After 14 weeks of NFL football, the most intriguing storyline in the AFC Wild Card picture is in the AFC North.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were firmly in control just a couple of weeks ago, winning their first 11 games and looking like they had the inside track for the the No. 1 overall seed and the conference’s only first round bye in the playoffs.
Two straight losses later, and things aren’t quite so cut and dry for Pittsburgh. The Steelers have clinched a playoff spot, but two teams in their division still have a shot at overtaking them.
The Cleveland Browns are 10-4 and are one of the league’s feel-good stories. After a sluggish start and losing star receiver Odell Beckham Jr for the season to injury, things once again looked bleak for the Browns. But they’ve managed to win five of their last six games to climb into the playoff picture.
Here’s the biggest concern for the Browns, though. Their point-differential is –6. They’re the only team with a winning record that has a negative point-differential. They’ve had several close wins and several blowout losses, a combination that usually suggests the team might not be as good as the record suggests.
More problematic for Cleveland is they have one more division rival they have to hold off down the stretch. The Browns have a one-game lead over the 9-5 Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens, who won the division last year, actually have a better point-differential than the division-leading Steelers and have won three straight games.
The Ravens have two games remaining against the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Bengals, two teams with a combined record of 7-19. The odds are good that Baltimore will win out and finish the season at 11-5.
Cleveland has the 1-win New York Jets, but has to close the season against the Steelers. They need to win both of those games to guarantee a playoff spot.
The Miami Dolphins are also a factor in the Wild Card race. The Dolphins are 9-5 and could knock either Cleveland or Baltimore out of the playoffs if either team falters. Miami has a tougher schedule than either team, finishing against the .500 Raiders and the division-leading Bills.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Raiders are also technically alive for a Wild Card spot. At 7-7, the Raiders have to win out and get significant help to make it. They’d need both the Ravens and Dolphins to lose their final two games to have a chance.
Currently, the Bills and Chiefs have clinched division titles, while the Steelers have clinched a playoff spot. The Colts and Titans are tied at 10-4 for the AFC South lead, but both are highly likely to make the playoffs regardless.
If the playoffs started today, the matchups would be: Kansas City (bye); Pittsburgh vs. Miami; Indianapolis vs. Buffalo; and Cleveland vs. Tennessee.
Miami might be in for now, but Baltimore has more experience than the Dolphins in a playoff race and an easier schedule, so expect them to overtake the Dolphins over the final two weeks. But either team making it provides an intriguing storyline.
The Ravens have last year’s MVP, Lamar Jackson, who is no doubt eager to make up for a poor playoff performance when Baltimore was upset at home by Tennessee. Jackson hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was a year ago, but he’s still one of the league’s biggest stars and tested in big games.
Compare that to the Dolphins, who are led by a rookie quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa who has just eight starts this season. Tagovailoa was the fifth pick in the draft and has looked like a future star, completing 64 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions since moving into Miami’s starting lineup.
The Browns also have a young quarterback and former No. 1 pick coming into his own this season in Baker Mayfield. Mayfield struggled last season, but has completed a career-best 64 percent of his passes this season, is nearing a career-high in touchdown passes, and is on pace to set a career-low for interceptions.
No matter which quarterback ultimately leads his team into the final playoff spot, the NFL wins by getting a young, future star exposure during what should be a competitive and wide-open year in the playoffs.