The New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 to take over the top seed in the AFC and control their own future. If the Patriots win out, they’ll have homefield advantage and could even accomplish the feat next with a lot of luck.
But a concerning amount of talk is about how the Patriots victory now assures the AFC goes through New England. There’s a whole lot of football left to play before that assertion becomes fact.
The Patriots and Steelers are now tied with 11-3 records, with New England holding the tiebreaker, and the Jacksonville Jaguars at 10-4 and hot on their heels. The fact that the top of the AFC comes down to the tiebreaker means that the Patriots have no breathing room at all.
While the Steelers get to play the 4-10 Houston Texans and 0-14 Cleveland Browns, and the Jaguars get to face the 4-10 San Francisco 49ers and 8-6 Tennessee Titans, the Patriots get to host the 8-6 Buffalo Bills and 5-9 New York Jets.
All of these opponents rank in the bottom 10 of DVOA, but it’s pretty clear that the Steelers have the easiest road to finish the year and the Jaguars and Patriots have comparably difficult paths. All it takes is New England to fall a game in the standings relative to Pittsburgh and Jacksonville for the Patriots to play during wild card weekend.
The Patriots need to remain focused and engaged or else homefield advantage will slip away, just like it did down the final stretch of 2015- and that ultimately proved to be the major difference between a Super Bowl appearance and heading home early.