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2018 NFL playoff picture: Loss against Steelers drops the Patriots to the third seed in the AFC

As things stand right now, the Patriots have to play on wild card weekend.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ eight-year streak of earning a first-round playoff bye is in jeopardy. After the team lost 17-10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday, it now dropped to 9-5 and the third seed in the AFC’s playoff race. This means that as things stand with two more games left in the regular season, the Patriots would have to play on wild card weekend and host the number six-seeded team.

Let’s take a look at how the conference’s current playoff seeding looks like:

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)

2. Houston Texans (10-4)

3. New England Patriots (9-5)

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1)

5. Los Angeles Chargers (11-3)

6. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

In the hunt: Indianapolis Colts (8-6); Tennessee Titans (8-6); Miami Dolphins (7-7)

The Texans, who defeated the New York Jets 29-22 thanks to two scores late in the fourth quarter, are beneficiaries of the Patriots’ loss in Pittsburgh. With New England owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over Bill O’Brien’s team, Houston needs to finish one game ahead of the Patriots in order to stay in a better seed: if the two teams finish with identical records, New England’s 27-20 opening day win comes into play.

Right now, however, there is no tiebreaker needed. Houston is in the number two seed for the time being, with the Patriots currently in a wild card spot as the third-best division leader. However, things can change quickly in the NFL and a look at all six teams’ upcoming schedules shows that New England is not in that bad a situation after all — despite dropping both of its last two games:

NFL schedule weeks 16 & 17

Team Chiefs Texans Patriots Steelers Chargers Ravens
Team Chiefs Texans Patriots Steelers Chargers Ravens
Week 16 at Seahawks at Eagles vs Bills at Saints vs Ravens at Chargers
Week 17 vs Raiders vs Jaguars vs Jets vs Bengals at Broncos vs Browns

Five of the AFC’s top six teams face considerable challenges in week 16 — at least on paper. The Chiefs, Texans and Steelers will all travel to play against some of the NFC’s best teams in some of the league’s toughest environments. Meanwhile, the Chargers and Ravens will go at each other with potentially both the number one seed and a playoff spot in play. The Patriots, on the other hand, will return to Foxboro to host the Buffalo Bills.

A scenario in which New England owns the number two seed again next week is therefore not an entirely unrealistic one.

The NFC’s playoff picture currently looks as follows:

1. New Orleans Saints (11-2)

2. Los Angeles Rams (11-3)

3. Chicago Bears (10-4)

4. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

5. Seattle Seahawks (8-6)

6. Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1)

In the hunt: Philadelphia Eagles (7-7); Washington Redskins (7-7); Carolina Panthers (6-7)

While the AFC is wide open after 15 weeks, the NFC’s power structure is rather clear. The Saints, who will play the Panthers tonight, Rams, and Bears have already locked up their divisions. Meanwhile, the NFC East remains undecided after the Cowboys’s 23-0 blowout loss against the Colts, and Philadelphia and Washington all registering wins over the Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively.