The New England Patriots did not play their best football in Week 17, but it was enough to beat the Miami Dolphins 23-21. The win was a big one for the Patriots, as it allows them to improve to 8-8 on the year and keep their postseason hopes alive for another week.
Making it into the tournament will not be easy, though. Currently the No. 7 seed in the AFC and as such on the inside track for the only available wild card spot, the Patriots will go up against the Buffalo Bills in Week 18 — a team that already beat New England back in early December, and that might be playing for the top seed in the conference.
That game in Buffalo is not the only one potentially relevant to New England’s postseason outlook. After all, there are three other teams still competing for that final spot: the Miami Dolphins (8-8) and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8) as well as either the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) or Tennessee Titans (7-9), depending on who wins their division-deciding showdown on Saturday night.
That leaves essentially two paths for the Patriots to make it in. It all starts with the final result of their Week 18 contest against the Bills, though.
1.) Patriots beat the Bills
This is pretty straight forward. The easiest way for the Patriots to defend their current standing in the playoff picture is an upset in Buffalo. It would improve their record to 9-8 and qualify them regardless of what happens elsewhere in the conference.
New England, after all, would hold an advantage over all of its rivals in that scenario. The team would have a better record than the loser of the AFC South game between Jacksonville and Tennessee, and also own tiebreakers over Miami (division record) and Pittsburgh (head-to-head).
2.) Patriots lose to the Bills
As noted above, the Bills are a tough opponent that might have a lot on the line itself come Sunday. New England coming up short against its rivals would therefore not be a surprise.
However, a defeat in Week 18 does not necessarily mean that the Patriots are eliminated from playoff contention. While unlikely, they can still make the tournament if all of the following happens:
Miami loses to the New York Jets: The Dolphins are entering Week 18 as 3-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbooks, but they do face some questions. Not only are they on a five-game losing streak, they also have some questions at quarterback. Additionally, the Jets already beat them earlier in the year.
Pittsburgh loses to the Cleveland Browns: Baltimore’s inability to hold onto a win on Sunday night means that the Steelers are also still in the race. They will go up against a fledgling Browns team that is listed as 3-point underdogs. Like Miami, Pittsburgh will close out the regular season on its home turf.
Tennessee loses to the Jacksonville Jaguars: The Titans have dropped their last six games, including a 36-22 home loss against Jacksonville in Week 13. The team of head coach Mike Vrabel is a 6.5-point underdog to a Jaguars team having won four in a row, and will have to travel to fight for the division crown.
If the Patriots lose in Buffalo and the Dolphins and/or Steelers win their Week 18 games, they would have better records and therefore overtake them in the standings. As for the Titans, they would have a better common games record and therefore jump ahead of New England even with both teams owning identical 8-9 records in that scenario.
On the flip side, if all three of them lose the tiebreakers mentioned in the “Patriots beat Bills” section would apply again. New England would then make it in.
At the end of the day, though, a lot would have to go the Patriots’ way in order to make the playoffs on the back of a Week 18 loss to the Bills. It is not impossible, but the chances of happening are just 12 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.