The Patriots will be playing in January — that much is certain after they defeated the Bengals Sunday and clinched their 11th straight playoff berth.
But unlike in previous seasons, the Patriots’ playoff seeding is still up for grabs as they enter Week 16. They could get a first-round bye for the 10th straight season, or host a home game on wild-card weekend for the first time since 2009. And they still have an outside (very outside) chance of landing home-field advantage or — egads! — playing on the road as a wild-card team.
With two weeks to go, let’s break down the AFC playoff race and how the NFL’s tiebreaking scenarios will affect the Patriots and other teams in the conference (disclaimer: This breakdown is my interpretation of the NFL’s tiebreaking rules, and I’m doing it by hand, so please don’t hold it against me if I forget or flub a scenario):
■ First, here are the current AFC playoff standings, and the remaining games for each team. Realistically, the race is down to seven teams for six spots:
1. Baltimore 12-2 (at Cleveland, vs. Pittsburgh)
2. New England 11-3 (vs. Bills, vs. Dolphins)
3. Kansas City 10-4 (at Chicago, vs. Chargers)
4. Houston 9-5 (at Tampa Bay, vs. Tennessee)
5. Buffalo 10-4 (at New England, vs. Jets)
6. Pittsburgh 8-6 (at Jets, at Baltimore)
7. Tennessee 8-6 (vs. New Orleans, at Houston)
Now let’s go seed by seed:
■ No. 1 seed: Baltimore’s to lose.
Likeliest scenario: All the Ravens have to do is win one of their last two games, and home-field advantage is theirs.
• The Patriots’ only shot at the top seed is to win out, and have the Ravens lose out.
• The Chiefs also have a chance if the Ravens lose out and the Patriots drop a game.
• If the Ravens, Chiefs, and Patriots are all 12-4, the Chiefs would get the top seed because of having swept the Ravens and Patriots. The Ravens would get the No. 2 seed, and the Patriots the 3 seed, because of their head-to-head matchups. If there is a four-way tie at 12-4 including the Bills, it would be: 1. Chiefs, 2. Ravens, 3. Patriots, 5. Bills.
• If the Chiefs and Ravens finish 12-4 and the Patriots 11-5, the Chiefs would get the No. 1 seed because they beat the Ravens in Week 3.
•The Bills do not appear to have a path to the top seed. They lose the tiebreaker to the Patriots (more on that below), and lose the tiebreaker to the Ravens for a head-to-head loss in Week 14.
If there is a three-way tie at 12-4 between Baltimore, Kansas City, and Buffalo, the Ravens would get the third seed for having the worst conference record (8-4 compared with 9-3 for the other two), and the Chiefs would edge the Bills for the top seed for having a better strength of victory (currently .489 to .329).
■ AFC East and the No. 2 seed: New England’s to lose.
Likeliest scenario: Patriots win the AFC East and finish with the second seed and a first-round bye. All they need is one win (or one Bills loss) in their last two games to clinch the division, and two wins will wrap up a bye.
• Even if the Patriots lose to Buffalo, the Patriots would still clinch the AFC East with a win over the Dolphins in Week 17. The Patriots win any tiebreaker over the Bills because of a better record against common opponents (11-1 vs. 9-3). Both teams lost to the Ravens, while the Bills lost to the Eagles and Browns, whom the Patriots defeated.
• The same holds true if the Patriots and Bills both finish at 11-5, or if the Patriots and Bills are involved in any three-way ties. The only way the Patriots finish below the Bills is if they lose out while the Bills win out.
• As for the No. 2 seed, four teams are in it: Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs, and Bills. If the Patriots win out they clinch it. But if the Patriots and Chiefs end up tied at 12-4, the Chiefs would get the No. 2 seed because of their head-to-head victory.
• As mentioned above, a three-way tie between the Chiefs, Ravens and Patriots at 12-4 would put those teams in that order. A three-way tie between the Chiefs, Bills and Ravens at 12-4 would put the teams in that order.
• If the Ravens finish 13-3, the Bills and Chiefs both finish 12-4, and the Patriots are 11-5, the Chiefs would get the No. 2 seed over the Bills. Both teams would have the same conference record (9-3) and record vs. common opponents (3-1), but the Chiefs would win the tiebreaker based on strength of victory (.489 to .329). The Bills would get the third seed, and the Patriots the fifth seed.
• The Bills also could get the second seed if they win out, the Patriots lose out, and the Chiefs drop a game. Or if the Bills win out, and the Ravens and Patriots both lose out.
■ No. 3 seed: Kansas City’s to lose.
Likeliest scenario: The Ravens and Patriots clinching the top two seeds, which would force the Chiefs to host a wild-card game.
• The Chiefs will clinch at least the third seed if they win their final two games.
• But if the Chiefs drop one game, the Texans could sneak into the No. 3 seed if they win out, thanks to their win over the Chiefs in Week 6.
• The Bills would get the third seed if they win out and the Patriots lose out, and finished tied with the Chiefs at 12-4. The Chiefs would get the second seed in this scenario.
• And the Titans have a microscopic chance at the third seed: They win out, the Texans and Chiefs both lose out, and the Patriots win the AFC East, putting the Titans and Chiefs at 10-6 and the Texans at 9-7. The Titans would win the tiebreaker over the Chiefs because of their win over K.C. in Week 10.
• The only team that can’t get the third seed is the Steelers, since the Ravens already have clinched the AFC North.
■ No. 4 seed: Up for grabs among Houston, Kansas City, and Tennessee.
Likeliest scenario: The Chiefs win out, the Texans win one game, and Houston earns the seed.
• The Texans will clinch the AFC South title with a win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, even if they lose to the Titans in Week 17. In that scenario, both the Texans and Titans would be 10-6, but the Texans would win the tiebreaker based on division record (4-2 vs. 3-3). A Week 17 win over the Titans would also clinch the AFC South for the Texans.
• The Titans can win the AFC South and get the fourth seed only if they win out and the Texans lose out.
• If there is a four-way tie among the Patriots, Bills, Chiefs, and Texans at 11-5, the Patriots would win the AFC East, but the Texans would get the No. 2 seed because they swept both opponents. The Chiefs would get the No. 3 seed because they beat the Patriots, the Patriots would get the No. 4 seed, and the Bills would get the No. 5 seed.
■ No. 5 seed: Most likely Buffalo.
Likeliest scenario: The Bills finishing fifth, the lowest they can finish.
• There are only four options for the first wild card: New England, Buffalo, Houston, or Tennessee.
• The Patriots would have to lose out and the Bills would have to win out for the Patriots to finish here.
• If the Bills and Titans are tied at 10-6, the Bills win the tiebreaker, beating the Titans in Week 5.
• If the Bills, Steelers, and Titans are tied at 10-6, the Bills would get the fifth seed because they defeated the Steelers and Titans. The Steelers would then get the sixth seed because of a better conference record than the Titans (8-4 vs. 7-5).
• If the Texans and Steelers both finish 9-7, the Texans would get the fifth seed because of a better conference record (8-4 vs. 7-5).
• If the Texans, Titans, and Steelers finish 9-7, the Texans get the fourth seed, the Steelers get the sixth seed, and the Titans are out of the playoffs.
• The Steelers, currently 8-6, cannot get the fifth seed. If the Bills and Steelers are tied at 10-6, the Bills would win the tiebreaker because of their win over Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
■ No. 6 seed: Pittsburgh or Tennessee (probably).
Likeliest scenario: A toss-up between Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
• There are too many scenarios to get into here because, technically, Cleveland (6-8) and Oakland (6-8) are barely alive.
• Just know that the Steelers currently own the tiebreaker over the Titans for having a better conference record (6-4 vs. 6-5). The Steelers have two conference games left, the Titans only one.
• A Steelers loss to the Jets on Sunday would make things interesting. If the Titans and Steelers both finish with the same record and conference record, the next tiebreaker is record in common games, and both would be 3-2. The fourth tiebreaker is strength of victory, where the Titans currently hold a decided advantage (.450 to .311).
• So for the Titans to leapfrog the Steelers, they either need to finish with a better record, or have the Steelers lose one game, plus the Titans need to beat the Texans in Week 17. If the Titans and Steelers finish 9-7, but the Titans’ loss is to the Texans, the Steelers still get the tiebreaker because of conference record.
• And we won’t even get into three-way tiebreakers, because by now, everyone’s head is ready to explode.