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How the Patriots can clinch the AFC East, a first round bye, and homefield advantage during their 3 game road trip

The Patriots can lock up the AFC over the next three weeks.

NFL: New England Patriots at New York Jets Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are about to embark on a three-game road trip against the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Patriots cannot clinch a playoff spot or seed in week 13, they can achieve some serious accomplishments over the next three games. Here’s how.

Week 13 at Bills: Patriots cannot clinch a playoff berth

The Patriots can’t clinch the AFC East because of a doomsday scenario that involves New England losing out and the Bills winning the rest of their games, and they cannot clinch a playoff berth because of a very specific scenario.

Even if New England reaches 10 wins with a victory over the Bills, and if the Patriots would have the edge over any team with nine or fewer victories, along with any team that would lose a tiebreaker at 10 wins, there is one way a 10-6 Patriots team is left out of the postseason.

The teams of note are the Steelers, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, and Cincinnati Bengals because they could rank ahead of the Patriots in the AFC. The Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders if they’re competing for a wild card spot and no other team can reach 10 wins.

If the Patriots win on Sunday, but the Bills win their final four games and the Patriots lose out, giving the AFC East to Buffalo, then the Patriots would finish the year with a 10-6 record and a 7-5 conference record.

Even with a perfect week 13 that sees the Titans, Jaguars, Chiefs, Ravens, Bills, and Bengals all lose, the (10-6) Patriots would miss out on the playoffs if:

  • Bills win out, going 10-6 and winning the AFC East on the divisional record tiebreaker.
  • Ravens win out, going 10-6. Baltimore would have a 9-3 conference record, giving them the tiebreaker over the Patriots for a wild card spot.
  • Titans win at least three of their final four, with the loss coming in weeks 14-16 against an NFC opponent. The Titans could edge the Patriots by winning their final four to go 11-5, too, but a loss in week 13 and in week 17 to an AFC opponent would give the Patriots the conference record tiebreaker.
  • Jaguars win in weeks 14, 15, and 16, but lose to the Titans in the season finale. This gives the Titans the AFC South crown and puts Jacksonville in the wild card seeds. The Jaguars would beat the Patriots on the conference record tiebreaker with an 8-4 record.

The AFC West wouldn’t matter to the Patriots if the Chiefs lose to the Jets in a perfect week 13 because the Chiefs, Raiders, and Chargers all play one another down the stretch and it would be impossible for the Chiefs to lose the division at 10-6 and use their head-to-head tiebreaker over the Patriots.

The Steelers could lose to the Bengals in week 13 to finish 10-6, but this doomsday scenario gives Pittsburgh the victory over the Patriots in week 15, so Pittsburgh could lose the AFC North to the Ravens, but still edge the Patriots for a wild card seed.

This scenario has the Bills and Titans winning their respective divisions, the AFC West only sending the division winner to the postseason, one of the Steelers or Ravens winning the AFC North, and the second-place team in the AFC North and the Jaguars edging out the Patriots for the wild card seeds.

So even with a perfect week 13, the Patriots can’t clinch a playoff spot.

Week 14 at Dolphins: Patriots can clinch AFC East and first round bye

If the Patriots beat the Bills in week 13 and either defeat the Dolphins OR watch the Bills lose to the Indianapolis Colts in week 14, they will clinch the AFC East crown. Both scenarios provide circumstances where the Bills cannot overtake the Patriots in the AFC East, ending the race.

The Patriots can also clinch a first round bye in the AFC with victories over the Bills and Dolphins and the following events:

  • Chiefs lose at Jets OR vs Raiders: A Chiefs loss means their best possible record is 10-6 and they could not edge the Patriots on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
  • Titans lose vs Texans OR at Cardinals: The Titans would finish with an 11-5 record, at best, and the Patriots would have the tiebreaker in either scenario. Either New England has the tiebreaker in conference record if the Titans lose to the Texans and are at best 7-5 in the AFC to the Patriots 8-4, or in common games if the Titans lose to the Cardinals. The common opponents are the Raiders, Texans, Dolphins, and Steelers and the Titans have lost all four of their games so far and would be 1-4 at best; the Patriots are 4-1 at worst.
  • Jaguars lose vs Colts AND vs Seahawks: If the Jaguars lose their next two games, they would have a best possible record of 10-6 and the Patriots would have the edge. The Patriots can’t clinch a tiebreaker against the Jaguars over the next two weeks because the Jaguars could lose to the Colts and still finish with a better conference record than the Patriots, even if New England beats both the Bills and Dolphins.

Only the Steelers, Ravens, Chiefs, Titans, and Jaguars are capable of reaching 11 wins in the AFC and the above scenarios prevent the AFC South and West from taking a first round bye away from the Patriots, giving the first round bye to the Patriots and the AFC North champion.

Week 15 at Steelers: Patriots can clinch Homefield Advantage

If the Patriots defeat the Bills, Dolphins, and Steelers in consecutive weeks, they would stand at 12-2 and would finish the season 12-4 in a worst-case scenario. Only the Steelers, Jaguars, and Titans can finish the year 12-4 or better, with Jacksonville and Tennessee needing to win the rest of their remaining games to do so.

Even if they won out, the (12-4) Titans would lose the conference record tiebreaker to the (12-4) Patriots, so it’s impossible for the Titans to edge the Patriots if New England wins their next three games. The Jaguars would have the conference record edge over the Patriots if they won out.

That leaves only the Steelers and Jaguars as possible competition for homefield advantage, so New England can clinch the #1 seed over the next three weeks if:

  • Jaguars lose vs Colts OR vs Seahawks OR vs Texans: Any Jaguars loss would be their fifth of the season, preventing them from matching the Patriots at 12-4.
  • Steelers lose at Bengals OR vs Ravens: If Pittsburgh loses to the Patriots and to one of their next two opponents, then they would finish the year 12-4 at best and lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Patriots.

In this scenario, the Patriots have the tiebreaker over the Steelers and the Jaguars would have the worst record, clinching the #1 seed for the Patriots. FiveThirtyEight gives this scenario an 11.4% chance of happening, so I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it could still take place.

Winning the next three games and locking up homefield advantage would be a dream scenario for the New England Patriots. Let’s hope it plays out.