AFC Wild Card Tiebreakers

Filmstudy AFC Wild Card Tiebreakers

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We’re going to expand the look at tiebreakers entering week 13 to include the other AFC Wild Card contenders, but to do so, we’ll need some simplifying assumptions.

— Assumed division winners: New England, Pittsburgh, Houston, Kansas City

— Wild Card contenders: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Denver, LA Chargers

— Assumed Out (can’t finish 9-7): Buffalo, NY Jets, Jacksonville, Oakland

–All of the analysis here assumes there will be no more ties unless specified

Here are the NFL Tiebreaker rules

An important thing to note is that divisional ties are broken first, before WC ties are resolved.

In terms of Wild Card tiebreakers, the Ravens have several advantages:

  1. Their head-to-head (HTH) tiebreaker wins vs. Denver and Tennessee. The Ravens do not have a HTH loss against any of the other WC contenders, but still will face the Chargers.
  2. The 2nd tiebreaker is conference record. The Ravens are 0-2 versus the NFC. Assuming a tiebreaker is needed, having the worse record against the NFC is synonymous with having the better record versus the AFC. For each of the competitors I’ll give current NFC record as the easiest way to compare conference records. Once again, the worse NFC record has the best conference record.
  3. The 3rd tiebreaker is common opponents (with a minimum of 4).
  4. The 4th tiebreaker is strength of victory (SoV). That’s expressed here as total wins plus half ties for all opponents the Ravens have beaten.

Let’s say the Ravens run the table to finish 11-5…what needs to otherwise fall in place for the Ravens to make the playoffs?

Among the other AFC Wild Card contenders, only the Colts and Chargers can finish 11-5. At 11-5 the Ravens would be guaranteed no worse than the 6 seed by virtue of a better conference record than the Colts.

That sounds good, but what if the Ravens finish 10-6?

It is possible the Ravens can miss out on the playoffs at 10-6, but it’s extremely unlikely. For it to happen, 2 of the following would have to occur:

  1. The Chargers win 3 of their remaining 5 games or win 2, with 1 of them being the game against the Ravens.
  2. The Bengals win all 5 of their remaining games and have the tiebreaker determined by either division record or strength of victory.
  3. The Colts go either 5-0 or 4-1 with their only loss coming to one of their 2 remaining NFC opponents (NYG, DAL).
  4. The Dolphins win their remaining 5 games and win the SoV tiebreaker against the Ravens.

That sounds good too, but what if the Ravens finish 9-7?

This scenario is more complex and more likely to include a multi-way tie. However, for this week, I’m going to focus on 2-way ties and specifically ignore tiebreakers for common opponents where 3+ teams are involved.

Since I’m writing this from the perspective of the Ravens getting in, I’m only going to consider ties at either 9-7 or 10-6. For each team, I have included the percentage chance I think they have to finish 10-6 or 9-7. You won’t need it to deal with the tiebreakers, but it’s nice to understand relative risk (all probability estimates are mine):

Baltimore (6-5, 0-2 vs NFC)—Remaining: @ATL, @KC, TB, @SD, CLE

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 15%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 50%
  3. NFC: 0-2 The poor record against the NFC means the Ravens have a good position in terms of conference record.
  4. Common Opponents: See individual comparisons below.
  5. Strength of Victory: The teams the Ravens have beaten currently have 28.5 total wins.
  6. We’ll consider the Ravens tiebreaker advantages relative to the other AFC Wild Card contenders.
Lamar Jackson runs against the Bengals

Cincinnati (5-6, 2-2 vs NFC)—Remaining: DEN, @ LAC, OAK, @ CLE, @ PIT

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 1%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 10%
  3. HTH: 1-1, push
  4. Division Record: The Ravens can still win, lose, or tie the Bengals in division record and it won’t be decided until Week 17. Division record is only pertinent to tiebreakers with the Bengals.
  5. NFC: 2-2, the Ravens can win the conference tiebreaker against the Bengals, but they can’t lose it.
  6. Common Opponents: Ravens and Bengals are both 2-0 vs non-common opponents, push.
  7. Strength of Victory: The Bengals currently have 25 SoV wins, but also have a win in hand against the Ravens, which means they are likely to win this tiebreaker. The Ravens must be the 2nd place team in the AFC North (either outright or by tiebreaker) in order to advance to the AFC Wild Card tiebreaker process.
  8. Analysis: The loss of Andy Dalton all but eliminates the Bengals from their tenuous playoff contention. The Ravens’ best chance to beat the Bengals is to win outright. They appear to have a good chance for the division tiebreaker, but may be at the mercy of the Steelers’ motivation in Week 17.

Oct 7, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws the ball under pressure from Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tavon Young (25) during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland (4-6-1, 1-2 vs NFC)—Remaining: @HOU, CAR, @DEN, CIN, @BAL

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 0%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 0%
  3. HTH: Not currently relevant
  4. NFC: Not currently relevant
  5. Common Opponents: Not currently relevant
  6. Analysis: The opening week tie means the Browns aren’t involved in the tiebreaker discussion per se. However, they could beat the Ravens outright by running the table to finish 9-6-1. If they do so (perhaps 1-2% vs 5 playoff contenders), it’s possible they’ll win the division.
Bold Predictions Ravens Steelers

Denver (5-6, 2-1 vs NFC)—Remaining: @CIN, @ SF, CLE, @OAK, LAC

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 10%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 50%
  3. HTH: Ravens
  4. NFC: 2-1 (@SF). The Ravens can win the conference record tiebreaker versus the Broncos, but it will only be needed in the event of a 3+ way tie.
  5. Common Opponents: Not relevant for 2-way tie
  6. Analysis: The Ravens are in good shape versus the Broncos for the tiebreaker based on their HTH win and conference record. 
Nick Boyle hurdles a Colts defender.

Indianapolis (6-5, 1-1 vs NFC)—Remaining: @JAX, @HOU, DAL, NYG, @TEN

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 25%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 55%
  3. HTH: None
  4. NFC: 1-1 (DAL, NYG). The Colts weakness is their conference record. If they win both the NFC games, they’ll lose a 2-way tiebreaker with the Ravens.
  5. Common Opponents: The Ravens are 4-1 against common opponents with the Colts (BUF, CIN, OAK, TEN). The Colts are currently 3-1 against those teams with their season finale at TEN yet to play.
  6. Strength of Victory: A fair amount has to happen for a 2-way tiebreaker with Indy to reach SoV. If it does, the Ravens have both a 3.5 game lead in the category now and more opportunity to make gains with a win over either the Chiefs or Chargers.
  7. Analysis: The Ravens are in excellent shape to win a 2-way tiebreaker against the Colts by one of conference record, common opponents, or SoV, but the Colts are the biggest challenger in terms of finishing with a better record outright due to ease of their remaining schedule.
Justin Tucker points to the ground and up in the air as he does the Hotline Bling Drake dance

LA Chargers (8-3, 3-1 vs NFC)—Remaining: @PIT, CIN, @KC, BAL, @DEN

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 50%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 10%
  3. HTH: TBD Dec 22
  4. NFC: 3-1 The Ravens have clinched the conference-record tiebreaker against the Chargers, but it will only matter in the event of a 3+ way tiebreaker is required.
  5. Analysis: HTH game on 12/22 will determine a 2-way tiebreaker with the Chargers. That may be the game of the year for the Ravens. No tiebreakers beyond Conference record will be needed versus the Chargers, even in the event of a multi-way tie.
Ravens draft needs

Patrick Onwuasor (48) and CJ Mosley v. Dolphins, 2017 (Photo Credit: USA Today Sports)

Miami (5-6, 1-2 vs NFC)—Remaining: BUF, NE, @MIN, JAX, @BUF

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 3%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 15%
  3. HTH: None
  4. NFC: 1-2, The Dolphins can win or lose the conference record tiebreaker versus the Ravens. However, to win that tiebreaker at no worse than 9-7, the Dolphins will have to lose their 7th game to MIN and win their other 4 games. In addition, the Ravens will need to beat both ATL and TB.
  5. Common Opponents: The Ravens are 4-1 against the common opponents with MIA (BUF, CIN, OAK, TEN). The Dolphins are currently 2-1 with 2 games remaining against the Bills.
  6. Strength of Victory: The Ravens currently enjoy a large SoV margin versus the Dolphins (28.5 to 21 wins). It will be difficult (but not impossible) for the Dolphins to overcome that disadvantage, even with 1 additional win needed to forge a tie.
  7. Analysis: The Ravens have several paths to beat the Dolphins if they cannot do so outright (by far the most likely result). Only 1 of the 32 possible W/L combinations of Miami’s remaining games can get them to 9-7 with the 2-way tiebreaker in hand against the Ravens. If the Dolphins run the table to go 10-6 and the Ravens get there as well, the tiebreaker will fall to SoV. At 10-6 the Ravens will have beaten either (or both) of the Chargers and Chiefs and will have a slight advantage (most likely 49-46.5 wins) in the SoV tiebreaker based on information currently known.

Oct 14, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) rushes against Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee (5-6, 2-0 vs NFC)—Remaining NYJ, JAX, @NYG, WAS, IND

  1. Probability to finish exactly 10-6: 10%
  2. Probability to finish exactly 9-7: 35%
  3. HTH: Ravens
  4. NFC: 2-0, The Titans can’t get to 9-7 without winning at least 1 of their 2 NFC games remaining. Doing so will mean they lose the conference tiebreaker versus the Ravens. This will only matter for a 3+ way tie.
  5. Analysis: The Ravens cannot lose a tiebreaker to the Titans at 9-7 or better, regardless of the number of teams involved. No tiebreakers beyond Conference record will be needed, even in the event of a multi-way tie.

The Ravens still have a shot to win the AFC North, but it’s nice to see there is a reasonable plan B.

Please check my work. Even though much simplified, there is a high likelihood of error with this sort of detail.

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Ken McKusick

About Ken McKusick

Known as “Filmstudy” from his handle on area message boards, Ken is a lifelong Baltimorean and rabid fan of Baltimore sports. He grew up within walking distance of Memorial Stadium and attended all but a handful of Orioles games from 1979 through 2001. He got his start in sports modeling with baseball in the mid 1980’s. He began writing about the Ravens in 2006 and maintains a library of video for every game the team has played. He’s a graduate of Syracuse with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Math who recently retired from his actuarial career to pursue his passion as a football analyst full time. If you have math or modeling questions related to sports or gambling, Ken is always interested in hearing new problems or ideas. He can be reached by email at or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens. More from Ken McKusick


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