2013 AFC Playoff Predictions

By: J. Scott Smith

I previously detailed the how ESPN’s power rankings provide a guide for choosing playoff teams.  Based on the previous five seasons, the preseason power rankings illustrate the volatility of NFL playoff teams. Here are the averages for the five year period:

  • Preseason ranking 1-10 teams making the playoffs: 5.6
  • Preseason ranking 11-21 teams making the playoffs: 3.8
  • Preseason ranking 22-32 teams making the playoffs: 2.6

Using these five season averages as a guide, I’m going to select 6 teams ranked preseason 1-10, 4 teams from 11-21, and 2 teams from 22-32.  Also guiding my 2013 playoff picks are division matchups, head coaches, and quarterbacks.

How I Chose

If you listen to SVP and Russillo, you know that Scott Van Pelt hates looking at schedules for picking teams precisely because the NFL is so unpredictable.  I agree with him that looking at individual matchups probably doesn’t tell you much, but I think looking at the division matchups is important for deciding which team is going 10-6 or 8-8.  Only two games each season are strength of schedule games and 8 games are based on annual rotations of division opponents.

 2013 AFC Division Matchups


AFC Opponent

NFC Opponent

AFC East

AFC North

NFC South

AFC South

AFC West

NFC West

AFC North

AFC East

NFC North

AFC West

AFC South

NFC East

Beyond the schedule, I picked my AFC playoff teams based on how much I believe in the head coach and quarterback.  Now that being said, these combinations are certainly not equal; I believe in Peyton Manning and John Fox much more than relatively unknowns in Ryan Tannehill and Joe Philbin.  My AFC picks are:



Preseason Power Ranking


Denver Broncos (West winner)



Pittsburgh Steelers (North winner)



Houston Texans (South winner)



New England Patriots (East winner)



Kansas City Chiefs (Wild card)



Miami Dolphins (Wild card)


Denver Broncos (Preseason Rank #3): The Broncos play in a weak AFC West and face a possibly weaker AFC South.  The NFC East opponents are beatable and their strength of schedule games are Week 1 with the retooling Baltimore Ravens and the annual Peyton Manning/Tom Brady bowl Week 12 against the New England Patriots.  The Von Miller suspension might hurt them as they play three NFC East opponents in the first six games, but I’m betting on coach John Fox and Manning to go 13-3.

Pittsburgh Steelers (#16): I don’t like the Steelers, but you have to admire the way the Rooney family has managed their franchise.  And someone has to win this division right?  The combination of playing the AFC East and NFC North, coach Mike Tomlin, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are convincing enough for me. The Steelers might be the biggest gamble of all of my picks since who knows how many games Big Ben is bound to miss due to injury.  Their strength of schedule games are very winnable in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans and at the Oakland Raiders in Week 8.  Regrettably, I’m picking the Steelers for a remarkable comeback season at 12-4.

Houston Texans (#7): The Texans were the AFC’s best team for the first 13 weeks of the season and then fell off. I see a more even season for the Texans as they face the weak AFC West and the tough NFC West.  Their strength of schedule games are difficult going on the road to Baltimore Week 3 and at home against the Patriots Week 13.  Still, the Texans will be one of the AFC’s best teams at 11-5.

New England Patriots (#6): The consistency of coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady will continue this season.  They face a manageable AFC North and a possibly difficult NFC South if quarterbacks Cam Newton and Josh Freeman can figure it out.  The reason I’ve placed them fourth in the AFC are the strength of schedule games with the aforementioned game against Denver in Week 12 and then at Houston Week 13. Another playoff run for the Patriots at 10-6.

Kansas City Chiefs (#22): The Chiefs have an entirely new team with coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith.  Smith is just the type of efficient, accurate quarterback that will thrive in Reid’s West Coast offense. It appeared the Chiefs never lacked talent, but problems at quarterback and lacking a quality NFL head coach have held them back. The Chiefs play in the weak AFC West and are matched up against the mediocre AFC South and a formidable NFC East.  The strength of schedule games are both winnable; they play at home against Browns Week 8 and at Buffalo Week 9.  The change of scenery will do wonders for Reid and Smith, leading the Chiefs to a 10-6 record and a wild card berth.

Miami Dolphins (#18): Here’s my first leap of faith and I’m placing my faith in a relatively unknown coach in Joe Philbin and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.  Bleacher Report is putting on a full court press for Tannehill arguing he’ll make the biggest jump of any second-year quarterback and ascend into top-ten quarterback status.  I like the moves the Dolphins have made bringing in a deep threat in Mike Wallace and drafting pass-rusher Dion Jordan.  The Dolphins play in the weak AFC East and are matched up with the AFC North and NFC South, where going 4-4 is possible.  Their strength of schedule games are a tough game at Indianapolis in Week 2 and a winnable game at home against the Chargers in Week 11. I see the Dolphins sneaking into the playoffs at 9-7.

Notable Teams Out of the Playoffs:

Baltimore Ravens (Preseason Rank # 8): Call it the post-Superbowl hangover, but I just don’t believe in the Ravens.  Last season, the Ravens appeared to be in a downward spiral, where riffs between QB Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron got Cameron fired after a Week 14 loss at Washington.  Somehow, the Ravens regained momentum in the playoffs, riding the emotion of Ray Lewis returning and the good fortune of Rahim Moore’s blunder at the end of the division game against the Broncos. With all the changes in personnel, I just don’t see another title run.

Cincinnati Bengals (#9): I’ve been on the “how does Marvin Lewis keep his job” train a couple of times during the past decade.  Every time I think he’s going to be fired (4-12 in 2008; 4-12 in 2010) he comes back the next season and makes the playoffs (10-6 in 2009; 9-7 in 2011). In 2005, the Bengals went 11-5 and seemed like they were emerging as a perennially AFC playoff team.  In 2006, the Bengals went 8-8.  After going 10-6 last year, I just feel like it’s 2006 all over again.  The Bengals can never seem to get over the hump, so expect another 8-8 this season.

Indianapolis Colts (#10): Let me begin by saying I love Andrew Luck.  I think he’s going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback, but I think the Colts used the Chuck-strong emotion throughout the year to get them in the playoffs.  You can’t recreate that type of emotion and resolve and I think the Colts are one draft away from returning as the elite team in the AFC South.  But it is a year away.

On paper, the AFC is considerably weaker than the NFC.  The bottom 27-32 on ESPN’s preseason power rankings are all AFC teams, which is why my picks for division winners were fairly predictable.  This will not hold for my forthcoming NFC playoff preview, where almost every division (particularly the NFC East) has no predictable winner.

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J. Scott Smith is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. He is a co-editor of Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration.