After a crushing home loss to the AFC South-leading Jacksonville Jaguars two Sundays ago, the Houston Texans got a much-needed victory over the Denver Broncos to keep pace in the AFC wild card race -- and perhaps even in the AFC South race.
The race for an AFC Playofff berth is becoming intense
There are now four teams at 7-5 sitting atop the wild card standings in the AFC, the other three being the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns, and the Indianapolis Colts. Of the three, only the Colts also won on Sunday, thanks to the struggling Tennessee Titans missing what would have been a game-winning extra point.
The Texans have played the Colts and the Steelers so far this season, and they still have another matchup against the Colts, plus a matchup with the Browns, remaining on the schedule.
But they already dismantled the Steelers by a score of 30-6, so why are the Texans the team that is currently on the outside looking in while the Steelers sit three spots higher in the top wild card spot?
Unfortunately, because of who all is involved in this tie, how many teams are involved, and how the tiebreaking process is utilized, that’s just how it shakes out at the moment.
Texans getting short end of the stick with tiebreaker process
The Texans’ early season loss to the Colts is ultimately what makes this possible, as divisional tiebreakers are applied first.
The Steelers, who split their season series with the Browns, own the AFC North tiebreaker due to having a better divisional record. So the battle for the current No. 5 seed is between the Steelers and the Colts, and the Steelers have the tiebreaker based on win percentage against common opponents.
The battle for the No. 6 seed is then between the Browns and the Colts, and the Browns beat the Colts head-to-head. The Colts then get the No. 7 seed over the Texans due to their head-to-head result.
So despite delivering the Steelers one of their worst losses of the Mike Tomlin era and owning the same record, the Texans find themselves three spots lower in the playoff standings, even with neither team leading their respective division.
The good news for the Texans is the fact that they do have games remaining against the Browns and the Colts – and the Steelers have a game remaining against the Colts. So things should sort themselves out to some extent.
The bad news is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t end up in a situation where this complex tiebreaker needs to be applied anyway. There are, after all, a cluster of teams sitting at 6-6 that could very well find themselves in the thick of the battle as well.
We have seen situations like this before, most notably when the 9-7 Bills got into the playoffs over the 9-7 Chargers in 2017, despite the Chargers beating them by 30 points, simply because there were two other 9-7 teams involved in the tie. The Texans' best bet? Take care of business by winning out. Then they're in for sure.