By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sunday’s victory over the Broncos in Denver secured the Patriots a first-round playoff bye. But as last year’s postseason proved, a first-round bye is not always enough to secure a trip to the Super Bowl. Some years, you need that home-field advantage, too.
And in that regard, the Patriots still control their own destiny. If they win their final two games (vs. the Jets in Foxboro this week and then at Miami in Week 17), then they will finish 14-2 with a first-round bye and that home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
That’s the simple part. Win, and you’re all set.
But again, as we learned last year, sometimes those late-season layups don’t turn into the simple victories that they may appear to be on paper.
So, with that in mind, here’s how the situation is laid out if the Patriots don’t end the season on a seven-game winning streak.
IF THE PATRIOTS GO 1-1 …
If the Patriots split their final two games, they’ll finish the year with a 13-3 record. The Oakland Raiders, at best, can tie that mark.
If the two teams are tied, then the tiebreaker will look at the teams’ records within the conference. If the Patriots split their final two games, they’ll be 10-2 vs. the AFC. If the Raiders win their final two games, they’ll be 10-2 as well. So it’ll be on to the next tiebreaker: record in games played against common opponents.
As it stands right now, the Raiders have the edge in that department, having gone 4-0 vs. Baltimore, Denver, Houston and Buffalo. The Patriots are 4-1 against those same opponents. The Raiders have one game left vs. Denver and, assuming they win their remaining games as this scenario requires, they will be 5-0 against those common opponents. So, if the Patriots and Raiders both finish 13-3, the Raiders will wrest home-field advantage from the Patriots.
Of course, if the Raiders lose one of their final games (home vs. Indy, at Denver), then a 1-1 record for the Patriots will be enough to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. So, if the Patriots take care of business against the Jets on Saturday, then all of New England can collectively root for the Colts to upset the Raiders in Oakland.
IF THE PATRIOTS GO 0-2 …
If the Patriots shock the world and go into a nosedive for the second straight season, they’ll be in some trouble. A 12-4 record likely won’t be enough to secure that all-important home-field advantage.
Finishing with 12 victories would lay down the red carpet for the Raiders to claim that top seed. If the Raiders won their final two games, they’d be the No. 1 seed. (The Chiefs were in this mix before losing to the Titans on Sunday.)
The Raiders could also lose to the Colts and beat the Broncos, and that would be enough to leapfrog the Patriots on the tiebreaker.
But, if the Raiders beat the Colts and lose to the Broncos, the tiebreaker would proceed to the next step: record in games vs. AFC opponents.
The Patriots would be 9-3 in the AFC. The Raiders would be 9-3 as well. That would move the tiebreaker to strength of victory, which is determined by combined winning percentage of beaten opponents. With two weeks left to play, we’ll save that exact formula for when the time comes. But as it currently stands, the Raiders hold the edge, as their victories came over teams with a 70-83 combined record, or .458 winning percentage. The Patriots’ victories came over teams with a 68-98-2 record, or .405 winning percentage. Again, with two weeks remaining, that can change quite a bit, so it can’t be properly forecast at this time.
The Patriots would be best-suited, of course, to not rely on such unpredictable circumstances.
THE BOTTOM LINE…
If the Patriots win their final two games, they will own the No. 1 seed.
If the Patriots go 1-1 in their final two games, they will need the Raiders to lose one of their two games. Otherwise, the Raiders will lay claim to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
If the Patriots go 0-2 in their final two games, they will need the Raiders to lose a game and also a random string of events to take place around the league to inflate their strength of victory.
The No. 1 seed can be wrapped up as soon as Saturday evening (a Patriots win combined with a Raiders loss), or it could go down to the waning hours of the entire NFL season in Week 17.
UPDATE: Following the results of the Week 16 games, here’s an updated look at the picture atop the AFC.