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NFL playoff picture: Patriots back in the AFC’s second seed thanks to the Steelers’ loss in Denver

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New England is only one game behind the top-seeded Chiefs.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The New England Patriots have to feel pretty good today. They returned out of their bye week with a solid overall performance against the New York Jets and were able to defeat their AFC East rivals 27-13 on the road. Their own game was not the only one to go in the Patriots’ favor, though, as the entire slate of late afternoon games went perfectly for them — especially one of them: the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24-17 loss against the Denver Broncos.

Because of Pittsburgh’s defeat, the Patriots climbed up the playoff standings and are back in the AFC’s second seed again:

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)

2. New England Patriots (8-3)

3. Houston Texans (7-3)*

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)

5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

*Houston plays on Monday night football against the Tennessee Titans (5-5)

With New England beating the Jets to move to 8-3 and the Steelers falling to 7-3-1, the reigning AFC champions are now sitting comparatively safely in the second seed (one that would give the team a first-round playoff bye): they own the tiebreaker over the Texans due to their 27-20 victory on opening day, and will still get a chance to play against a Pittsburgh team that has historically struggled against the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick-led squad.

Furthermore, the Patriots’ win allows them to stay close in the race for the conference’s number one seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs: New England defeated the Chiefs 43-40 in week six and own the tiebreaker against them as well. If Kansas City loses one more game than the Patriots down the road, it will fall behind them in the standings (and potentially even a red-hot Chargers team).

Considering all of this, it is no surprise to see the Patriots’ odds at earning a first-round bye improve drastically since last week. The projection models by advanced analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com have the team go from a 41% chance at earning one of the top-two seeds to 62% this week:

NFL playoff predictions

Team Make playoffs Win division First-round bye Super Bowl
Team Make playoffs Win division First-round bye Super Bowl
Chiefs >99% 91% 83% 18%
Patriots >99% 99% 62% 12%
Texans 84% 66% 19% 2%
Steelers 93% 89% 24% 8%
Chargers 87% 9% 8% 4%
Ravens 44% 10% 1% 1%
fivethirtyeight.com

While the Patriots are now the second-likeliest team to earn a first-round bye in the AFC behind the Chiefs, the Steelers’ odds took a nosedive: Pittsburgh’s chances at getting a top-two seed were calculated at 48% last week. After its loss in Denver, however, Mike Tomlin’s team has fallen to a 24% chance of earning the first or second seed in the conference — and could see the number decrease even further if the Texans defeat the Titans tonight.

Of course, the playoff picture can change quickly and the Steelers’ week 15 game against the Patriots will once more have a huge impact on it. For New England, it could be another stepping stone towards at least a first-round bye and maybe even the number one seed. For Pittsburgh, meanwhile, the game could decide whether or not the team has to go play in the wild card round. Safe to say, the contest will once more be must-see television.


The NFC’s playoff picture, meanwhile, looks as follows after 12 weeks:

1. New Orleans Saints (10-1)

2. Los Angeles Rams (10-1)

3. Chicago Bears (8-3)

4. Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

5. Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1)

6. Washington Redskins (6-5)

While it would be a major surprise to see any other team than the Saints and Rams earn the top-two spots in the conference, the race for the seeds behind the NFC’s best teams is wide open — especially in an NFC East that just saw Dallas overtake Washington in the standings.