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Playoff picture: How the Patriots can clinch the AFC East in just 3 more weeks

New England is inching closer to accomplishing their first goal.

New England Patriots v New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

When it comes to the postseason, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will always say that the first and primary objective of the team is to win the division. The Patriots are now 7-2, tied for the best record in the AFC, and they’re getting closer to achieving their goal. Here’s how they can do it in week 13.

Week 10

The Patriots defeated the Denver Broncos 41-16, while the New Orleans Saints steamrolled the Buffalo Bills 47-10 and the New York Jets fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 15-10. The Miami Dolphins face the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football and are 9-point underdogs.

The (7-2) Patriots extended their lead over the (5-4) Bills and the (4-6) Jets, while the (4-4) Dolphins are still to be decided. More on the Dolphins in a bit, but the Jets are now extremely far out of the playoff picture as they enter their bye week.

If the Patriots win their next three games, it doesn’t matter what the Jets do for the rest of the season. Since the Jets have 6 losses, they could win out and reach 10-6. If the Patriots win their next three games, they’ll have 10 wins and could lose out and also be 10-6.

In this scenario, both the Patriots and Jets would have 10-6 records, split the season series, and have 3-3 divisional records. The next tiebreaker is common games and the Jets could be 7-5 at best. The Patriots can be 8-4 at worst. The common games are the other AFC East teams, along with the AFC West and NFC South teams. If the Patriots win their next three, they’ll have wins over the Bills, Dolphins, and Raiders, to go with their wins over the Saints, Buccaneers, Falcons, Chargers, and Broncos. The Patriots could lose their final three divisional games and still be ahead of the Jets.

In other words, if the Patriots win their next three, the Jets will be eliminated from the AFC East because they can’t beat the Patriots on tiebreakers.

Week 11

The Jets are on a bye, while the Patriots face the (4-5) Raiders coming off a bye week in Mexico City. The Patriots will have their hands full, while the (5-4) Bills go on the road against the (3-6) Chargers and the (4-4) Dolphins host the (3-6) Buccaneers.

Now the Bills have lost two straight with their once-elite defense allowing 81 points in those games. They face a tough Chargers team and the Patriots need the Bills to lose out to secure the division in week 13.

The Patriots can’t beat the Bills on tiebreakers in week 13 and would require an outright lead in overall record. New England can’t secure the head-to-head or divisional record edge over the Bills in week 13; if the Patriots lose their final four games after winning their next three, they would finish 10-6 with a 3-3 divisional record and the Bills could also finish 10-6 with a 4-2 divisional record.

In simple terms, the Bills need to have more losses than possible for the Patriots through week 13 and that requires Buffalo to lose their next three.

The Dolphins just have to lose three of their next four games for the Patriots to clinch the AFC East, with a win over the Buccaneers the most likely exception. More on this in a bit.

Week 12

The Bills go on the road against the Chiefs in what should be a win-win for the Patriots; if the Bills win, the Chiefs drop further down the AFC playoff picture and if the Chiefs win, then the Patriots are closer to winning the division.

The Dolphins face the Patriots in New England and the Patriots clearly have to win this one. Miami follows the same clinch-logic as the Bills, where it’s impossible for the Patriots to have the tiebreaker edge over the Dolphins by week 13 and New England would require an out-right lead. The Dolphins also play three divisional games in the final four weeks and could hold the 4-2 divisional record edge versus the Patriots possible 3-3 record.

Miami is a game behind the Bills and that’s why they only need to lose three of their next four. The Patriots can’t eliminate the Dolphins in week 12 with a victory if Miami also loses in weeks 11 and 12, but it would mean the Dolphins have to be perfect and the Patriots would have to collapse for New England to not hold their lead.

The Jets face a Panthers team, but as previously explained this wouldn’t matter.

Week 13

The Patriots travel to face the Bills and this could be the deciding game for the division. The Dolphins host the Broncos and the Jets host the Chiefs.

If the Patriots defeat the Bills and move to 10-2 and the Bills lose their next three games, Buffalo will be 5-7 and unable to overtake New England in the division. If the Dolphins also lose three of their next four, then the Dolphins would be unable to overtake the Patriots. And it wouldn’t matter what the 6-loss Jets do because they would have lost the common games tiebreaker to New England.

What are the odds of all of this playing out? FiveThirtyEight’s odds give the Patriots a 48% chance of winning the next three games, which is pretty high, but shows how difficult it is to win in the NFL. They give the Patriots a 79% chance of beating the Raiders, 86% against the Dolphins, and 71% against the Bills.

The Bills have a 30% chance of losing their next three games, with next week’s game against the Chargers the most likely to stave off their elimination. The Dolphins have a 25% chance of losing three of their next four games. All together, there’s a 3.6% chance that the Patriots will clinch the AFC East in week 13.

Those aren’t great odds, but it’s still the first time the Patriots could be able to turn their focus towards a first round bye. It also wouldn’t be the earliest the Patriots have clinched the East under Bill Belichick; the Patriots clinched in week 12 in 2007 and week 13 in 2012. They clinched in week 15 last season and have won the division title in week 15 on average.

Regardless of what happens, the Patriots are still in a commanding lead of the division with seven games left. I would expect them to take care of business.