NFL playoffs: Breaking down the massive six-way Wild Card tie in the AFC

There are still four weeks left in the NFL regular season, but understanding the tiebreaking procedure now could be helpful later on.
Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals
Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals / Dylan Buell/GettyImages

When the dust settled on Week 14, 11 of the 16 AFC teams found themselves with winning records, and six of those 11 teams found themselves with the same winning record. But only two of those six teams find themselves in provisional playoff spots with four weeks remaining in the regular season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, and Buffalo Bills all find themselves sitting at 7-6. The Steelers, Colts, and Texans all lost in Week 14, while the Broncos, Bengals, and Bills all won.

How are the provisional playoff positions of these teams currently determined?

How the NFL breaks a six-way Wild Card tie

Divisions are looked at first when it comes to the tiebreaker. The Steelers beat the Bengals head-to-head in the AFC North, and the Colts beat the Texans head-to-head in the AFC South. While those two pairs of division rivals still have to play each other again, earlier results mean that the battle for the No. 6 seed is currently between the Steelers, Colts, Broncos, and Bills.

Conference records are looked at first, eliminating the Broncos and Bills. The Steelers then own the tiebreaker over the Colts because of their win percentage in common games.

With the Steelers in the provisional No. 6 seed, insert the Bengals into the next provisional four-way tie, along with the Colts, Broncos, and Bills. The Colts own this tiebreaker due to having the best win percentage in conference games (among the four), so they slot into the provisional No. 7 seed.

With the Colts slotted in, now the Texans can be considered, and they also own the tiebreaker over the Broncos, Bills, and Bengals due to having the best win percentage in conference games (among the four). They slot into the provisional No. 8 seed.

Now we are left with the Broncos, Bengals, and Bills for the provisional No. 9 seed, and that tiebreaker goes to the Broncos. The Bills lost to both teams head-to-head, so they are not considered, and the Broncos own the tiebreaker over the Bengals due to having a better win percentage in conference games.

The provisional No. 10 seed then goes to the Bengals thanks to their win over the Bills, who slot into the No. 11 seed.

Is the process fair? Maybe, maybe not. The Texans, for instance, hammered the Steelers by a score of 30-6, yet the fact that there are so many teams involved in this tiebreaker renders that head-to-head result meaningless at the moment, with the Texans seeded two spots lower than the Steelers.

The Bengals also beat the Colts by a score of 34-14 this past weekend, yet for the same reason, they find themselves three spots lower than the Colts.

While there are still several games left on the calendar between some of these teams, there is no guarantee that we won't end up in a situation where a complicated tiebreaker such as this one is needed.

Let's not forget that there are three teams sitting at 8-5 that could very well end up in this fight as well. One of them, the Cleveland Browns, currently occupies the top Wild Card spot, while the other two, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs, only lead their divisions by a single game.

Next. 3 best NFL teams with a losing record in 2023 season. 3 best losing teams in 2023. dark

Will 10-7 be good enough? Will 9-8 be good enough? Because of the tiebreaking procedures, what's good enough for one, may not be good enough for another.