By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As well as the Patriots have played for the balance of the 2016 season, they still don’t control their own destiny when it comes to capturing home-field advantage in the AFC. And if they and the Oakland Raiders both finish 14-2 … it will be that insufferable, frustrating, ugly Brady-less defeat to the Buffalo Bills in Week 4 that ultimately hands the home-field keys to MVP candidate Derek Carr and the Raiders.
Unfortunately, the only way for the Patriots to get back in the driver’s seat is to win the rest of their games while the red-hot Raiders have a hiccup. As it stands right now, with the teams tied at 10-2, Oakland wins the tiebreaker based on their 4-0 record against common opponents (Denver, Baltimore, Buffalo, Houston). The Raiders beat Buffalo on Sunday and the Patriots split the season series; that could ultimately be the difference at the top of the AFC.
Of course, Oakland is no lock to win their arduous stretch of games to close out the season: at Kansas City on Thursday night, then on the road against San Diego, Indianapolis at home, and at the Denver Broncos. Then again, the Patriots also have to go to Denver, where Tom Brady has historically not played up to his standards, and the Baltimore Ravens are looking like a tough out as they come to Foxboro for Monday Night Football. Week 17 at Miami, another place where the Patriots have historically been inconsistent under Brady and Belichick, is also worth mentioning.
The point, here, is that the Patriots will inevitably need help if they want to end up with home-field. They only need to worry about what they can control, but they could do that and still lose out on home-field advantage. Even if the Patriots beat Denver and Baltimore while the Raiders lose at Denver, which would tie them in common opponents at 4-1, the Raiders have a big lead in the vaunted Strength of Schedule and Strength of Victory tiebreakers.
It’s also worth noting that potentially going on the road to Oakland for the AFC Championship Game would not be a death knell for the Patriots like it would feel if they had to return to Denver. They could go into Oakland and win on the strength of Tom Brady against the Raiders’ one-man defense. But the chances of Oakland potentially coming into Foxboro and beating the Patriots in a playoff game, with an emerging but inexperienced quarterback, would likely be much lower.
As much as Tom Brady’s four-game suspension did not ultimately hurt the team, it could come back to bite them in this season’s playoff standings. There’s no doubt in my mind that Brady would have scratched at least 17 points across the scoreboard in Week 4 against Buffalo. So if they do end up losing out on home-field throughout the AFC playoffs for the second straight year, you know which game to blame.
But it’s all a moot point if the Raiders simply slip up in one of their final four games, all of which are far from gimmes, and the Patriots simply take care of business in theirs – which also are not all easy Ws. As far as “must-win” games, as insane as it sounds, the 10-2 Patriots will need them all.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.