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Analyzing the AFC Playoff Picture: Homefield Advantage and First Round Byes

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The Patriots turn their eyes to the next real prize: the playoffs.

The New England Patriots aren't going to lose the division. They are going to win for a record 13th time in 15 seasons, surpassing the old mark of 12 in 15 by the San Francisco 49ers.

A win against the Bills today would give the Patriots the head-to-head tiebreaker and push Buffalo to five losses. New England would have to lose all six of their final games in order to lose the division. The Jets currently have five losses and, while they could still hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots by winning the week 16 match-up and all other divisional games to force the Common Games tiebreaker, just one more divisional loss sinks the Jets divisional hopes.

In other words, the Patriots will have seven chances to lock down the division and the Bills and Jets can't slip up at any point in time.

The real contest is now for a first round bye and homefield advantage- and the Patriots have nice lead over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos.

Remaining Schedules

The (9-0) Patriots have a 1.5 game lead over the (8-2) Bengals and (8-2) Broncos, with a future head-to-head against the Broncos. The Broncos also face the Bengals in week 16, assuring that one of the Bengals or Broncos will fall to three losses at some point this year.

The Bengals, coming off of two straight losses, have the easiest of remaining schedules. While the (4-6) Rams love to play spoilers against playoff teams, the Bengals should be able to win that game. Other than a home game against the Steelers and the away game in Denver for Monday Night Football, the Bengals face the dregs of the league in the Browns, 49ers, and broken Ravens. It's very possible that Cincinnati could post a 14-2 record, although a 12-4 or 13-3 record seems far more likely.

The Broncos, seemingly rejuvenated behind quarterback Brock Osweiler, dismantled the powerhouse (4-6) Chicago Bears, making an emphatic statement of returned dominance. Denver hosts the Patriots in week 12, before traveling to see the Steelers in week 15 and hosting the Bengals in week 16. These are all possible losses for Denver, which also has a home game against the faltering Raiders and both games against the division rival Chargers. An 11-5 or 12-4 final record for the Broncos isn't out of the question.

A 14-2 record for the Patriots will guarantee a first round bye, since even if one of those losses is to a Broncos team that manages to win the rest of their games, that would involve a Bengals loss, sending Cincinnati to a 13-3 record (at best).

The Patriots have, arguably, the most difficult remaining schedule with four games against teams currently .500 or better (the Broncos have three, Bengals two). The Bills, Broncos, Texans (!), and Jets are all fighting for playoff contention. The other games are the surprisingly bad Eagles, the understandably bad Titans, and the surprisingly surprising Dolphins.

First Round Bye?

If New England beats both the Bills and the Broncos to move to 11-0 (and the Broncos subsequently fall to 8-3), the Patriots get a stretch of three games where they should be the heavy favorites (Eagles, at Texans, Titans). The Texans game takes on additional important because of Houston's victory over the Bengals in week 10.

If the Patriots and Bengals finish with the same final record and the same conference record, the next tiebreaker is common games. The Steelers (both teams have wins, Bengals have one game to go), the Bills (both wins), the Broncos (both to play), and the Texans (Bengals lost, Patriots yet to play) are the common games. The Patriots (2-0, 2 left) currently have the common games edge over the Bengals (2-1, 2 left).

In this 11-0 scenario, the Broncos would require the Patriots to lose four of their final five games, but with New England hosting both the Eagles and the Titans, the odds of holding the Patriots to one or fewer victories over the final five games is extremely slim. Basically, if the Patriots get to 11-0, a first round bye is all but assured.

Homefield Advantage?

The Bengals and the Broncos game in week 16 is going to have a serious impact on the AFC's playoff seeding, but there is some hope for the Patriots to clinch homefield advantage before the last few weeks of the season.

First, the Bengals have to get through the Rams, who have a penchant for striking down the top teams in the league. The St. Louis defense has devoured the Cardinals, Seahawks, Broncos, Saints, and Colts in recent seasons and head coach Jeff Fisher needs to get his team back to .500.

Second, much like the Dolphins have been a thorn in the Patriots side, the Browns have stolen a game from the Bengals in each of the past three seasons and in six of the past eight. Cincinnati travels to Cleveland in week 13.

Third, the Bengals host the Steelers in week 14. Quarterback Andy Dalton owns a 3-6 record against the Steelers, with a 1-3 record at home.

Now this isn't probable, but there's a chance that the Bengals could drop one or two of these games, sending them to three or four losses on the season, before Cincinnati has to face the Broncos in prime time.

The Broncos have a softer stretch between their games against the Patriots and then the Steelers and Bengals, with divisional games against the Raiders and Chargers. Oakland and San Diego combine for a 1-13 record against the Broncos since Peyton Manning came aboard in 2012. Perhaps the new quarterback will change the games, but until that time it's difficult to project these as anything other than Broncos victories.

Still, if the Broncos lose to the Patriots, there's a chance the Patriots could have the conference wrapped up by week 15.

The Patriots will need to root for the Steelers for the next few weeks because they're the best chance to steal a game from each of the Bengals and Broncos. Assuming the Patriots can do their job and beat the Broncos in week 12 (and continue to win in subsequent games as heavy favorites), the Patriots would need the Bengals to fall to the Steelers.

A 13-0 Patriots team (meaning victories against the Bills, Broncos, Eagles, and Texans) would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos (at best 10-3). A Bengals loss in any of their next three games would send them to three losses as well, and the Patriots would hold the common games tiebreaker.

This would not clinch homefield advantage for one freak scenario: if the Bengals lose to the Rams, they could still hold the conference record tiebreaker over the Patriots. The Bengals would have two NFC losses (Cardinals, Rams), while theoretically the Patriots could lose out against their final three AFC opponents, giving the Bengals the edge.

Of course, this is not going to happen since the Patriots host the (2-8) Titans, currently in possession of the #1 overall draft pick, in week 15 and New England will be multiple touchdown favorites.

Therefore, weeks 14 and 15 should be the targets for homefield advantage, depending on if the Bengals lose to an AFC team or not. We'll definitely track this moving forward.

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Sparknotes

Division clinched if:

Earliest Week 12: Patriots beat the Bills and Broncos; Jets lose to Dolphins

Full control Week 13: Patriots beat the Bills, Broncos, and Eagles

First Round Bye clinched if:

Earliest Week 13: Patriots beat the Bills, Broncos, and Eagles; Broncos lose to Chargers

Full control Week 14: Patriots beat the Bills, Broncos, Eagles, and Texans

Homefield Advantage clinched if:

Earliest Week 14: Patriots beat the Bills, Broncos, Eagles, and Texans; Bengals lose to two of Rams, Browns, or Steelers

Full control Week 16: Patriots beat the Bills, Broncos, Eagles, Texans, Titans, and Jets