There’s one game remaining in the regular season for the Patriots, and it has come down to a simple approach: Win and the No. 2 seed is theirs for the second straight year. Lose, and start the playoffs as a (gulp) wild-card team.
The Chiefs crushed the Bears, 26-3, Sunday night, keeping the heat on New England in the race for the second seed. This means the Patriots have to beat the Dolphins on Sunday at Gillette to secure the No. 2 spot behind Baltimore.
The other option? With a loss to a lowly Miami team — however unlikely — and a Kansas City home win over the Los Angeles Chargers, New England would fall to No. 3 and open the playoffs at home in the wild-card round against either Pittsburgh, Tennessee, or Oakland.
Because both the Patriots and Chiefs games will start at 1 p.m., it means New England won’t be able to rest many of its banged-up regulars, at least at the start.
After Saturday’s win over the Bills, the Patriots sounded like a team that knew it would have to earn its way into the postseason.
“It’s another playoff game — win next week and we get a first-round bye,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “We don’t need much more motivation than that.”
When it comes to the rest of the AFC, most of the picture came into focus earlier in the weekend, as five of the six teams are in: Baltimore (13-2), New England (12-3), Kansas City (11-4), Houston (10-5), and Buffalo (10-5).
On Sunday, the Ravens’ win over Cleveland meant Baltimore clinched the No. 1 seed and home field throughout the postseason.
“It feels good,’’ Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters after the game. ‘‘The players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for it. It’s hard to win any game in the NFL. When you put together this kind of season, it’s quite an accomplishment.”
One interesting wrinkle involves next weekend’s Baltimore-Pittsburgh game: With the Ravens locked into the No. 1 seed and the Steelers needing a win (and some help) to land the sixth and final seed, would Baltimore rest its starters and give Pittsburgh an edge?
“I’ll sit down with the leadership council [Monday] before we meet,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll probably talk about that. I’ll be real interested in what the players think about that, [and] the coaches. One thing I want to emphasize is that no matter what we do, the emphasis is going to be on winning the football game. We want that 14th win.”
In addition, the Texans clinched the AFC South with their win over the Bucs on Saturday. Houston still could move up to the third seed if the Chiefs stumble in their finale and Houston wins Sunday.
As for the wild-card race, the Bills are locked in to the fifth seed. The complications arise with the sixth seed — the Steelers’ loss to the Jets Sunday leaves them needing a win and some help to land the final AFC spot. Tennessee (8-7) is battling Pittsburgh (8-7) for the No. 6 seed, and the Steelers need a win over the Ravens and a Titans’ loss to Houston to reach the postseason. The 7-8 Raiders also still have a slim chance.
Pittsburgh, which had nosed its way back into the playoff picture after an 0-3 start, has lost consecutive games to the Bills and Jets and is in danger of missing the postseason in back-to-back years.
“Not a lot to say, and appropriately so,” Tomlin said after the shocking loss to the Jets. “It’s put-up-or-shut-up time, and we didn’t get the job done. We accept responsibility for the fact and the ramifications of it. It’s just unfortunate.”
Christopher Price can be reached at email@example.com.