Despite their 27-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night, the New England Patriots still control their fate as far as the AFC East title is concerned. Currently at 9-5 and one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills, winning the last three games — including a rematch with Buffalo in Week 16 — would secure the division crown for New England.
When it comes to the AFC as a whole, however, the Patriots will need some help. While they did enter Week 15 as the number one seed in the conference and on the inside track towards earning the first-round bye associated with it, the loss in Indianapolis changed the outlook.
The two-time reigning conference champion Kansas City Chiefs have taken over the lead in the AFC, breaking a tie with New England thanks to an overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday. Now owning a 10-4 record, the Chiefs are in the driver’s seat for the top playoff spot.
That said, things can change very quickly in a tight AFC — and it seems every weekend serves as another reminder of that.
Winners of seven straight, the Chiefs are the hottest team in the league right now. However, they might have to win out themselves in order to earn the top spot in the conference — facing a three-week stretch that starts with a game against a team that has become a surprising ally for the Patriots this year: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Standing at 7-6-1, Pittsburgh is still in competition for a playoff spot and therefore theoretically competing against New England as well. Nonetheless, the Steelers have helped out the Patriots quite a bit already this season by beating three of their biggest rivals in both the AFC and the AFC East.
Pittsburgh started the year with a 23-16 road win over the Bills. The club did play some streaky football over the next few weeks, though: the Steelers lost three straight after the victory in Buffalo, then won four in a row, before going winless for three more weeks including a 16-16 tie versus the then-0-8 Detroit Lions.
Despite showing major inconsistency on both sides of the ball, Pittsburgh then celebrated an upset win over the Baltimore Ravens. The team’s 20-19 victory helped the Patriots take over the top playoff spot in the AFC.
Two weeks later, the Steelers were able to pull off another upset: one day after New England’s loss in Indianapolis, the team of head coach Mike Tomlin defeated the 9-4 Tennessee Titans with a final score of 19-13. As a result of Tennessee dropping to 9-5, the team now ranks third in the AFC — losing out on the No. 2 spot because of its head-to-head deficit versus the Patriots.
The Steelers have already helped New England three times this season, but a fourth would be the charm: Pittsburgh will visit the red-hot Chiefs next Sunday, and while not actively supporting the Patriots could help them regain the No. 1 seed in the conference.
A season such as the current one can make for some strange bedfellows.