The Buffalo Bills went into their Week 12 match-up against the Indianapolis Colts with a chance to be just a game back of at least one playoff spot come Monday morning. With a win, Buffalo would have moved to 5-6 while dropping the Colts to 6-5. We know that didn't happen, and the faint playoff aspirations of this team are essentially gone.
Around the AFC, most of the teams ahead of the Bills found ways to stumble. The Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over eight times and lost, falling to 6-5. The New York Jets and Tennessee Titans held tie-breakers over the Bills, and both slid to 4-7 following losses. The only other team ahead of Buffalo in the win-loss column was the Cincinnati Bengals, who won to move to 6-5. The Miami Dolphins also won, raising their record to 5-6, but it's mostly inconsequential at this point since the Bills will have to deal them a loss in Miami in Week 16 if they have any shot at the post-season.
Buffalo didn't hold up their winning end and fell into a jumble of 4-7 teams. Because of their Week 1 loss to the Jets, the Bills now stand 12th out of 16 teams in the AFC, but remain just two games out of the sixth and final playoff spot. Unfortunately, they are behind in just about every tie-breaker, so a three-game swing is what's needed for Buffalo to end the longest post-season drought in the NFL.
Even if Buffalo wins out - a highly unlikely prospect despite an easier schedule - they would finish 9-7 with a 6-6 conference record and earn second place in the AFC East. To pass the Colts for a wild card spot, they would need Indianapolis to lose four of their final five games. Indy plays three teams with losing records in those five games, including the AFC doormat Kansas City Chiefs.
The other option is passing both the 6-5 Bengals and Steelers. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is scheduled to return this week, but even with him Pittsburgh lost to Oakland and Tennessee, and barely beat the Chiefs and Philadelphia. Cincinnati has lost games to Pittsburgh and Baltimore this season and must face them once more each down the stretch. Both could realistically end up at 9-7, with their Week 16 matchup playing a pivotal role in the AFC playoff race.
If the Steelers ended at 9-7 and ahead of the Bengals, Buffalo would have a good shot at the playoff spot with a 6-6 AFC record. Pittsburgh would have to lose conference games to get to 9-7 and they already have five AFC losses. If they finished with identical conference records, the Bills' record against common opponents would be comparable, but the strength of victory wouldn't go a long way for Buffalo with wins over the Bengals and Giants on the Steelers' side.
The Bengals winning out the tiebreakers over the Steelers would be better for Buffalo, but it's also much more unlikely. Cincinnati would have to lose to San Diego and at least one of the NFC teams on their remaining schedule while beating Baltimore and the Steelers. Buffalo would pass the Bengals on the common games tie-breaker.
In the mess of 4-7 teams, they would need Tennessee to lost one game but games against Houston, Indianapolis and Green Bay will be tough to navigate without a loss. San Diego would also need a loss - preferably not against the Steelers or Bengals, who they play over the next two weeks - but Carolina, the Jets and Oakland close out their season.
Chan Gailey thinks the Bills need to get to 7-7 like last year's New York Giants, but they could easily be mathematically eliminated by then. Even now, they are realistically eliminated despite the troubles in the middle of the AFC.
Wrap your heads around this: If Buffalo had beaten Indianapolis, they would have been eighth in the conference, just one game back of two teams who play each other in Week 16 - and both have games against the second place Ravens. They would have been one game behind the Colts - who have to go up against Houston twice - and owned the tie-breaker over Indy. And the Bills have just one team with a winning record on their remaining schedule, and that team just lost to Miami.
Actually, it might be better to not wrap your heads around it.