The (9-2) New England Patriots still have a 2.5 game lead in the AFC East, with two games and a head-to-head over the (7-4) Miami Dolphins, but the loss of TE Rob Gronkowski certainly gives the Patriots a smaller margin for error.
While winning the division should be at the forefront of the Patriots’ mind, you can’t blame them for side-eyeing a first round bye. If the Patriots can take care of business over the next two weeks at home, then they will be 11-2 and in great position to earn a bye week.
This might be easier said than done.
While the Rams aren’t necessarily a good team, they have a history of Daviding a lot of the NFL Goliaths. They won against the Broncos in 2014, the Colts in 2013, their past two games against good versions of the Saints in 2011 and 2013, and four of their past five against the Seahawks.
The Rams are still 14-35-1 against teams that finish the season with a winning record, so it’d be unnecessary to treat them like the 1985 Bears, but there are enough question marks with the Patriots defense and with the loss of Rob Gronkowski to raise red flags.
Add in that the Patriots haven’t yet lost their “everyone inexcusably plays terribly” game (Eagles 2015; Chiefs 2014; Cardinals 2012; Bills 2011; Browns 2010; etc.) and there are some bad vibes heading into Sunday.
Then the Ravens come to town in week 14 and Baltimore is the one team that just doesn’t care about the Patriots mythos. Despite the fact that the Patriots have won 4 of the 6 games at home since John Harbaugh became the Ravens head coach, none of the wins have come easily and the losses have been ugly. The two teams have split the 4 playoff games and the Patriots have won both regular season games.
Baltimore boasts the league’s best defense in both DVOA and points allowed per drive. The Patriots offense will have to make do without Gronkowski and Joe Flacco’s deep ball to Mike Wallace seems like an inevitability at this point.
If the Patriots can beat both the Rams and the Ravens at home- which they should be able to do- then they be 11-2 and will have won the head-to-head against both AFC North contenders and the AFC South leader, almost guaranteeing the Patriots a first round bye.
If the Patriots reach their 11th win against the Ravens, then there’s no way for the 5-loss Steelers, Ravens, or Texans to pass the Patriots due to head-to-head victories. The only tiebreaker preventing the Patriots from locking into a bye week is the AFC East. Specifically the Miami Dolphins.
If the Dolphins beat the Ravens and the Cardinals over the next two weeks, they are still in the hunt for the AFC East. They would stand at 9-4 with back-to-back road games against the Jets and Bills. If they win both of those and the Patriots fall to the Broncos and the Jets, then the division will come to the week 17 showdown in Miami between the Patriots and the Dolphins. Winner takes the division and the bye week.
The Patriots are huge favorites against the Rams, Ravens, and Jets over the final five games, while the Dolphins are underdogs against the Ravens and the Bills. It would be very unlikely for the Dolphins to win the division in week 17, but not impossible.
But before the Patriots look to the playoffs, they need to take care of the Rams and Ravens. If they can win both of these games at home, then the Patriots will be in fantastic shape to earn a first round bye.