By CBSBoston.com Staff

BOSTON (CBS) — After winning four straight games, the Patriots are now 6-4, firmly in the middle of the AFC playoff picture. With a winnable game scheduled for Thursday night in Atlanta, they have a very good chance of further solidifying their place within the playoff structure.

It’s worth taking a look, then, at the Patriots’ remaining schedule, and determining how that compares to the rest of the contenders in a crowded AFC playoff race.

First, there is the Patriots’ remaining schedule, which is as follows:

Week 11: at Atlanta, 4-5
Week 12: vs. Tennessee, 8-2
Week 13: at Buffalo, 6-3
Week 14: BYE WEEK
Week 15: at Indianapolis, 5-5
Week 16: vs. Buffalo, 6-3
Week 17: vs. Jacksonville, 2-7
Week 18: at Miami, 3-7

Those opponents have a combined 34-32 record (counting Buffalo twice) for a .515 winning percentage.

Now, here’s where the Patriots fit into the playoffs as of right now.

1. Tennessee, 8-2, AFC South Leader
2. Buffalo, 6-2, AFC East Leader
3. Baltimore, 6-3, AFC North Leader
4. Kansas City, 6-4, AFC West Leader

5. Pittsburgh, 5-3-1, Wild Card 1
6. New England, 6-4, Wild Card 2
7. L.A. Chargers, 5-4, Wild Card 3

8. Las Vegas, 5-4
9. Cincinnati, 5-4
10. Indianapolis, 5-5
11. Cleveland, 5-5
12. Denver, 5-5

With respect to the 3-7 Dolphins, 2-7 Jets, 2-7 Jaguars, and 1-8 Texans, that group of 12 teams represents the entirety of the playoff hopefuls in the AFC.

And, with some help from Tankathon, here’s where those teams rank in terms of remaining difficulty of schedule. They’re ranked here from easiest to hardest.

1. Tennessee, .336 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
2. L.A. Chargers, .473 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
3. Denver, .500 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
4. Buffalo, .513 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
5. New England, .515 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
6. Indianapolis, .523 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
7. Las Vegas, .539 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
8. Cincinnati, .547 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
9. Cleveland, .562 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
10. Kansas City, .577 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
11. Baltimore, .587 remaining opponents’ winning percentage
12. Pittsburgh, .600 remaining opponents’ winning percentage

Clearly, it could be better for the Patriots. But it could also be worse.

The Steelers, for example, have games remaining against the leaders of the AFC South, AFC North (twice), and AFC West. They have just one game against a team that currently has a losing record.

In the division, outside of the two head-to-head meetings with the Patriots, the Bills have the Buccaneers, Saints, Colts and Panthers, all of whom are currently playoff teams. The Bills, though, do have games against the Jets and Falcons.

The Titans having the easiest remaining schedule in the entire NFL bodes well for them to secure the first-round bye, even after losing Derrick Henry and placing Julio Jones on IR. They could split their two games vs. current playoff teams (Pittsburgh, New England) while going 4-1 against their sub-.500 opponents to finish the year at 13-4. It would be unlikely for Baltimore, Kansas City, or Buffalo to reach that record.

This is, of course, all speculative. Things change in a flash in the NFL, and the week-to-week differences from every team can occasionally cause whiplash.

Yet if you’re trying to find a wider lens to place the Patriots’ present position and future prospects, the team seems to be in prime position to — at the very least — return to the postseason after a painfully long one-year absence.

CBSBoston.com Staff