With the AFC North sweeping their trio of games during Week 12, the division now has all four teams at least three games over .500—yet they only have one playoff spot between them.
That’s because the Baltimore Ravens’ victory last night cannibalized the division and gave the edge to two teams from the AFC West, namely the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs, the latter of whom the Pittsburgh Steelers will face in a few weeks.
The Cincinnati Bengals dominated the Houston Texans despite losing players to injury as the game wore on, and they currently hold down the third seed in the AFC playoff picture with a record of 7-3-1, the third-best win percentage in the division at .682.
The Steelers, Ravens, and Cleveland Browns are all tied for the fourth-best record and win percentage in the conference at 7-4 and .636, yet despite that, none of them are currently positioned for a postseason berth. Here’s why.
The wildcard race is currently set up as a five-way tie between the Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Chiefs, and Chargers, all of whom are 7-4. The AFC North, however, loses all tiebreakers to the two AFC West teams, so despite having arguably the best division in the league, if the season ended today, they would only send one representative to the elimination rounds.
First, a preliminary message and reminder that tiebreaking procedures do not technically come into effect until the end of the regular season, so the Steelers are actually in a three-way tie for second in the division, and a five-way tie for the first—and second—wildcard seed.
Because all of the participants in the discussion are paired with division rivals, intra-divisional tiebreakers are divvied out first. It’s simpler between the Chiefs and Chargers because there are only two teams involved, rather than three. In a head-to-head divisional tiebreaking procedure, the first step is to look at head-to-head records. The Chiefs went to San Diego in Week Seven and beat the Chargers by a field goal, so the Chiefs advance to the second tiebreaking tier.
When an intra-divisional tie involves three or more teams, the first tiebreaking step is to look at the combined win-loss record between all teams involved against one another. While the Ravens have an 0-2 record against the Bengals, they are 2-1 against the Steelers and Browns. The Steelers are 2-2 against the Browns and Ravens, while the Browns are 1-2 against the Ravens and Steelers.
By virtue of the superior overall record in games involving the three teams, the Ravens advance to the second tiebreaking tier. However, with no head-to-head matchup, the first step in a non-divisional tiebreaker is to look at each team’s conference record. The Chiefs are 5-3 within the AFC, while the Ravens are only 3-4, so the Chiefs get the fifth seed.
The Ravens then go up against the Chargers for the sixth seed. With no head-to-head matchup, the tiebreaker again goes to conference record. The Chargers are also 5-3 in the AFC, and thus advance.
Again, just a cautionary reminder that these tiebreaking procedures will change dramatically in the coming weeks. The Ravens play the Chargers on Sunday, for example, and each of these five teams has at least one division game left, with most having two or more. But for now, if the season ended today, nobody from the AFC North would advance as a wildcard.