Tom Brady has a favorite saying, that the NFL season doesn’t begin until Thanksgiving.
Well, game on.
Turkey Day is only days away, and the NFL has just six weeks left in the regular season. The Patriots didn’t play on Sunday, but several games affected them in the AFC playoff standings.
Let’s take a look at the top contenders (in order of the current standings), assess each team’s outlook, and how much of a threat they are for the Patriots:
1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)
Week 11: at Rams (Monday night).
Outlook: The Chiefs play a potential Super Bowl preview Monday night against the Rams, but even if they lose, they will still lead the Steelers for the No. 1 playoff seed. The Chiefs’ final stretch doesn’t look too daunting, either – they have a bye next week, and their final five games includes three games at home, and two games against the Raiders. They’re looking at no worse than 13-3, and if they beat the Rams, probably no worse than 14-2.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? In the worst way. The last thing the Patriots want to do is travel to Arrowhead for a playoff game. And even if the Patriots leapfrog the Chiefs in the standings — the Patriots do have the head-to-head tiebreaker — that Chiefs offense is not the least bit intimidated by playing in Gillette.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2-1)
Week 11: Beat Jaguars, 20-16
Outlook: The Patriots were on the verge of overtaking the Steelers for the No. 2 seed on Sunday, until the Jaguars put forth one of the worst choke jobs of the year. The Steelers’ Week 1 tie against the Browns currently gives them a half-game lead over the Patriots for the No. 2 seed, but the Week 15 showdown against the Pats in Pittsburgh could determine who gets a bye and a home game in the playoffs, and who has to play on Wild Card Weekend. The Steelers don’t have an easy closing schedule, with road games at Denver and the Saints and home games against the Chargers, Patriots and Bengals.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? More so this season than in years past. The Patriots have owned the Steelers recently, but the Patriots aren’t playing well on offense, and the defense still isn’t great. I like the Patriots’ chances in Foxborough, but not in Pittsburgh.
3. New England Patriots (7-3)
Week 11: Bye
Outlook: Fortunately, four of their last six games are against the lousy AFC East. But it won’t be a total cakewalk. Three of their next four games are on the road, where they have struggled with a 2-3 record. They play the Jets and Dolphins on the road, games that are never easy. A Week 13 visit from the Vikings won’t be easy, and the Week 15 game at Pittsburgh could define the season. The Patriots might have to go 5-1 or 6-0 to avoid playing on Wild Card Weekend for the first time since 2009.
4. Houston Texans (7-3)
Week 11: Beat Redskins, 23-21
Outlook: Where did this team come from? After starting 0-3, Bill O’Brien’s squad has now won seven straight to not only grab control of the AFC South, but suddenly enter the conversation for the No. 1 seed. The defense has been outstanding, Deshaun Watson is rounding into form, and their closing schedule is filled with cupcakes: Home games against the Titans, Browns, Colts and Jaguars, and road games at the Jets and Eagles.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? The Pats own the head-to-head tiebreaker, but the Texans look like they’re going to keep winning games. The Patriots could actually end up as – gulp – the No. 4 seed.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (7-3)
Week 11: Lost to Broncos, 23-22
Outlook: Sunday’s loss ended their six-game win streak and probably cost the Chargers a shot at the AFC West title. But they’re sitting pretty for one of the wild cards, and will be a tough out for whichever team earns the No. 4 seed. The Chargers have tough road games left at Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Denver, but also get Arizona, Cincinnati, and Baltimore at home.
6. Baltimore Ravens (5-5)
Week 11: Beat Bengals, 24-21
Outlook: The Ravens currently hold the final wild-card spot due to having a better conference record (5-3) than other 5-5 teams. They still have tough road games at the Chiefs and Chargers, and look like an 8-8 team.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? Certainly not with Lamar Jackson, who looks like he has a long way to go, and probably not if Joe Flacco comes back, either. The Ravens have been an inconsistent mess this year, and are a shell of the old Ravens teams that put fear into the Patriots.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (5-5)
Week 11: Lost to Ravens, 24-21
Outlook: Sunday’s loss dropped them out of the wild-card spot, thanks to a 3-3 conference record. They still have two games with the Browns and one with the Raiders, but also tough road games at the Chargers and Steelers.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? The Bengals? Uh, no.
8. Miami Dolphins (5-5)
Week 11: Bye
Outlook: Trail the Bengals because they lost the head-to-head matchup, but still have a decent 4-3 conference record and have a shot at the wild card. Have tough road games at Indianapolis and Minneapolis left, and a tough home game against the Patriots in Week 14.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? To win the division? Not a chance. But the Patriots often have trouble playing in Miami, and if the Dolphins trip them up in Week 14, it could seriously hurt the Patriots’ chances at a first-round bye.
9. Indianapolis Colts (5-5)
Week 11: Beat Titans, 38-10
Outlook: The Colts are rolling, winning their fourth straight on Sunday to enter the playoff conversation. Andrew Luck and the offense have caught fire, scoring 36 points per game over their last five. They are 4-4 in the conference, and have a big game at home against Miami Sunday.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? The Patriots already took care of business back in Week 5, but the way the Colts are playing now, I don’t think the Patriots would be too eager for a rematch, even if it’s at Gillette again.
10. Tennessee Titans (5-5)
Week 11: Lost to Colts, 38-10
Outlook: Suffered a huge emotional letdown after last week’s big win over the Patriots. And that has been the Titans’ problem this year — two steps forward, and two steps back. The schedule doesn’t look too daunting, with four of their last six games at home, against the Jets, Jaguars, Redskins, and Colts. But they are 3-5 in the conference and just too inconsistent this year.
Are they a threat for the Patriots? In Nashville, yes. In Foxborough, no.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.