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NFL playoff picture: Patriots among six teams fighting for one wild card spot

Related: NFL playoff picture: Patriots still control their own destiny despite back-to-back losses

NFL: DEC 24 Bengals at Patriots Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ path to the playoffs is pretty clear: currently owning the No. 8 seed in the AFC with a 7-8 record, the Patriots winning their upcoming games against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills would secure them a spot in the tournament.

While they theoretically could also make it with a win over Miami and loss to the Bills, the chances of that are close to zero and not worth worrying about. After all, the race for the remaining open wild card spot is as competitive as it has been in years: not counting one of the teams eventually winning the AFC South, a total of six teams are fighting for one spot.

The Patriots are among them. “Win and you’re in” is therefore their mantra for these last two weeks of the regular season.

Who are they competing with? A quick look at the current AFC playoff picture shows it:

  1. Buffalo Bills (12-3)*
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-3)*
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (11-4)*
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8)
  5. Baltimore Ravens (10-5)*
  6. Los Angeles Chargers (9-6)*
  7. Miami Dolphins (8-7)

*clinched playoff spot

On the bubble: 8. New England Patriots (7-8), 9. New York Jets (7-8), 10. Tennessee Titans (7-8), 11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8), 12. Las Vegas Raiders (6-9)

Eliminated: 13. Cleveland Browns (6-9), 14. Indianapolis Colts (4-10-1), 15. Denver Broncos (4-11), 16. Houston Texans (2-12-1)

As can be seen, the Patriots are fighting two of their division rivals (Dolphins and Jets), one of the AFC South teams (Jaguars or Titans) and representatives from the northern (Steelers) and western divisions (Raiders). Their schedules for the coming two weeks look as follows:

AFC schedules: Weeks 17-18

Team Patriots Jaguars Dolphins Jets Titans Steelers Raiders
Team Patriots Jaguars Dolphins Jets Titans Steelers Raiders
Week 17 vs. Dolphins at Texans at Patriots at Seahawks vs. Cowboys at Ravens vs. 49ers
Week 18 at Bills vs. Titans vs. Jets at Dolphins at Jaguars vs. Browns vs. Chiefs

The Patriots do control their own destiny, but a Week 17 win — as noted above — is a must or else they are eliminated. If they do beat Miami, however, they would enter the regular season finale holding tiebreakers over virtually all of their rivals: the Dolphins would have a worse division record, the Jets and Steelers a worse head-to-head record, and the Titans a worse conference record.

Obviously, winning in Week 18 would be a must as well with several factors working against them in case of a loss to the Bills. For now, however, the Patriots are still in a surprisingly solid position: if they win out, they will emerge as the victor among those six clubs competing for the same spot.

The NFC playoff picture, meanwhile, looks like this:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2)*
  2. Minnesota Vikings (12-3)*
  3. San Francisco 49ers (11-4)*
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)
  5. Dallas Cowboys (11-4)*
  6. New York Giants (8-6-1)
  7. Washington Football Team (7-7-1)

*clinched playoff spot

On the bubble: 8. Seattle Seahawks (7-8), 9. Detroit Lions (7-8), 10. Green Bay Packers (7-8), 11. Carolina Panthers (6-9), 12. New Orleans Saints (6-9)

Eliminated: 13. Los Angeles Rams (5-10), 14. Atlanta Falcons (5-10), 15. Arizona Cardinals (4-11), 16. Chicago Bears (3-12)

The NFC is similar to the AFC in that the southern division is a dumpster fire. While the Buccaneers are currently ahead, there is a chance that the Panthers and, less likely, Saints can still overtake them. The rest of the conference is a bit more open than its counterpart: two wild card spots are still up for grabs.