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2018 NFL playoff picture: All the Patriots tiebreakers with AFC contenders; could Steelers miss the playoffs?

How will the rest of the year play out?

Minnesota Vikings v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The New England Patriots took care of business against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday to keep pace with the best teams atop the AFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers fell apart against the Los Angeles Chargers and now their focus should only be on simply making the postseason and not getting a first round bye.


  1. (10-2) Kansas City Chiefs; games left vs Ravens, vs Chargers, @ Seahawks, vs Raiders
  2. (9-3) New England Patriots - head-to-head tiebreaker vs Houston Texans; games left @ Dolphins, @ Steelers, vs Bills, vs Jets
  3. (9-3) Houston Texans; games left vs Colts, @ Jets, @ Eagles, vs Jaguars
  4. (7-4-1) Pittsburgh Steelers; games left @ Raiders, vs Patriots, @ Saints, vs Bengals
  5. (9-3) Los Angeles Chargers; games left vs Bengals, @ Chiefs, vs Ravens, @ Broncos
  6. (7-5) Baltimore Ravens; games left @ Chiefs, vs Buccaneers, @ Chargers, vs Browns

In the hunt: (6-6) Miami Dolphins; (6-6) Indianapolis Colts; (6-6) Denver Broncos; (6-6) Tennessee Titans

If we look at the remaining schedules over the final quarter of the season, the Houston Texans have the easiest schedule, while the Patriots have the second-easiest. If the Patriots can get past the Steelers in Pittsburgh, then New England will be in great position to solidify a first round bye.

The Steelers, Chargers, and Ravens all play two games against teams currently in the playoff picture, while the Chiefs play their next three games against playoff-caliber teams. Most of these games are against one another, so there will be some destruction among those teams currently in the playoff picture.

But what if the Steelers lose to both the Patriots and the Saints and finish the season 9-6-1? The Ravens could steal a game against the Chiefs or (more probably) the Chargers and take care of business against the Buccaneers and Browns to finish 10-6 and win the AFC North.

Meanwhile, the Patriots best path to the #1 seed is for the Chiefs to lose any of their next three games because New England holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with both the Chiefs and Texans. If all three teams finish with identical records, then the the Patriots have the tiebreaker and will be the top seed.

Here are the tiebreakers between the Patriots and other contenders in the AFC (Pittsburgh has a tie and tiebreakers are unlikely to come into play, so I’m not including them):

Chiefs: Patriots hold the head-to-head.

Texans: Patriots hold the head-to-head.

Chargers: Undetermined. If the Chargers and Patriots finish the season with the same record, they will also have matching conference records, meaning the “common games” tiebreaker comes into play. Both teams will have played the Chiefs, Bills, Titans, and Steelers. Los Angeles is currently 3-1 in these games with one remaining against the Chiefs, while New England is 2-1 with games against the Bills and Steelers.

The Chargers likely have to defeat the Chiefs in order to win the division (FiveThirtyEight says the Chiefs are near 100% locks to win the division if they beat the Chargers), and so they would likely be 4-1 in these common games if it ever came to tiebreakers with the Patriots. New England would have to beat both the Bills and Steelers in order to force the next tiebreaker of “strength of victory.”

Fortunately for New England, they’re well positioned in this category with wins against the 8-win Chicago Bears, 9-win Texans, and 10-win Chiefs. They have also defeated the 6-win Dolphins, Colts, and Vikings. The Chargers’ best victories have come against the 7-win Seahawks and Steelers, and the 6-win Titans. In fact, the Chargers have the second-weakest strength of victory in the AFC (ahead of only the 2-win Oakland Raiders).

So while the Patriots will first have to get past the Steelers and Bills, they’d be well-positioned to beat the Chargers on tiebreakers if it came to it.

Chiefs and Texans: Patriots would come out on top because they have head-to-head victories against both teams.

Texans and Chargers: Undetermined. In a weird twist, a three-way tie with the Texans and Chargers would render the Patriots head-to-head victory useless because the Chargers didn’t play either team. The tiebreaker would immediately skip to conference record where all three teams currently have two losses.

There is technically a scenario where the Texans could lose to the Eagles in week 16, yet still claim the #1 seed. This would involve the Chargers leap-frogging the Chiefs in the AFC West, while still dropping a game (meaning the Chiefs would only win one of their final four games), along with the Patriots losing a game. This would give the Texans, Chargers, and Patriots 12-4 records, but Houston would have the best conference record at 10-2, while the other two teams would have a 9-3 conference record.

But that’s incredibly unlikely.

It’s more likely that we would move to the “common games” tiebreaker, but this wouldn’t come into play because there isn’t four common games among the three teams (just the Bills and Titans).

So, again, we would move to the “strength of victory” tiebreaker. As previously mentioned, the Patriots would likely hold this tiebreaker over the Chargers and they would also likely hold this over the Texans. Houston has played more 6+ win teams than the Chargers (Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Broncos, Titans), but their only victories against playoff-projected teams are against Dallas and Washington in the NFC.

Basically, the Patriots success during their difficult schedule should boost the Patriots over their AFC rivals if the conference record and common games tiebreakers don’t determine a victor.

Chiefs and Chargers: This tiebreaker can’t happen because the Chiefs and Chargers would first have to determine their division winner and then that division winner would be compared to the Patriots


  1. (11-1) Los Angeles Rams - clinched division title
  2. (10-2) New Orleans Saints
  3. (8-4) Chicago Bears
  4. (7-5) Dallas Cowboys
  5. (7-5) Seattle Seahawks
  6. (6-5) Washington - plays Monday Night at Philadelphia Eagles

In the hunt: (6-5-1) Minnesota Vikings; (6-6) Carolina Panthers; (5-6) Philadelphia Eagles