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NFL playoff picture: How can the Patriots take control of the AFC down the stretch?

Related: AFC East Report: Bills lose division lead, and other Week 11 takeaways

NFL: NOV 18 Patriots at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Let’s take a trip back in time. The date is October 10, 2021. The time is around 3:00 p.m. ET. The New England Patriots are in Houston, and they are currently losing 22-9 to one of the worst teams in football. After already starting the year 1-3, it seems that the rise back to power in the AFC will have to wait at least one more year, and that the Patriots are destined for a top 10-15 pick for the second year in a row.

Now let’s meet back in the present day. The Patriots obviously came back and beat the Texans, and have gone 6-1 total since that moment, outscoring their opponents 220-85 in the process.

After looking like it might be a lost season, the Patriots are back in first place in the AFC East, and control their destiny the rest of the way. If they win enough of their games, and there is no one that can catch them, because they play virtually all of their top competition in the conference. Two games against the Buffalo Bills, one against the Tennessee Titans, and one against the Indianapolis Colts.

In the end, assuming they can knock off the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins to close out the year, the only games that truly matter are those against the Bills. Beat the Bills twice, and you win the division, split with them and you need to win at least one of those games against the AFC South.

Let’s take a look at the top of the conference, though, and see how it could shake out. As of today, the standings are as follows:

  1. Tennessee Titans (8-3)
  2. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)
  3. New England Patriots (7-4)
  4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
  5. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
  6. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)
  7. Buffalo Bills (6-4)

We will also take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1), Indianapolis Colts (6-5), and Cleveland Browns (6-5), since they are all knocking on the door as well.

Tennessee Titans (8-3)

Remaining schedule: at New England Patriots, vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, at Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. San Francisco 49ers, vs. Miami Dolphins, at Houston Texans

The Titans are still atop the AFC, despite losing to the lowly Texans on Sunday. They are obviously without their best offensive player in Derrick Henry, and they lost A.J. Brown for a time with a rib injury this weekend. With Julio Jones already on IR, losing Brown for any period of time would certainly be a huge blow to their offensive attack.

Tennessee will play two games against teams in the race for the AFC playoffs, both on the road, which will be tough. If they are able to beat both the Patriots and Steelers, however, they should be in the driver’s seat to win the division with games against the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Texans also coming up.

With a two-game lead in their division, it is going to take a complete collapse for them to miss the playoffs, but their sights are set much higher than that. The game against the Patriots this weekend is huge, obviously because you want to have the best record possible, but because the winner will hold the tiebreaker. The conference could certainly come down to that this season.

Baltimore Ravens (7-3)

Remaining schedule: vs. Cleveland Browns, at Pittsburgh Steelers, at Cleveland Browns, vs. Green Bay Packers, at Cincinnati Bengals, vs. Los Angeles Rams, vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Ravens have the most difficult schedule left out of any of the AFC contenders, as every team they play currently has a winning record. Not only that, but they have five division games left, so the lead they currently have could evaporate right in front of them. On the flip side, they could also build a huge lead and pull away from the pack, while also knocking their AFC North rivals out of the playoff hunt.

Winning this weekend against the Chicago Bears without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson was a huge first step. With a schedule as challenging as this one, every win is going to be huge for Baltimore.

Think about this: the Ravens have five games against their division, which are always difficult, and the other two remaining games are against two of the best teams in the NFC. Luckily for them, the two NFC games are at home, which should give them a better chance of winning.

From a Patriots standpoint, you have to just hope that the Ravens lose a few of the divisional games they have, and at best split against the Packers and Rams. If the Ravens are able to be a serious contender in the AFC after these seven games, they will have certainly earned it.

New England Patriots (7-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Tennessee Titans, at Buffalo Bills, at Indianapolis Colts, vs. Buffalo Bills, vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, at Miami Dolphins

After this weekend, the Patriots took first place in the AFC East from the Bills, and they control their own destiny the rest of the season. With a win this weekend and a Ravens loss, they would be the No. 1 seed in the conference, which, quite frankly, would be wild. Let’s put that aside for a moment, however: the first four of these games are all massively important.

To guarantee themselves a playoff spot, they need to win at least two out of those four. Win more than that, and now the Patriots are looking at the possibility of winning the division and maybe even the top seed and a first-round bye. There are a million different ways that things could go, but I don’t want to go over all of them. It boils down to this: the next four games are the most important of the season, and will decide what happens to this team down the stretch. The Jacksonville and especially Miami game could be a hugely important as well, but New England will need to take care of the Titans, Bills, and Colts first.

It’s hard to imagine after that aforementioned game in Houston, that the Patriots would be in this situation, but here they are.

While a rookie starting quarterback has never made the Super Bowl, meaning that expectations should be tempered a bit, the Patriots should at least make the playoffs barring an epic collapse. Maybe they will even make some noise once they get there. The rest of the competition in the AFC is good, but it will be beating up on each other to end the season, which should only help New England’s outlook.

Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Denver Broncos, vs. Las Vegas Raiders, at Los Angeles Chargers, vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, at Cincinnati Bengals, at Denver Broncos

The Chiefs have been tough to figure out. They haven’t quite clicked on offense just yet, but their defense has been playing better, and they have won four in a row since getting smoked by the Titans in Week 7.

Similar to the Ravens, they have four out of six remaining games against their division, but they should fare a little better given the competition. Barring another collapse, though, it is safe to assume that they will again be one of the teams to beat in the AFC.

As far as the Patriots are concerned, they currently own the tiebreaker over the Chiefs since they have a better conference record. They are both only playing teams from the conference from here on out, so that tiebreaker will remain in New England’s favor in case they finish with the same record.

New England still needs to hope that the Raiders, Chargers, Steelers, and Bengals give the Chiefs a game with a few of them maybe even beating them. Kansas City very well could be the biggest problem that the Patriots might face if they make the playoffs. If it comes down coaching, though, Bill Belichick has always had the edge over Andy Reid.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, vs. San Francisco 49ers, at Denver Broncos, vs. Baltimore Ravens, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, at Cleveland Browns

Just a few short weeks ago, the Bengals were the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and looking really good after blowing out the Ravens. Then they lost to the Jets and were blown out by the Browns in back-to-back weeks, and were back on the struggle bus. They took care of business in Las Vegas this weekend to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they are going to have to continue to play like they did this weekend if they want to make a run into the playoffs.

The Bengals are playing some tough teams to end their season, but, luckily, five of their seven remaining contests will be played at home. They play against four teams in the hunt for the AFC playoffs, so them being competitive is actually a good thing for the Patriots, assuming they don’t just win out and take the conference. (try reading that last sentence with a straight face, I dare you: it’s the Bengals for goodness sake, no chance that happens!)

As far as the Patriots are concerned, I wouldn’t be too worried about beating the Bengals in a big game, but they can certainly help by beating a few of the other teams competing with them for the playoffs.

Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)

Remaining schedule: at Denver Broncos, at Cincinnati Bengals, vs. New York Giants, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, at Houston Texans, vs. Denver Broncos, at Las Vegas Raiders

The Chargers are sitting behind the Chiefs right now in the AFC West, but they do have one of the easiest remaining schedules of the contenders in the conference: they will play the Giants, Texans, and Broncos twice. The Broncos are division rivals, but they have not been playing well, and the Chargers should be able to win at least one of those games, if not both.

They do have to play the Chiefs, Bengals, and Raiders as well, but if they are able to win the games against the Texans and Giants, even winning three out of their remaining five games should be enough to get them into the playoffs. There are no guarantees, of course, but holding on to beat the Steelers last week was huge for Los Angeles.

For the Patriots, they beat L.A. a few weeks ago, so they hold the tiebreaker over them if the Chargers take over the West, or the Patriots lose the East, so they are essentially two games ahead of them right now — that should be enough room that the Patriots should not have to worry about losing their spot to the Chargers too much. However, they could also knock off the Chiefs, which would only improve New England’s chances in the long haul.

Buffalo Bills (6-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. New Orleans Saints, vs. New England Patriots, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, vs. Carolina Panthers, at New Orleans Patriots, vs. Atlanta Falcons, vs. New York Jets

The Bills were in control of the AFC East, and one of the favorites in the conference, just a few weeks ago. Unfortunately for them, they’ve lost two out of their last three games: one of them was an embarrassing loss to the Jaguars, and the other was a blowout loss to the Colts. The Bills’ offensive line has been exposed a little, and it might be something the Patriots can take advantage of when they play.

Buffalo’s remaining schedule features some tough games but the team also ends the season with two layups against Atlanta and New York. The way the Bills offense has been playing, there is no guarantee that the team will take care of business against the Saints and Panthers, though they should definitely beat both of those teams. Defense is the strong suit for both the Saints and Panthers, though, and so there is a chance they could lose those games even though one should not bet on it.

Then, they have two matchups against the Patriots, and a game in Tampa. Those three games are most likely going to decide the Bills’ season. In fact, if they lose both games to the Patriots, it is almost impossible for them to win the division. On the other hand, if they take down New England twice, they have an opportunity to not only win the division, but possibly take the No. 1 seed in the conference as well.

There is a lot of football left, but the two Patriots vs. Bills games could be one of the biggest deciding factors in the conference.

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1)

Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati Bengals, vs. Baltimore Ravens, at Minnesota Vikings, vs. Tennessee Titans, at Kansas City Chiefs, vs. Cleveland Browns, at Baltimore Ravens

We have a nice clean AFC playoff picture, and the Steelers have to go and ruin it with their messy tie against the Detroit Lions of all teams. If the playoffs started today, the Steelers would be out, but, obviously, the playoffs don’t start today, and they showed that they are not quite dead yet, even though they ended up losing to the Chargers this weekend.

The Steelers also have a very tough remaining schedule, playing four out of seven games on the road, and six of their seven against teams currently in the playoff picture. That being said, because they play all these teams ahead of them, they have a good shot at sneaking into the playoffs after all.

Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the same guy he once was, but he can still do enough to get his team there, and the Pittsburgh defense was pretty short-handed recently. If the Steelers can get T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick back in the next few weeks, then they have a chance to do some damage against some of these other AFC teams.

From a Patriot’ standpoint, the best thing that the Steelers can do is knock off the Chiefs, Ravens, or Titans to make the road easier for the Patriots. The tie makes things funky, but New England has the same amount of losses as the Steelers, meaning they are only a game up on them right now.

Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Houston Texans, vs. New England Patriots, at Arizona Cardinals, vs. Las Vegas Raiders, at Jacksonville Jaguars

The Colts, similar to the Patriots, looked like they were out of it a few weeks ago. After starting the season 1-3, they have fought their way back into the playoff hunt. They blew out the Bills last week, and have not lost a game in regulation since Week 3. Jonathan Taylor has taken the league by storm, and their running attack has propelled them to one of the best teams in the AFC the last month.

Indianapolis is shaping up to be one of the teams that others are not going to want to play down the stretch. The team dos, however, have a tough road ahead, playing the Patriots, Buccaneers, and Cardinals; the Colts also get the Texans and Jaguars, though. If they are still able to run the ball the way they have been, and if their defense continues to play well, they are going to find themselves in the playoffs the next few weeks.

There is an added wrinkle for the Colts, as their trade for Carson Wentz is dependent on them making the postseason. The way the trade works is that, if the Colts make the playoffs, or if Carson Wentz plays at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps, they have to send their first-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles. If neither of those things happen, they send their second-round pick to Philadelphia. The Colts are approaching the point of no return with the playing time, so it is imperative for them to make the playoffs so they will not send a top-15 pick to the Eagles.

From a Patriots standpoint, they will play in Indianapolis after their bye, and it is going to be a huge game for both teams. If the Colts lose to Tampa this week, that game could very well decide their season. The Patriots could therefore be getting a very desperate team come Week 15.

Cleveland Browns (6-5)

Remaining schedule: at Baltimore Ravens, vs. Baltimore Ravens, vs. Las Vegas Raiders, at Green Bay Packers, at Pittsburgh Steelers, vs. Cincinnati Bengals

One of the weirdest things I have ever seen from a scheduling standpoint is happening to the Browns this year: they travel to Baltimore, then go on their bye, and their next game is at home against the Ravens. Those two games, of course, are going to be huge for Cleveland; if the Browns don’t at least split them, they can likely kiss their playoff chances goodbye.

Right now, they are dealing with a bunch of injuries. Kareem Hunt is still injured although now designated to come off IR, and Baker Mayfield is clearly playing hurt; the conversation needs to be had about whether or not he’s hurting the team by trying to play through the pain. The Browns are kind of a sinking ship right now, and with a tough schedule ahead of them, it is looking less and less likely that they are going to make the playoffs.

If they do start to play better, the Patriots do not have to worry about them too much: they are essentially two games up on them since they beat them already this season and have a better record than them right now.

Bonus: Miami Dolphins (4-7)

Remaining schedule: vs. Carolina Panthers, vs. New York Giants, vs. New York Jets, at New Orleans Saints, at Tennessee Titans, vs. New England Patriots

Adding the Dolphins in here is a little crazy, but they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way through, and with the rest of the AFC beating up on each other have a chance to make a run here. Beating the Panthers, Giants, and Jets would get them back to .500, and then they would have three tough games against the Saints, Titans, and Patriots.

If they can split the first two, it is possible they will be playing for a playoff spot Week 18 against the Patriots. Imagine a scenario where the Patriots travel to Miami, and the Dolphins can make the playoff with a win, while New England can win the division with a win. That would be a pretty fun game, and one that seemed almost impossible to believe just a few weeks ago, when the Dolphins were 1-7 and the Patriots were 4-4.

Is it likely that we will see a game like that in Week 18? No, but it would be fun, so I’m adding the possibility here.

Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.