The (9-5) New England Patriots will have a third chance to clinch the AFC East on Sunday as they face the (5-9) Buffalo Bills. There are two possible paths for the Patriots to clinch the division for a 10th-straight season.
The Patriots are roughly 14-point favorites over the Bills, so they’re expected to win comfortably, while the Dolphins are 4-point favorites over the Jaguars. In other words, Las Vegas oddsmakers believe that New England is more likely to clinch the division through a victory than by a Dolphins loss.
New England will also have their eyes on the (10-4) Houston Texans playing the second of their back-to-back road games against the (7-7) Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are coming off an impressive 30-23 victory over the powerful Los Angeles Rams and are 2.5-point favorites at home over the Texans.
The Texans can clinch a first-round bye if:
- Patriots lose or tie vs Bills AND Texans win @ Eagles OR
- Patriots lose vs Bills AND Texans tie @ Eagles
The best case scenario for the Patriots this week is to defeat the Bills and then have the Eagles beat the Texans, which would vault New England back into the #2 spot in the AFC and in line for a bye week. The Patriots can’t clinch the bye week because this scenario would create matching 10-5 records with the Texans and New England would have to finish the season with a win over the New York Jets.
It would be a relatively rare occurrence for the Patriots to claim a bye week with an 11-5 record as 17 of the previous 20 teams to claim a bye week had records of 12-4 or better. The three exceptions are:
- (11-5) 2010 Chicago Bears: eliminated in the NFC Championship Game by the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers
- (11-4-1) 2012 San Francisco 49ers: eliminated in the Super Bowl by the champion Baltimore Ravens
- (11-5) 2016 Atlanta Falcons: eliminated in the Super Bowl by the champion New England Patriots
So perhaps the AFC is overdue for an 11-5 team to claim a bye week- and it’s pretty clear that previous sub-12-4 teams with bye weeks were still very successful in the postseason.
The Patriots would be thrilled to have the #2 seed and the bye week because they would likely get a rematch against the Houston Texans in the divisional round, since the Texans should be able to beat whichever team lands the #6 seed.
The #1 and #5 seed will be held by either the Kansas City Chiefs or Los Angeles Chargers and they would likely square off in the divisional round, unless the Pittsburgh Steelers manage to win during wild card weekend. Regardless, the Patriots would probably prefer to face the Texans than any of those three teams.
So let’s root for a Patriots victory and a Texans defeat in the 1:00 PM ET time slot, and for the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks to take care of business at home against the traveling Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively.
Next week’s going to be fun.