By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — The New England Patriots are 8-0. They may be good enough to win a second consecutive Super Bowl. They might fall short of that goal. That much remains unknown here in late October.
But what we do know with a near-certainty is that the Patriots will enter the postseason as the top seed in the American Football Conference.
Certainty, of course, doesn’t exist in the NFL. An injury to the quarterback changes everything, or, as the 2015 Patriots showed, an avalanche of bad breaks can derail a championship season in a hurry. That’s understood.
But when it comes to securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, it would now take a series of minor miracles for the No. 1 seed to go to anybody but the Patriots.
That appears to be the case after the Chiefs lost their third home game of the season on Sunday night, a surprisingly close 31-24 victory by the Packers.
Obviously playing without Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs got a fairly good showing from Matt Moore, and they tied the game at 24-all with just over nine minutes to go. But Aaron Rodgers tossed a quick screen pass to Aaron Jones, who broke free for a 67-yard game-winning touchdown.
The loss dropped the Chiefs to 5-3 on the season. Fortunately for them, the Raiders lost on Sunday and don’t appear to be a real threat in the AFC West. Plus, Mahomes is ahead of schedule and should be steering that explosive offense sooner than later. Unfortunately, though, the dream of beating out the Patriots appears to be dead.
That’s a significant development, considering the Chiefs figured to be the greatest threat to New England in the AFC, after narrowly losing last year’s AFC title game in overtime.
The Patriots do have some tough dates upcoming, and it’s extremely likely that they lose one or two of the following games: at Baltimore, at Philadelphia, vs. Dallas, at Houston, vs. Kansas City.
Yet even if the Patriots emerge from that stretch with an 11-2 record, they end the season quite softly: at Cincinnati, vs. Buffalo, vs. Miami. The Bengals and Dolphins are a combined 0-14, and though the Bills’ defense got off to a strong start, their offense likely won’t be strong enough to find some Josh Allen magic in Foxboro. (Allen threw three interceptions and took four sacks in the Bills’ Week 4 loss at home to New England.)
Taken that way, it looks at this point like a 14-2 record for the Patriots is a worst-case scenario. A 15-1 mark might be more reasonable.
In any event, they’ve got quite the margin for error in terms of securing that top spot.
AFC PLAOYFF STANDINGS (As of Week 8)
1. New England, 8-0**
2. Indianapolis Colts, 5-2*
3. Baltimore Ravens, 5-2
4. Kansas City Chiefs, 5-3
5. Buffalo Bills, 5-2
6. Houston Texans, 5-3
7. Jacksonville Jaguars, 4-4
8. Tennessee Titans, 4-4
**First-round bye, plus home-field advantage
A quick peek at those standings shows that three teams only have two losses through eight weeks, which theoretically means that 14-2 could imperil the Patriots in their quest to the top seed.
Yet an equally quick peek at the games played on Sunday showed that the Colts, Texans and Bills are not exactly primed to make a run at going 14-2 in 2019.
The Bills lost palindromically, 31-13, to an Eagles team that flew to Orchard Park as a sub-.500 football team. The Bills’ five wins have come against teams with a combined winning percentage of .189, which is by far the lowest strength of victory among playoff teams.
For the Bills to pass the Patriots, it would require Sean McDermott visiting Foxboro and outcoaching Bill Belichick. That will not happen.
The Colts did win on Sunday at home, but it required a 51-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri as time expired against a dead-in-the-water Broncos team that entered the game with a 2-5 record. The Colts trailed 13-3 midway through the third quarter in a struggle of a game that did not exactly scream “AFC powerhouse.”
For the Colts to pass the Patriots, they’ll need to go undefeated for nine weeks, with trips to Pittsbrugh, Houston, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Jacksonville on their schedule. That will not be happening.
(It may also be smoke and mirrors for the Colts. They’re 5-2, despite all seven of their games being decided by seven points or fewer. Their point differential is just plus-7. Their wins have come by an average of four points. You may say, “Who cares? A win is a win.” Fair enough, but history shows that teams that feast on wins in one-possession games eventually come back to earth. Perhaps, though, it may be postponed until next season.)
The Texans also fended off a middling AFC opponent on Sunday, thanks to some late-game heroics from Deshaun Watson. The outstanding young quarterback delivered a game-winning touchdown pass after getting kicked in the face midway through the fourth quarter, lifting the Texans over the Raiders 27-24. (Those same Raiders beat the Colts in Indy in Week 4, so perhaps they’re just a true pest.)
In that win, though, the Texans lost J.J. Watt for the season, due to a torn pec muscle. Watt ranks second on the team with four sacks, and the team has historically struggled after losing Watt to injury. The team went 2-1 with him in 2016, but 7-7 after his injury. A year later, the Texans went 3-2 with him and 1-10 without him.
This year may be different in that regard, but for the Texans to pass the Patriots, they’ll have to go undefeated for their final eight games, with trips to Baltimore, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Tampa Bay on the schedule, plus home dates with the Colts and Patriots.
For Bill O’Brien’s crew, that is likewise not happening. (The Texans are 1-10 all time against the Patriots. New England has won eight straight games against Houston, by a combined score of 268-148, or 34-19 each game.)
The Ravens may present the best challenge in the AFC for the Patriots, and fortunately, we’ll all get to see how they match up head-to-head with New England this coming Sunday night. A win there for Lamar Jackson and crew, and there will be no talk about the Patriots being able to waltz their way to a top seed. The Ravens at that point will be just one game behind New England, while owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But that’s going to need to actually happen before it garners serious consideration. For one, the Ravens lost 40-25 at home to the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots just beat the Cleveland Browns 27-13 in a game where the Patriots did not play particularly well.
And even if the Ravens do beat the Patriots next weekend (much stranger things have happened), they’ll need to be nearly perfect down the stretch, when they travel to L.A. to face the Rams, along with trips to Buffalo and Cleveland. They’ll also have home dates with the Texans and currently undefeated 49ers, plus a Week 17 meeting with the Steelers (that one is anybody’s guess, as the AFC North factor led to Baltimore needing overtime to beat Pittsburgh and their third-string quarterback in Week 5).
Are the 5-2 Ravens going to emerge from their bye and rattle off a 9-0 record? It’s not likely.
And all of that is assuming that the Patriots actually lose two games. With the way their defense is playing, with the way they are coached, and with the way their quarterback is still the greatest of all time, it’s getting more and more difficult to envision the Patriots suffering anything close to the 2015 late-season collapse that probably cost them a championship.
As a result, it’s getting easier and easier to start marking them down as the AFC’s top seed come January. That marking is made with pencil for now, but a head-to-head win over Baltimore next Sunday may go a long way in bringing out the ink.