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The obscure reason why Steelers have to lose for Patriots to clinch playoff bye week

Pittsburgh has a very, very, very small chance of beating the Patriots on tiebreakers, despite losing head-to-head. Here’s how.

At this point, Pulpit readers should know that the New England Patriots are able to clinch the AFC East with a win and a Miami Dolphins loss or tie; or a Patriots tie and a Dolphins loss. The 10-2 Patriots just need to pick up another half game over the 7-5 Dolphins this week.

We’ve also discussed how the Patriots can earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, but we were wrong. We thought the Patriots could clinch the first-round bye with a win over the Baltimore Ravens because then the Patriots would have 11 wins and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the now-7-5 Pittsburgh Steelers. There would be no way for the Steelers to post a better record than the Patriots- so the Patriots should get the bye week. Right?

Well, imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from the NFL saying that the Patriots need three things to clinch a first-round bye: a Patriots win, a Dolphins loss or tie, and a Steelers loss or tie.

Wait, why?

There is a very, very small chance that the AFC could feature a three-way tie with the division winners in the AFC East (Patriots), North (Steelers), and West (Raiders, Chiefs, or Broncos), with identical 11-5 records. It’s not as far-reaching as the Bills only path to the AFC East title, but it’s still remote. If there is a three-way tie, the head-to-head tiebreaker between the Patriots and Steelers goes out the window.

The tiebreaker in the case of a three-way tie is a “head-to-head sweep,” which requires at least one of the teams to have faced the other two division winners. If a team has beaten the other two winners, they get the top seed; if they lost to the other two, they get the third seed.

The Patriots have played the Steelers and will face the Broncos. The Steelers have faced the Patriots and Chiefs. Hypothetically, the Patriots need to fall to the Broncos in order to have an 11-5 three-way tie, while the Steelers have already split with the Patriots (loss) and Chiefs (win).

The next tiebreaker is conference record, where the Patriots would have an 8-4 record. The Steelers would be 9-3 in the conference, while the Raiders, Chiefs, or Broncos would also be 8-4 in the conference. The Steelers would earn the first seed, while the Patriots and the AFC West winner would go back to two-way tiebreakers.

The Patriots and Raiders would share 8-4 conference records, meaning the two teams would move on to the third tiebreaker: common games. The Raiders have a chance to hold a season sweep over the Broncos, Bills, Ravens, and Texans, while the Patriots week 4 loss to the Bills would stand out. The Raiders would win on tiebreakers, sending the Patriots to the third seed.

The Patriots and Chiefs would also move to common games: the Jets, Steelers, Texans, and Broncos. The Patriots would have a 3-2 record against these teams, while the Chiefs could also hold a 3-2 records if they beat the Broncos in week 16. The Chiefs would beat the Patriots on the 4th tiebreaker: strength of victory.

If the Broncos win the AFC West, they will have also beaten the Patriots in week 15, meaning the Broncos would have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Patriots and claim the second seed.

In other words, the Steelers win the first seed in a three-way tie, and then the AFC West teams could all hold the tiebreakers over the Patriots.

I guess the Patriots could theoretically tie the Ravens and still clinch the first-round bye, so long as the Dolphins and Steelers both lose and fall to 7-6, because the Patriots would be able to post a 10-5-1 record at worst, while the Dolphins and Steelers could post 10-6 records at best, giving New England the edge.

So in order for the Patriots to clinch a first-round bye, they need to pick up a half game lead over both the Dolphins and the Steelers.