The Patriots awoke Monday morning as AFC East champions, their first goal of the season — and every season — accomplished, and they had the T-shirts and hats to prove it.
But they also awoke with the knowledge that there is still plenty to play for in Week 17 against Buffalo.
Clinching their fifth straight division title only guarantees New England one of the top four seeds in the AFC, and with all of its fellow division winners losing at least one game in recent weeks, the number of scenarios that could unfold during Sunday’s games is almost overwhelming.
As it stands, AFC West winner Denver (12-3) is the top seed, followed by the Patriots (11-4), AFC North winner Cincinnati (10-5), and AFC South winner Indianapolis (10-5).
Kansas City (11-4) is locked into the fifth seed as the first wild card, and one of four teams — Baltimore, Miami, and San Diego, all 8-7, and Pittsburgh (7-8) — will be the sixth seed and second wild card.
The Broncos lost to San Diego on Thursday night of Week 15, opening the door for the Patriots to take control of the No. 1 seed, since if the teams finish the season with the same record, New England’s win over Denver would give it the tiebreaker.
But the Patriots lost to the Dolphins three days later, a blow to their chances of claiming that first seed, which means playing at home in the divisional round and conference championship (if they advanced).
It is still possible, however, for New England to be the No. 1 seed, if it beats the Bills Sunday and the Raiders upset the Broncos. Under that scenario, both teams would be 12-4 and the Patriots’ head-to-head win would tip things in their favor.
If the Patriots and the Broncos both win, the Patriots will be the two seed, and still get a first-round bye. The week off might be the most important thing for this banged-up team.
If New England loses to Buffalo, however, things get a bit crazy.
The two seed would be on the table even with a loss, if both the Ravens beat the Bengals on the road, and if the Jaguars upset the Colts in Indy.
But if the Patriots lose, and either the Bengals or Colts win with the other losing, the team that wins would become the two seed, with New England slipping to the third spot.
And if the Patriots lose and both Cincinnati and Indianapolis win, New England would be the four seed, hosting the Chiefs on wild-card weekend. With all three teams finishing with the same 11-5 record under that scenario, the Bengals would be the two seed by virtue of their wins over both the Patriots and Colts, and the Colts would be the three seed because they would have a better intra-conference record (9-3 for Indianapolis vs. 8-4 for New England).
That is why Patriots coach Bill Belichick was emphasizing during a Monday conference call that there is still work to do, as his coaching staff reviewed the film of the win in Baltimore and began preparations for their meeting with the Bills.
Since players are getting Christmas off, the schedule for the week has been modified, with the first day of game preparation and practice Tuesday, Wednesday off, and things being wrapped up Thursday and Friday.
“A great team win [vs. Baltimore], great contributions from everybody,” Belichick said. “The team played really hard, showed a lot of character and toughness. I’m really proud of what they did, but we have to quickly turn the page. As good as that felt, we have to turn the page and get onto Buffalo.
“Obviously they played well in their win over Miami and have been playing [well]. Really they’ve had a lot of good moments throughout the year, it wasn’t just yesterday. We had a great game with them in the opener, but a lot of water under the bridge since then. I’m sure it will be a very competitive game with them, like it always is. They gave us all we wanted and more in that opening game.”