By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Leading up to the 2021 Patriots season, we’ll be taking a look at a specific storyline that will have our attention throughout the season. Today we’ll try to figure out where Bill Belichick’s Patriots will figure into the AFC Playoff picture — or if they’ll miss the postseason for an unprecedented second straight season.

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It has been over two decades since the Patriots went two straight seasons without making the playoffs, a concept that certainly causes nightmares for young children in this area. Going two straight years without playoff football just didn’t happen during the Brady-Belichick era, with the last such occurrence coming back in 1999 and 2000. That was when Drew Bledsoe was still heaving the pigskin for the Patriots and Brady was just a pudgy rookie crushing pizzas in the locker room.

During that incredible two-decade run with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in charge, the Patriots missed the postseason just twice overall. They were more likely to make the Super Bowl than miss the playoffs. We were all very, very spoiled.

Now the franchise is beginning a new chapter with Mac Jones at quarterback, and though a spot in the postseason is no guarantee, there is some hope that the team will at least be in the mix for the playoffs after a one-year absence. If the rookie can take care of the ball, and if New England’s running backs run as wild as we expect them to, then the team should be in a good position to compete for a playoff spot. Most of their success hinges on their stout defense, since the Patriots will be able to actually stop the run this year and will cause some migraines with what should be an incredible pass rush. There are questions about the secondary, but the defense will have New England in contention for a playoff spot all season.

That spot will be a Wild Card spot, with the Buffalo Bills looking to start their own dominant run atop the AFC East. That was a laughable concept just a few years ago, but now Buffalo has one of the NFL’s best young QBs in Josh Allen. With dangerous weapons around him and another year of experience, Allen will once again be an MVP candidate in 2021. And he has a phenomenal defense on the other side of the field that puts the Bills right at the top of the AFC.

The Kansas City Chiefs are still the team to beat in the conference, and will likely remain in that spot as long as Patrick Mahomes is around, but the Bills aren’t far behind as long as everything continues to click in Buffalo. It’s not going to be easy, but the Patriots are going to have to try to steal one of their two games against the Bills.

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If they can’t, then taking care of business against the other AFC East teams will be paramount for the Patriots. They need to take full advantage of two games against the Jets, a team that is not only touting a baby-faced rookie quarterback in No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson, but a rookie head coach in Robert Saleh. (He is not as baby-faced as his quarterback.) The Dolphins, coming off a 10-6 season in 2020, will be the main competition for second place in the division. They could really go either way, but with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback for a full season, it feels like Miami will be somewhere in the 10-12 wins range. Four or more losses in division play will doom New England’s chances at a postseason spot.

The AFC North will be a jumbled mess at the top between the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. The Tennessee Titans should easily claim the AFC South, while the Chiefs will run away with the AFC West. We can confidently (as confidently as you can before any game is actually played) whittle the AFC Wild Card race down to the Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Patriots, Dolphins and whichever two of the three aforementioned AFC North teams don’t win the division. You could maybe throw the Indianapolis Colts into that mix too, if they get a few breaks to go their way. That would make it seven teams competing for three playoff spots in the AFC.

New England will face the Chargers and Browns during the regular season, with games against the Dolphins book-ending the year — all of which are games that should carry huge postseason ramifications.

With three Wild Card spots available, the Patriots could maybe (a big, big, big maybe) sneak into the playoffs with a 10-7 record. Predicting win totals before a snap has been played — especially with a rookie QB at the helm — is never a wise endeavor, but with their defense, this Patriots team feels like one that could get to double digit wins. But that alone will not get them into the playoffs, and they’re going to have to beat some talented teams to really earn a spot.

But at least this year, the Patriots should be in contention for the playoffs a lot longer than they were in 2020. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see the Patriots return to the postseason after a brutal one-year absence.

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Tune in to Patriots-Dolphins on Sunday, Sept. 12 on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Coverage begins Wednesday night with Patriots 1st Down at 10:30 p.m. on TV38 and continues Friday night with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m. on WBZ! Our opening day coverage begins with Patriots GameDay at 11:30 a.m., the Patriots and the Dolphins kick off at 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!