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NFL playoff picture: Patriots’ opening day victory against Texans gains importance with every new Houston win

New England and Houston are tied at 8-3.

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday’s battle of former New England Patriots Bill O’Brien and Mike Vrabel was only close for one quarter. After the first 15 minutes of play, O’Brien’s Houston Texans pulled away to defeat Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans 34-17. The win does not only allow the Texans to stay safely atop the AFC South, it also helps them secure the conference’s number three playoff seed for the time being:

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-2)

2. New England Patriots (8-3)

3. Houston Texans (8-3)

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)

5. Los Angeles Chargers (8-3)

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-5)

While there are no changes in the AFC’s current playoff picture after Monday night’s game, the Titans — after two straight losses following a blowout win over the Patriots — have now fallen to 5-6 and the 11th seed in the conference. Houston, meanwhile, is celebrating its eighth straight victory and moving up one spot from the fourth seed thanks to the Steelers’ 24-17 loss against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

With the Texans keeping pace with the Patriots in the race for a first-round playoff bye, the two teams’ opening day meeting gains importance with every week and victory. New England won that game 27-20 and owns the tiebreaker over the team coached by its former offensive coordinator: in case the two teams finish the regular season with the same record, the Patriots get the better seed (and potentially a week off).

And when looking at their remaining schedules (as well as the schedules of the other top teams in the AFC), it would not be too big a surprise if both teams finished the season with identical records:

NFL schedule weeks 13-17

Team Chiefs Patriots Texans Steelers Chargers Ravens
Team Chiefs Patriots Texans Steelers Chargers Ravens
Week 13 at Raiders vs Vikings vs Browns vs Chargers at Steelers at Falcons
Week 14 vs Ravens at Dolphins vs Colts at Raiders vs Bengals at Chiefs
Week 15 vs Chargers at Steelers at Jets vs Patriots at Chiefs vs Buccaneers
Week 16 at Seahawks vs Bills at Eagles at Saints vs Ravens at Chargers
Week 17 vs Raiders vs Jets vs Jaguars vs Bengals at Broncos vs Browns

While the Patriots’ biggest challenges will be the upcoming game versus the Minnesota Vikings as well as two straight road games against the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Texans still need to play against a red-hot Indianapolis Colts team and a Philadelphia Eagles squad that might have to fight for its playoff life in week 16. The week one tiebreaker could therefore stay relevant until the very last game of the regular season.

Speaking of tiebreakers: New England also owns one over the Chiefs because of its week six victory — and Kansas City will still need to play two of the AFC’s current playoff teams in weeks 14 and 15. Safe to say that the race for the top spots in the conference will stay exciting.

The NFC’s playoff picture 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)

The Saints and Rams will likely earn the top two seeds in the conference. Behind the two teams, however, the race for the wildcard spots is wide open with the Seattle Seahawks (6-5), Carolina Panthers (6-5) and Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) all in position for a late-season push.