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Patriots clinching scenarios: New England still has a lot to play for in Week 18

Related: With playoff spot locked up, Patriots’ goal against Dolphins is to ‘stay on track’

NFL: SEP 12 Dolphins at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots have already locked up their spot in the playoff tournament, but that does not mean their Week 18 matchup with the Miami Dolphins carries no meaning. Quite the opposite, actually: the Patriots still have plenty to play for in the regular season finale.

For one, they can build some momentum heading into the postseason against a quality opponent that lost just one of its last eight games. New England, losers of two straight before a blowout win over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars last week, will therefore treat this week as an opportunity to “stay on track,” as head coach Bill Belichick said.

Their game against Miami could have other implications as well, though. Take the AFC playoff picture and New England’s position in it.

The Patriots, currently owning the fifth seed, are one of four teams still in contention for the number one spot in the conference. However, a lot would have to go right for them to actually earn it.

New England clinches No. 1 seed with:

  1. NE win + BUF loss or tie + KC loss + TEN loss

Stranger things have happened in the NFL, but the Patriots beating Miami with their three rivals losing their respective Week 18 games should not be expected. The Buffalo Bills will host the New York Jets, while the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans will visit the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. Division matchups always seem to follow their own rules, but three upsets in combination with a New England victory seems unlikely.

One upset sounds more realistic. And if it involves the Bills, it might help the Patriots clinch the division title after all.

New England clinches AFC East with:

  1. NE win + BUF loss or tie OR
  2. NE tie + BUF loss

The race for the AFC East is pretty straight forward. If the Bills win they will successfully have defended the crown, regardless of the Patriots-Dolphins game. If Buffalo loses, however, it might also lose out on the division title: in that case a New England victory would bring it back to Foxborough.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, the Jets are one of the worst teams in football. If there is one glimmer of hope it’s that they did look solid against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week and also have beaten two of the AFC’s best teams earlier during the season: New York beat the Titans in Week 4 and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8.

That said, those two wins came a long time ago. Add the fact that the Bills are the far superior team and you can see why you should not expect to see any “2021 AFC East Champs” shirts in the Patriots’ fan shop anytime soon.

Even with the top seed in the AFC and the division title virtually out of reach, however, the Patriots do have something else to play for entirely: multiple players on the roster are still in a position to earn contract incentives.

As was pointed out by Miguel Benzan earlier this week, four Patriots in particular are in a good position to earn some extra cash:

  • WR Kendrick Bourne: 800 receiving yards
  • K Nick Folk: Top-7 in field goal percentage and 90% field goal rate
  • DT Davon Godchaux: 60% playing time
  • DT Lawrence Guy: 45% playing time

Guy and Folk have already earned other incentives in their contracts, tied to a team improvement in sacks as well as New England making playoffs. On Sunday, they could add to those by hitting the marks on other incentives.

Their teammates Dont’a Hightower, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Carl Davis are also in a position to hit some of their contract triggers this week. However, those are considered unlikely to be reached by Miguel.

Nonetheless, this list shows that the Patriots and their players still should have plenty of motivation to play some good football in Week 18.