Today, the magic number they should be focusing on is 5.
The Colts refuse to look beyond their next game and that strategy seems to be working quite well for them. So if you play for the Colts, stop here. Do not read this column. Get back to focusing on the Steelers.
But if you're a fan, let's take a look at where the Colts current record places them as they try to wrap-up the top seed in the AFC playoff picture. The "magic number" below is the combination of Colts wins and/or opponents losses needed over the next 6 games to officially eliminate those teams from challenging the Colts for the top seed in the playoffs.
Houston, Tennessee, New York, Baltimore, Miami: Out of 15 other teams in the AFC, the Colts have already mathematically eliminated a third of them from challenging their top-seed position in the playoff picture. These teams can't even tie the Colts no matter what happens the rest of the way, so scratch them from the list and be sure to cheer for them whenever they play one of the contenders.
Cleveland, Buffalo, Oakland: These teams have six losses already. With one win out of the final six games, the Colts knock them out. Likewise, a single loss by these teams knocks them out of contention versus Indy. The Browns are in even worse shape because, at best, they could tie the Colts, and they've already lost to them. The Browns remaining schedule includes the Steelers, Jaguars, Bengals, and the recently rejuvenated Vikings (this weekend). Buffalo has the Panthers this weekend, plus New England, Cincinnati, and Denver ahead. Oakland has San Diego, Denver, and the Giants looming. So it's safe to count these three out regardless of what the Colts do.
New England, Kansas City, San Diego: All of these teams are playing below preseason expectations, posting a mediocre 6-4 record. Only the Chargers appear to be putting the pieces together at this point in the season for a good, solid playoff run.
The bad news for the Chiefs and the Patriots are that they have to play each
other in Kansas City this weekend, so one of them will inch closer to that magic
number no matter what the Colts do on Monday Night.
So who do you pull for in this one? Kansas City, and not just because Colts fans love to see the Patriots lose. The balance of the Patriots schedule is a cakewalk with four of their last five games against the simply awful AFC East. They play the Jets twice, the Dolphins, and the Bills. The only decent team remaining on their schedule after this one is the Buccaneers. Already riding a two-game winning streak, the Patriots could head into the playoffs as winners in eight of their last nine games, assuming a loss only to Tampa Bay. So a loss to Kansas City could help derail that confidence a bit.
By contrast, Kansas City has a brutal schedule that could keep them out of the playoffs altogether. They have Denver, Dallas, the NY Giants, San Diego, and Cincinnati ahead. They will get plenty of chances to falter during that stretch. It's been over a month since they've strung two victories together, so they aren't a real threat.
The Chargers not only have to play the Colts on December 18th, they also have the Redskins this weekend, along with the Chiefs, Broncos, and the erratic Raiders. They have to play flawless football the rest of the way just to have a shot at dethroning the Colts.
Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh: The Colts have already beaten two of these three teams, and can deliver a 2-game hit to the magic number of the Steelers with a win over them on Monday night. And they can do the same to the Jaguars on December 11th.
If the Colts and Jaguars each win their next two games, that matchup in Jacksonville will be huge, because the Colts would be attempting to eliminate the Jaguars and claim the AFC South title that day. And in the process the Colts would also ensure that they wouldn't have to play any playoff games in Jacksonville.
Other than that game against the Colts, the Jaguars only have one other opponent remaining who is likely to give them a decent game -- the Titans in the final week of the season. They have Arizona this weekend and Cleveland next week before hosting the Colts. Then they play the Texans and the 49ers. But the Jaguars do have an occasional slip-up when they play teams they should beat, so don't bank on them winning all of them.
The Bengals have three good games left on their schedule -- this weekend against the Ravens, then at Pittsburgh the following week, and versus the Chiefs in the last game of the year. After this Monday night's game against the Colts, the Steelers have two more decent challengers to play over the next two weeks -- the Bengals and the Bears -- before an easier final stretch against the Vikings, Browns, and Lions.
Denver: Those pesky Broncos, ironically the team that the Colts have embarrassed for the past two years in the playoffs, are the team most likely to challenge the Colts for the top seed in the playoffs. They dodged a bullet on Thanksgiving Day thanks to Dallas kicker Billy Cundiff's miss of a short field goal attempt that helped set up an overtime victory for Denver to keep their magic number at five. But they have two or three serious matchups ahead, including next week at Kansas City, then a home game against the Ravens, and their final game will be a big one at San Diego. They also have to tangle with the up-and-down Bills and Raiders in between.
This weekend's action
If you're like me, I get bored when the Colts don't play on Sunday, outside of watching my Fantasy Football players in their respective games. But with these magic numbers calculated, you can keep an eye on the action in these games with a bit more interest. Here are the teams I recommend you root for this weekend to help drop these magic numbers further with five weeks remaining:
Ravens over Bengals
Panthers over Bills
Vikings over Browns
Chiefs over Patriots
Redskins over Chargers
Cardinals over Jaguars
Dolphins over Raiders
Enjoy the games!