Playing with the Playoff Machine

What if, what if, what if? With only 47 games left on the regular season slate and nearly 1/3rd of the league mathematically eliminated from playoff contention (and for a fair number of others it’s all over but the crying) we can start to hash out the playoff scenarios. I’m using ESPN’s playoff machine, so blame those dirty evil Brady-huggers in Bristol for any and all mistakes in this post, because I’m obviously incapable of error in my post-finals stupor.

The most pressing question going into this weekend is “What if the Colts lose?”

Were the Colts to lose the Jags would clinch the division marking just the second time in the 9 year history of the AFC South the Colts didn’t take home the crown, but no matter, securing a wildcard spot would be a simple matter of winning the remaining two games (@OAK and TEN) while both the Ravens (NO, @CLE, CIN) and Chargers (@CIN, @DEN) lost out, and the Dolphins lost vs Buffalo and/or @New England (week 17).

If that scenario doesn’t seem likely to you, then it’s probably best to hope for a win this Sunday.

With a win Sunday the sky’s the limit, if you consider the 2 seed to be the sky. The Colts would spend the first week of the playoffs on the couch if they won out, the Chiefs lost 1 or more of their remaining games (@STL, TEN, OAK), the Chargers lost at least 1 of their last two (@CIN, @DEN), the Ravens lost 2 or more of their remaining games (NO, @CLE, CIN), the Steelers lost out (NYJ, CAR, @CLE) and for TEN, HOU, JAX, NYG, DEN, WAS and KC to win 3 or more games combined than ATL, TB, CLE, MIA, CIN, BUF and BAL over the remainder of the season, in order to beat the Steelers in the strength of victory tiebreaker.

If the Colts group wins only 2 more the next tiebreaker is Strength of Schedule. If strength of victory was tied the Colts would win strength of schedule if PHI, DAL, SD, HOU and JAX won more games the rest of the way than NO, CLE, CAR, BAL and NYJ. The next tiebreaker would be combined rank in the conference in points scored and points allowed.

The 6 seed and the 2 seed are spectacularly unlikely outcomes for Indy and the 5 seed is impossible since the 9-4 Jets can only be tied by Indy in overall and conference record and have the common games tiebreaker against Indy secured, 4-1 vs 3-2 with no common games remaining.

A division title requires a win Sunday, a Colts win would put Indy and Jax even in overall record (8-6), head to head (1-1), and divisional record (3-2) with common games at 6-4 for Indy and 5-5 for Jacksonville and conference records at 6-4 for Indy and 7-4 for Jacksonville. Obviously if Jacksonville wins more of the remaining two games (WAS, @HOU) than Indy (@OAK, TEN), Indy loses the division and if Indy wins more of the last two than the Jags they win the division. The ties are where it’s interesting.

If both teams win out following a Colts win Sunday, divisional records would each be 4-2, a 8-4 to 7-5 edge in common games would give Indy the division.

If both teams lose out following a Colts win Sunday, divisional records would each be 3-3, a 6-6 to 5-7 edge in common games would give Indy the division so long as neither Houston nor Tennessee (who play eachother Sunday) win out, since the resulting 4-2 division record from Houston or 6-4 in common games from Tennessee (vs 5-5 and 4-6) would give them the division.

There are 4 scenarios for how both teams could go 1-1 the last two weeks.

If Indy beats Oakland, but loses to Tennessee the Jags take the division if their win is over Houston week 17 (with the loss week 16 to WAS) by the power of a 4-2 divisional record to Indy’s 3-3. If the Jags results are reversed (win over WAS, loss to HOU) Indy takes the division with divisional record tied at 3-3 and Indy taking common games 7-5 to 6-6.

If Indy loses to Oakland, but beats Tennessee the Colts win the division no matter which of the final two the Jags lose. A Jags loss to Washington gives divisional tied at 4-2 with Indy winning on common games 7-5 to 6-6. A Jags loss to Houston gives Indy the tiebreaker on divisional record, 4-2 vs 3-3.

The divisional race in short, if the Colts win out, they are in. If they lose to the Jags, they are out. If they only lose to Oakland they need the Jags to lose either of their last two games. If Indy only loses to Tennessee they need the Jags to lose to Houston. If Indy wins this Sunday but loses to Oakland and Tennessee they need the Jags to lose both of their last two and both Houston and Tennessee to lose one of their 3 remaining games.

The two seed is farfetched to say the least, but the 3 is a reasonable goal. Any AFC East winner will have a record of at least 11-5 overall and 8-4 conference putting them out of the Colts (best possible overall record of 10-6) or any AFC West winner (Chiefs top out at 11-5 with a 7-5 conference record, Chargers at 10-6, Raiders at 9-7) and if the Steelers win any of their last 3 games (NYJ, CAR, @CLE) they too are at the untouchable 11 total wins with 8 conference wins, leaving the 3 seed almost certainly a battle between Indy and the AFC West Champ.

If either the Chargers (@CIN, @DEN) or Chiefs (@STL, TEN, OAK) win out the Colts can’t get the 3 seed. Winning out would put the Chiefs at 11-5 and/or the Chargers at 10-6 with the head to head over Indy (vs Indy’s best case of 10-6). So before even getting started on what Indy needs to do, both SD and KC need to drop a game.

Indy isn’t in the running for the 3 seed if they don’t beat the Jags and losing one of the last two after beating JAX would leave Indy needing SD to finish 0-2, KC to end 1-2 or worse (and if the loss was to Oakland, for the Raiders to lose vsDEN and/or @KC). Indy can’t get the 3 seed as a 8-8 division winner because the week 17 Raiders at Chiefs game would pair a 7-8 or better Oakland team with the tiebreaker over Indy against a 8-7 or better Chiefs team if Indy lost to Oakland. Either winner would get the 3 seed over a 8-8 Indy.

To recap/summarize
A loss this Sunday leaves the Colts playoff hopes alive only in the most pedantically technical sense. If the Colts win out they will win the division and have some chance at the #3 seed with the 2 seed possible, but overwhelmingly unlikely. If the only Colts lose to the Raiders they need the Redskins or Texans to beat the Jags. If the Colts only lose to the Titans they need the Texans to beat the Jags. If the Colts were to finish 0-2 after beating the Jags they would need the Jags to finish 0-2 as well and for the winner of this weekends’ Texans at Titans matchup to lose in week 16 (HOU@DEN, TEN@KC).

Sunday’s game? Kind of a big deal, and while the Raiders and Titans games don’t have quite the potential to slam the playoff door shut on the Colts this week does, losing either would put the Colts in hot water and losing both would almost certainly keep them out of the playoffs.

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