With the Chiefs losing a Thursday night tilt against the division rival Raiders, the Patriots have picked up some breathing room in the playoff race. The stats website 538 now gives the Patriots a near 65% chance of claiming home field advantage for the entire playoffs, up from 57%. Should the Patriots beat the Lions, that number will jump to roughly 75%.
Why did the Chiefs loss help the Patriots so much? It comes down to tiebreakers and the Chiefs victory over the Patriots, as well as their share of the lead in the AFC West, was a heavy shadow on the playoff forecasting. Now, the Chiefs are behind the Broncos (with whom the Patriots own the tiebreaker), and have already lost to them this season. The added game of distance between the Patriots and the Chiefs in the standings now makes the future Broncos-Chiefs game a win-win for New England.
For the rest of the week, the important game to watch is the Dolphins vs Broncos game. When polled this week, 58% of Pulpit readers said they would be cheering (hoping? not-hating? disliking less?) for the Dolphins to beat the Broncos. The Broncos could be without Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, any of their running backs, and a weak offensive line, so this is set up perfectly for the Dolphins.
More interesting? Everyone should be rooting for the Broncos, for a couple reasons: 1) to give them a game on the Chiefs in case Kansas City wins the next head-to-head; 2) a Broncos win, alongside a Patriots victory over the Lions, gives the Patriots a 95% chance of winning the division.
The most certain way of getting into the playoffs is by winning the division. With a tough game against the Packers on the horizon, a Dolphins loss will keep the Patriots well ahead in the division.
Here are the current rankings, with key playoff race wins, losses, and remaining games:
1. Patriots (8-2); Victories: Broncos, Bengals, Colts; Losses: Chiefs, Dolphins; Key games: Lions, @Packers, @Chargers, Dolphins. The next four weeks are important; if the Patriots go 3-1, it should be enough to lock up home field advantage. The Patriots currently have a defacto 2 game lead over the Broncos due to the tiebreaker, as well as a 2.5 game lead over the Bengals, and 3 game lead over the Colts.
2. Broncos (7-3); Victories: Colts, Chiefs, Chargers; Losses: Patriots; Key games: Dolphins, @Chiefs, Bills, @Chargers, @Bengals. The Broncos have a tough-ish stretch, but no one would be surprised if they went 5-0 against these playoff hopefuls. Still, there's a definite chance they could slip up once or twice, especially with the away games.
3. Bengals (6-3-1); Victories: Ravens x2; Losses: Patriots, Colts, Browns ; Key games: @Texans, Steelers, @Browns, Broncos, @Steelers. I don't think many would be shocked to see the Bengals collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs. They could just as easily go 0-4 in their final four weeks as they could go 3-1. Their tie throws a wrench into the forecast, but it helps them stay afloat.
4. Colts (6-4); Victories: Ravens, Texans, Bengals; Losses: Broncos, Steelers, Patriots; Key games: @Browns, Texans, @Cowboys. This stretch is important for the Colts, but they have head-to-head losses against the two teams competing for a first round bye. The Colts are likely destined for an 11-5 season due to their easy remaining schedule.
5. Steelers (7-4); Victories: Browns, Texans, Colts, Ravens; Losses: Ravens, Browns; Key games: Saints, @Bengals, @Falcons, Chiefs, Bengals. Pittsburgh has five games left in the season and they're all tough ones. Every single team is fighting for a playoff spot. They should be fun to watch for the rest of the year.
6. Chiefs (7-4); Victories: Dolphins, Patriots, Chargers; Losses: Broncos; Key games: Broncos, @Cardinals, Raiders, @Steelers, Chargers. Wouldn't include the Raiders except, you know, they just lost to them. The Chiefs hold key tiebreakers against the Dolphins and Chargers, their main non-AFC North competition, so they should be able to sneak in as the final wild card, barring a total collapse.
7. Dolphins (6-4); Victories: Patriots, Chargers, Bills; Losses: Bills, Chiefs; Key games: @Broncos, Ravens, @Patriots. Could include the two divisional games against the Jets. If Miami can clear the Denver hurdle, they'll be looking pretty solid at making the playoffs as their remaining schedule is easier than the Steelers and Chiefs.
8. Chargers (6-4); Victories: Bills; Losses: Chiefs, Broncos, Dolphins; Key games: @Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, @49ers, @Chiefs. The Chargers victories have come against the Seahawks, Bills, Jets, and Raiders x2. They're likely a pretender and will be sitting out at the end of the year. They have a brutal final five games.
9. Ravens (6-4); Victories: Steelers, Browns; Losses: Bengals x2, Colts, Steelers; Key games: @Saints, Chargers, @Dolphins, @Texans, Browns. The Ravens could go 6-0 to finish the year and no one would be really surprised. They could also go 1-5.
10. Browns (6-4); Victories: Steelers, Bengals; Losses: Steelers, Ravens, Texans; Key games: @Falcons, @Bills, Colts, Bengals, @Ravens. Browns have a major uphill battle for the rest of the year. Luckily they'll be playing most of the other wild card teams; if they win, they deserve to make it. If they lose, well, better luck next year.
11. Texans (5-5); Victories: Bills, Browns; Losses: Colts, Steelers; Key games: Bengals, @Colts, Ravens. Houston has two more games against the Jaguars and one against the Titans, so that should be three victories. They'll have to sneak away with a win against both the Bengals and Ravens if they want a chance of grabbing the wild card.
12. Bills (5-5); Victories: Dolphins; Losses: Chargers, Texans, Patriots, Chiefs, Dolphins; Key games: Browns, @Broncos, Packers, @Patriots. This team will be lucky to break .500. They're not making the playoffs and the Browns will have two picks, probably in the top half of the first round.