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NFL playoff picture: Are the Patriots headed for another meeting with the Bills?

Related: Patriots clinch a playoff berth after beating Jaguars

NFL: DEC 26 Bills at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a one-year absence, the New England Patriots are officially back in the playoffs. Their Week 17 blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in combination with a Miami Dolphins loss in Tennessee has allowed them to lock up their spot in the tournament. They have now qualified for the postseason in 18 out of 22 seasons under head coach Bill Belichick.

At the moment, the Patriots hold the highest of the three wild card spots. They are the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture after leap-frogging the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday:

  1. Tennessee Titans (11-5) (clinched AFC South)
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) (clinched AFC West)
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) (clinched AFC North)
  4. Buffalo Bills (10-6) (clinched playoffs)
  5. New England Patriots (10-6) (clinched playoffs)
  6. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
  7. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

In the hunt: 8. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7), 9. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1), 11. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

Eliminated: 10. Miami Dolphins (8-8), 12. Cleveland Browns (7-9), 13. Denver Broncos (7-9), 14. New York Jets (4-12), 15. Houston Texans (4-12), 16. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

While the Patriots could theoretically move as far up as the No. 1 seed in Week 18, that is highly unlikely. Realistically, there are only a handful of outcomes — with the most intriguing being a game versus the Bills on wild card weekend.

For that to happen, the favorites would need to win their games on Saturday and Sunday; that means the Patriots beating the Dolphins, the Bills beating the Jets, the Bengals beating the Browns, the Chiefs beating the Broncos, and the Titans beating the Texans. If all of that happens, New England and Buffalo would meet yet again in the wild card round. It would be their third game within seven weeks.

Of course, if this NFL season has shown us one thing it is that anything can happen. And it seems the projections agree with this notion: according to ESPN’s Seth Walder, the most likely playoff matchup involving New England is not Patriots-Bills (33%) but rather Patriots-Bengals (41%).

If Cincinnati drops to the fourth seed or the Patriots fall from fifth to sixth, the two teams will go at each other in the first round of the playoffs. Neither scenario is particularly unlikely; both face some tough division opponents in the regular season finale and one of them not coming away victoriously would not be all that big a surprise.

The NFC’s playoff picture, meanwhile, looks as follows.

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-3) (clinched NFC North)
  2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4) (clinched playoffs)
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4) (clinched NFC South)
  4. Dallas Cowboys (11-5) (clinched NFC East)
  5. Arizona Cardinals (11-5) (clinched playoffs)
  6. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
  7. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) (clinched playoffs)

In the hunt: 8. New Orleans Saints (8-8)

Eliminated: 9. Minnesota Vikings (7-9), 10. Atlanta Falcons (7-9), 11. Washington Football Team (6-10), 12. Chicago Bears (6-10), 13. Seattle Seahawks (6-10), 14. Carolina Panthers (5-11), 15. New York Giants (4-12), 16. Detroit Lions (2-13-1)

Only one spot remains open in the NFC playoff picture heading into Week 18: San Francisco and New Orleans are fighting for the last remaining postseason seed. If the 49ers win against the Rams on the road — a team very much in need of a win to claim the NFC West — the sixth seed is theirs; if they lose and the Saints beat the Falcons they sneak into the playoffs after all.