnable contests, there are eight teams with realistic hopes of landing one of the three AFC wild-card spots.
Those teams roughly break into two tiers. Including their chances of winning their respective divisions, there are four teams whose chances of advancing to the postseason fall between 50% and 70%, per ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). From there, there's a dramatic drop off to Tier 2, where chances are between 10% and 25%. With five games to go, only the Jets, Patriots, Raiders and Titans have AFC playoff odds below 1%.
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In many cases, this is a race to 10 wins. An AFC team that gets to 10 victories between now and the end of the season should feel good about its chances of playing postseason football. I can't rule out a 10-win team missing or a nine-win team making the playoffs because of all the various permutations, but if you're looking for a round number, start there.
If you want to learn more about what each team needs to do to get to that 10-win mark, here's your breakdown. Leaving aside the current division leaders in the AFC, I'm going to discuss each of the eight teams in the wild-card picture, what they've done well and struggled with this season and their path to advancing out of the regular season. I'll start with the surprise package of the season, which pulled out a critical victory at home on Sunday:
Tier 1: The favorites
Houston Texans (7-5)
Chances to make the playoffs: 69.4%
Before the season, I looked at the AFC and thought that 14 teams could credibly say they were expecting to compete for a playoff spot in 2023. The two teams on the outside were the Texans and Colts, both of whom currently have winning records and are likely to actually make it to the postseason when things are said and done.
Just as was the case with the Seahawks last season, I should have trusted the numbers! The 2022 Texans were better than their record. They finished 3-13-1, but their point differential was that of a five-win team. The Lovie Smith-era Texans went 3-5-1 in one-score games, but they also took the Chiefs to overtime, had a lead on the Cowboys in the final minute of the fourth quarter and beat the Jags. They were closer to being relevant than it looked.
And then, the Texans upgraded at the two most important spots in football. You don't need me to tell you C.J. Stroud has been a revelation under center. I just wrote at length about Stroud in my Monday column on unlikely MVP candidates and don't need to rehash that here, but one thing I'll point out that doesn't get enough attention is how consistent he is at moving the chains. It's a hallmark of the Kyle Shanahan-tree quarterbacks.