By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the Patriots lost in spectacular fashion in Miami on Sunday, it appeared to all that New England kicked away any and all chances of earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Really, after dropping to 9-4, the Patriots would have to be happy just to finish out the season with three wins to maintain that No. 2 seed and the first-round playoff bye that accompanies it.
However, though the numerical odds remain low, there’s actually a fairly simple road that can lead to the Patriots making the unlikely jump to the top of the conference.
This part is simple. The Patriots need to win out if they want a chance at the top seed, and likely if they want to hold on to their first-round bye. That means winning at Pittsburgh (7-5-1), then beating the Bills (4-9) and the Jets (4-9) at home.
Obviously, for the Patriots to catch the Chiefs, Kansas City is going to have to lose one more game. That’s not at all an impossibility, as the Chiefs will be heading to Seattle for Sunday Night Football next weekend. The Chiefs are just 2-3 in prime time this year, with wins against the Bengals and Broncos, and with losses to the Patriots, Rams and Chargers.
That Seahawks game will be the final challenge for the Chiefs, who finish out the year with a home date against the Raiders.
The race for the No. 1 seed would be simple enough if it involved just two teams. Alas, there are the Chargers, complicating matters.
If the Chargers win their final three games of the season, and if the Chiefs lose once more, then the Chargers will win the AFC West and claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC. But, if the Chargers slip up at all, that opens the door for the Patriots to enter the picture.
And a Chargers loss, despite their current run, is a real possibility. They’ll host Baltimore next week, and with the Ravens taking the Chiefs to OT last week in their own quest to make the playoffs, that won’t be an easy game for L.A. Nor will the Week 17 trip to Denver, where the Broncos may still be holding on to some playoff hope on the final day of the season. Those Broncos did win a game in L.A. already this year.
The Texans had their win streak snapped last week, but there’s no reason that Houston should lose another game this year. They travel to the Jets, then they’re at Philly, then they’re home against Jacksonville.
And if the Texans win out, that’ll be another 12-4 team in the mix. But as far as the Patriots are concerned, that almost certainly won’t matter — unless the Chiefs lose to the Raiders. More on that shortly.
Things will only really get interesting if the Chiefs and Chargers each drop a game. In that scenario, where all four of the top AFC teams finish 12-4, then it’s the Patriots who would get the No. 1 seed.
That’s because the Chiefs would win the AFC West on a tiebreaker, thereby relegating the Chargers to wild-card status. And the Patriots, having beaten both the Texans and Chiefs in head-to-head matchups, would win the remaining tiebreaker, thus making New England the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
If all of that was too messy, here’s the long and short of it: If the Patriots go 3-0, and if the Chiefs AND Chargers each go 1-1, then the Patriots will land the No. 1 seed.
The flip side is even simpler: If the Chiefs go 2-0 and if the Chargers go 2-0 to end the season, then the Patriots have no chance of earning the No. 1 seed.
From a Patriots perspective, rooting against the Chiefs and Chargers would seem to be the play. Yet, don’t root too hard against those teams, because check out this doomsday scenario of sorts:
–Chiefs lose to BOTH Seahawks and Raiders
–Chargers go 1-1 in final two games
–Texans win final three games
–Patriots win final three games
Under this scenario, where the Chiefs randomly brain-cramp against the moribund Raiders, then the Patriots would actually drop out of the No. 2 spot and find themselves hosting a game on wild-card weekend. The Chargers would take the No. 1 overall seed, and the Texans would slide in to the No. 2 seed. That’s because the three-way tie would eliminate the Patriots’ head-to-head win over the Texans, and the Texans would own the tiebreakers over both the Chargers (strength of victory) and the Patriots (win percentage in common games). That’s at least according to ESPN’s Playoff Machine, which never lies.
That is, however, a most unlikely scenario. Nevertheless, it remains a slight possibility.
And for all of this, it’s also possible that the No. 1 seed is less desirable than the No. 2 seed. That will be dependent on potential matchups for the divisional round. Obviously, the loser of the AFC West will rightfully be considered the most dangerous team of wild-card weekend, and so whichever team ends up hosting either the Chiefs or Chargers in the divisional round will certainly have its hands full. Meanwhile, the other team to get a first-round bye will be waiting around for Houston. Beating Bill O’Brien’s team in January won’t be a cinch, but it will certainly be a less daunting task than facing a 12-win wild-card team out of the West.
On that, there are far too many variables to try to forecast at this point. Only two of the six AFC playoff spots have even been clinched. There’s much that’s yet to be determined.
And clearly, for the Patriots and everyone else involved, there’s still plenty left to play for.