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2018 NFL playoff picture: How important will playoff positioning be for the Patriots?

As we’ve witnessed in the past, the Patriots rely heavily on securing one of the top seeds in the AFC.

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

Now that we are officially into December football, the NFL playoff picture will be slowly coming together over the next four weeks.

There’s no doubt the Patriots will be in the playoffs. And as the (soon-to-be) AFC East champions for the 373rd consecutive season, they will once again be playing a home playoff game at Gillette Stadium. It’s tradition. It just wouldn’t be January in New England without a freezing cold playoff game at Gillette, right?

We know that much. We just don’t know where the Patriots will be situated once the regular season is complete. We don’t know where they will wind up on the bracket. In the NFL more than just about any other sport, playoff positioning can be a make-or-break thing for teams.

It has also become a Foxborough tradition to have the first week of January off. During the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, the Patriots have relied very heavily on a first round bye. They’ve had it all five times they’ve won the Super Bowl, and most other seasons as well. During the rare occasions when they haven’t had a first round bye, those seasons have always ended in ugly fashion.

A first round bye is no guarantee for the Pats this year. They’ve got the upper hand on the Houston Texans, having beaten them on Opening Day. But the Texans are riding a nine-game winning streak, and they are right on New England’s tail. Should Houston win out, chances are they will take home the second seed in the AFC.

If the Patriots win out, they’ll wrap up the two-seed and a first round bye without a problem. I just have a strong feeling they have one more loss in them during this regular season.

Next week, they play at Miami, and the Pats never, ever play well in South Beach. The following week, they play at Pittsburgh, and that game could legitimately go either way.

I think the Patriots will lose one of those two games. Assuming they take care of business at home against the Bills and Jets to end the season, they will still get the two-seed as long as Houston doesn’t win out.

And that’s just the beginning. They won’t get the No. 1 seed unless the Kansas City Chiefs collapse, and that seems unlikely at this point. That means the Patriots would still have to travel to Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC Championship Game, and Arrowhead is one of the most difficult places in the NFL to play as a visiting team.

This would present big problems for the Patriots. They haven’t had anywhere near the same kind of good fortune in road playoff games as they have in home playoff games. The last time the Pats won a playoff game on the road, it was during the 2006 playoffs when they upset the San Diego Chargers 24-21. That was the same year the Chicago Bears went to the Super Bowl on the shoulders of Rex Grossman.

And yes, that actually happened.

As we’ve seen in the past, playoff positioning is everything for the Patriots. When they have to go on the road to reach the Super Bowl, things get very ugly. For reference, just look back at those two AFC Championship Games in Denver in 2013 and 2015.

The Pats have a good chance of securing yet another first round bye. But the road to Super Bowl LIII likely won’t go through Foxborough this year, and they will have their work cut out for them when they have to leave the safe and friendly confines of Gillette Stadium.

For the first time in years, the Patriots will have the odds stacked against them as they try to push toward yet another Super Bowl.