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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Here’s what happens in a three-way tie among the Patriots, Chiefs, and Steelers

Also, Brandin Cooks and the Patriots running game need to be more involved in the red zone.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

1. The New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and Pittsburgh Steelers all have two losses on the year and are considered the clear heavy favorites in the AFC. The Chiefs beat the Patriots, while the Steelers beat the Chiefs. The Steelers host the Patriots in week 15, but New England has a heavy edge in this match-up based on recent history.

With the Patriots-Steelers game on the far horizon, at least one of these teams will have three losses on the year, so the Patriots-Steelers game is possibly for the right to have a first round bye in the AFC. No pressure or anything.

The Patriots still have a tough schedule ahead with the Falcons, Broncos, Raiders, Steelers, and five divisional games left to play. A couple more losses shouldn’t shock anyone, especially based on how the defense has played this year.

The Steelers are known for playing down to their competition, but they have a pretty easy slate of games with the AFC South and the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers on the horizon. Still, Pittsburgh is no sure bet to make it through the rest of the year unscathed.

The Chiefs have two games against the Broncos and a road game against the Cowboys, but they also have a pretty unimpressive remaining schedule, with most of their tough games already in the books.

If I had to guess, I would pencil the Chiefs in for the #1 seed and the Patriots in for #2, with the Steelers and Texans playing for the #3 or #4 seed in their week 16 match-up.

But what would happen if the Patriots, Chiefs, and Steelers all finished the 2017 regular season with the same record?

2. The first tiebreaker is “head-to-head sweep”, which means that if the Steelers beat the Patriots and all three teams have the same record, then Pittsburgh would be the #1 seed by virtue of beating both the Patriots and the Chiefs. Kansas City would then be the #2 seed based on their head-to-head victory over the Patriots in the season opener, and then New England would be the #3 seed, without a first round bye for the first time since 2009.

But if the Patriots beat the Steelers and we have a rocks-papers-scissors situation with every team having a victory over the other, then the next tiebreaker is conference record. Both of the Chiefs’ losses have come to AFC opponents, while the Steelers and Patriots have just one AFC loss apiece since they lost to the Bears and the Panthers, respectively.

The odds of all three teams having the same conference record and forcing the next tiebreaker (common games) is slim because the Patriots need to beat the Steelers to force the first tiebreaker, giving Pittsburgh a pair of AFC losses and three total, but then the Chiefs and Patriots would also have to lose again to reach three losses, but the Chiefs’ loss would have to come against an NFC team and the Patriots would have to come against an AFC team.

That’s what would have to happen for all three teams to be tied at 13-3 and to force the third tiebreaker. It’s extremely unlikely and it’d simply be easier for the Patriots to win out than for me to calculate all the different ways to reach the various tiebreakers.

3. And, by the way, the Patriots, Chiefs, and Steelers would actually skip the common games tiebreaker because it requires a minimum of four common games and the Houston Texans are the only other opponent shared by these three schedules. So the Patriots’ games against the Chiefs, Steelers, and Texans wouldn’t hit that minimum requirement.

The next tiebreaker would actually be “strength of victory”, which looks at the opponent each squad has beaten. This tiebreaker actually favors losing to bad teams and beating good ones, so the Steelers loss to the Bears and the Chiefs loss to the Raiders are actually better than the Patriots losses to the Chiefs and Panthers.

While three-way ties aren’t too uncommon, most of them are decided by the season sweep or conference record tiebreaker, moving the two losing teams back to the head-to-head tiebreakers. The 2010 Green Bay Packers (10-6) were the last team to require the strength of victory three-way tiebreaker to decide a postseason berth.

4. Patriots WR Brandin Cooks still has zero targets inside the red zone, despite Tom Brady having 35 red zone attempts (Cooks does has a two-point conversion). Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski both have 9 targets, while James White has 6 and Danny Amendola has 5. Cooks is the other big time receiver on the Patriots and while he’s drawing double coverage he needs to be more involved.

The percentage of Patriots drives that reach the red zone and result in a touchdown has dropped from 65% from 2014-16 to 58% in 2017, an indication that the Patriots are failing to punch the ball into the end zone. There’s an even more striking decline on drives that reach inside the 10 yard line, with 76% of such drives from 2014-16 ending in touchdowns, versus only 60% in 2017.

New England is leaving a lot of points on the board and they need to find ways to get Cooks involved in the red zone.

5. Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots offensive line first in the NFL for run blocking, which is surprising based on how little the Patriots have relied on their run game. The Patriots offensive line provides 4.92 adjusted line yards, which is the value Football Outsiders assigns to the offensive line out of the team’s rushing production.

The Patriots are graded so well because they do a good job avoiding both negative plays (only 18% of runs gain zero or fewer yards, 5th best in the NFL) and getting running backs to the second level 5-10 yards down the field (also 5th best). The New England running game has struggled on short-yardage runs (22nd) and on breakaway runs 10+ yards down the field (29th), but the fact the Patriots backs always seem to avoid negative runs and end up 5-10 yards down the field reflects well on the offensive line.

New England’s struggles in short yardage means the Patriots shouldn’t ask more of the running game by the goal line, but perhaps they should think about handing the ball off more between the 5-19 yard line.

This is where the loss of Julian Edelman has been felt the most. Edelman led the Patriots with 28 receptions on 51 targets in this range from 2014-16 and he would always put the Patriots in position to score. The Patriots have asked more of James White in this area of the field (10 yards on 6 targets), but perhaps simply running the ball would be more fruitful.