In the grand scheme of things, it's probably proper football karma that the Texans should have to wait until Week 17 to clinch the AFC South on their own, which would then require them to play their full complement of players against the Jags. Honestly, there's something a little unsavory about the Texans' sitting in 8-7 bliss resting their starters while a bunch of 9 and 10 win teams fight for their playoff seeding (or existence).
But that's exactly what could happen if things break properly tomorrow night between the Bengals and the Broncos. Yes, a Monday night game that doesn't even involve the Texans could catapult them to their third division title in five seasons. Those Texans, once sitting at 2-5 on the cusp of complete annihilation, are now 8-7 and pondering the thought of treating the season finale like a souped up preseason game. It may not be fair, but who cares? Is it fair that we've endured four different starting quarterbacks this season? Hell no!
So the Texans are 8-7, and the Colts are 7-8 after beating the Dolphins on Sunday. Let's now go through the math of getting the Texans into the 2015 postseason with an AFC South crown. Chronologically, here's how it happens:
1. Monday night, if the Bengals (and A.J. McCarron) go into Denver and beat the Broncos (and Brock Osweiler), the Texans' would clinch the "strength of victory" tiebreaker, which we have pointed out (here and here) would be the deciding factor if the Texans and Colts both finish 8-8. The math detail on this tiebreaker is covered later in the post, but just trust us, a Bengals win shuts down any race for the AFC South.
2. Sunday afternoon, the Texans could beat the Jaguars at home, and if they do, no tiebreakers matter. A 9-7 Texan team wins the division.
3. Sunday afternoon, the Colts lose to the Titans at home, and if they do, no tiebreakers matter. The Colts would be 7-9.
4. Now comes the fun part — the Colts need literally ten different things to happen between now and next Sunday night just to possibly stay alive. If any of the individual links in the chain outlined below go the wrong way for the Colts, the Texans win the division.
First, here are the obvious three — bullet points 1 and 2 in this post must go the Colts' way, and the Colts need to beat the Titans (home teams in CAPS):
* DENVER must beat Cincinnati
* Jacksonville must beat HOUSTON
* INDIANAPOLIS must beat Tennessee
This would keep the Colts alive into Week 17 and get them into an 8-8 tie with the Texans. Quickly, we go through the tiebreakers to get a division winner:
TIEBREAKER 1: Head to head (Both teams are 1-1 against the other.)
TIEBREAKER 2: Division record (Both teams would be 4-2 vs AFC South opponents.)
TIEBREAKER 3: Record against common opponents (Both teams would have a 7-5 record.)
TIEBREAKER 4: Conference record (Both teams would be 6-6 vs AFC opponents.)
TIEBREAKER 5: Strength of victory
As of Sunday night, here are the win totals of the eight teams the Texans' and Colts' will have defeated if they both go 8-8 (The Week 17 win over the Texans has been added to the Colts total in this assumption.)
Tampa Bay (6)
New York Jets (10)
New Orleans (6)
TOTAL WINS: 52
Tampa Bay (6)
TOTAL WINS: 49
As we've pointed out in previous tiebreaker posts, the Texans and Colts wins over each other, over the Jags, over the Titans (twice apiece), and over the Bucs cancel each other out. So wins by the Bengals, Jets, and Saints increase the lead in this tiebreaker for the Texans, and wins by the Broncos, Falcons, and Dolphins get the Colts closer.
So you can see why Monday night's Bengals-Broncos game is so important. Also, you can see how improbable it is that the Colts even made it this far, as they needed the Falcons to knock off the 14-0 Panthers just to stay alive! If the Panthers had just done Sunday what they've done every week since September, win a game, the division would belong to the Texans already.
So just to get to the sixth tiebreaker (strength of schedule), the Colts need the Broncos, Falcons, and Dolphins to win out, and the Bengals, Jets, and Saints to lose out. This would clinch a tie in the "strength of victory category. Here is what that looks like on the Week 17 schedule:
* BUFFALO must beat New York Jets
* ATLANTA must beat New Orleans
* Baltimore must beat CINCINNATI
* DENVER must beat San Diego
* MIAMI must beat New England
Those results would give the 8-8 Colts' eight victims the same number of wins as the eight teams the Texans will have beaten to get to 8-8. So the next tie breaker?
TIEBREAKER 6: Strength of schedule
This is a fancy way of saying "the better combined record of each team's entire 16 game slate." Fortunately, in the NFL, this is pretty easy to figure out for two deadlocked division foes, since fourteen of the sixteen games are a) against each other, b) against the two other division foes, c) against the same NFC opponents, or d) against the same AFC non-division opponents. Only two opponents out of sixteen are different. In the case of the Texans and Colts, their two unique opponents are:
TEXANS: Kansas City, Cincinnati
COLTS: Denver, Pittsburgh
Under the scenario that keeps the Colts alive, Denver will have won their last two games, and the Bengals will have lost their last two games, so their final records would be:
Heading into Week 17, the records of the other two teams are:
Kansas City 10-5
So the two teams' strength of schedule are virtually tied prior to adding results of the Chiefs' and Steelers' Week 17 games. Here are their schedules:
Pittsburgh at Cleveland
Oakland at Kansas City
So in order to clinch the division without going to the seventh tiebreaker, the Texans need the Browns and Chiefs to win. Similarly, the Colts would need the Steelers and Raiders to win. Any split of those two results would send the AFC South division to the NEXT tie breaker.... yes, a SEVENTH tiebreaker....
TIEBREAKER 7: Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed
WOW. Can you even imagine? We're already way down the rabbit hole with these tie breakers, but just know that, as of Sunday night, the Texans' and the Colts' rankings in points scored and points allowed in the AFC were as follows:
PF (rank) PA (rank)
TEXANS 309 (10) 307 (6)
COLTS 303 (12) 384 (13)
The Texans' combined ranking is 16 (10+6), and the Colts combined ranking is 25 (13+12), so a split of the Steelers-Browns and Raiders-Chiefs results would probably get the Texans the division title, barring a catastrophic margin in a Week 17 loss to the Jags and a Colts blowout against the Titans. You can see where it's not just every game that counts, it's can get to a point where every possession counts.
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So to repeat, in order to clinch the AFC South outright, the Colts need the following to happen beginning tonight (spreads in parentheses):
* DENVER (-3.5) must beat Cincinnati
* Jacksonville (+5.5) must beat HOUSTON
* INDIANAPOLIS (-6) must beat Tennessee
* BUFFALO (+3) must beat New York Jets
* ATLANTA (NL) must beat New Orleans
* Baltimore (+3.5) must beat CINCINNATI
* DENVER (-7.5) must beat San Diego
* MIAMI (+8) must beat New England
* Pittsburgh (-10) must beat CLEVELAND
* Oakland (+6.5) must beat KANSAS CITY
That's a ten-game moneyline parlay that the Colts need to hit. Assuming a normal spread-to-moneyline conversion, and a reasonable -5 spread for the Falcons over the Saints in Atlanta, this means a $100 parlay would pay $115,356. Might be worth throwing down a sawbuck on as emotional insurance just in case the Texans get smacked wth this cataclysmic occurrence.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.