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AFC Playoff Picture: Patriots back in 1st place, Dolphins steal the Broncos wild card!

Here is the current AFC playoff picture.

If we operate under the assumption that the (9-2) New England Patriots are going to win the AFC East, then we can more easily address the question, “How soon can the Patriots clinch a first round bye?”

The Patriots don’t have to have the best record in the AFC to receive a bye week; they must only be better than two other division leaders. Or, to cut out the niceties, the Patriots must be better than the division winner in the AFC North and the AFC South.

The Patriots hold the head-to-head advantage against the AFC South leading (6-5) Houston Texans and the AFC North runner up (6-5) Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots get a chance to face the AFC North leading (6-5) Baltimore Ravens in week 14.

In other words, the Patriots effectively hold a 4 game lead over the Texans and Steelers with just 5 games left in the season. If the Patriots defeat the Rams in week 13, and the Texans and Steelers lose to the Packers and Giants, respectively, then there is no way for those teams to rank ahead of the Patriots in the AFC.

That leaves the pesky Ravens. The Patriots would need the Ravens to lose to the Dolphins in week 13, and then win the head-to-head in week 14 to lock up this theoretical first round bye.

Of course this Ravens versus Dolphins game raises another question for Patriots fans. Would you rather that the Patriots win the division earlier in the year? Or would you prefer the easier path to a first round bye?

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick always says that the division comes first. He’ll be rooting for the Ravens next week.

1. (9-2) New England Patriots: The Patriots are ahead of the Raiders because their victory over the Jets bumped their conference record to 7-1, ahead of the Raiders’ 6-1 record. The Raiders still control the path to homefield advantage, but the Patriots have a conference win in the bank for the tiebreakers.

2. (9-2) Oakland Raiders: And the Raiders have three road games against divisional foes, along with home games against Bills and Colts teams that are playing for their postseason lives. Having a win in the bank means a lot for the Patriots when their competition has such a difficult schedule.

3. (6-5) Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens beat the Steelers head-to-head and have a 6-2 conference record- far ahead of the Texans 4-4 record. The Ravens closing schedule is fairly difficult and it would be a surprise if they were atop the AFC North at the end of the season. Still, the Ravens (or Steelers) would be able to give the 6th seed a tough game.

4. (6-5) Houston Texans: Houston has a small lead over the Titans and Colts and no one believes in them. They’re destined to go one-and-done against whichever AFC West team earns the top wild card slot.

5. (8-3) Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs beat the Broncos on the road in overtime and now they have wins against the Raiders and Broncos, with games against both in the final four weeks. If the Chiefs can beat the Raiders in week 14, they have a real shot of winning the division.

6. (7-4) Miami Dolphins: How about the Dolphins on a six-game winning streak?! They have a 5-3 conference record, which edges the Broncos and their 4-3 conference record. Will the Dolphins actually win a playoff spot? Who knows. But they’re not just in the playoff picture- they’re leading the way.

In the hunt: (7-4) Denver Broncos, (6-5) Pittsburgh Steelers, (6-5) Buffalo Bills, (6-6) Tennessee Titans, (5-6) Indianapolis Colts, (5-6) San Diego Chargers