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Final AFC East gauntlet holds Patriots playoff fate

Despite a disappointing two-game losing streak, the Patriots' road to playoffs still goes through the AFC East.

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Despite a second-straight jarring loss that was decided in the game's final moments, the 7-8 Patriots somehow still control their own fates for a playoff spot in the AFC as of Monday morning, due in large part to Miami's second-half collapse in a loss to the Packers.

With a seventh playoff spot now available and a year of parity in the middle of the conference, the Pats' post-season dreams remain alive if they can somehow win both of their final games, but it's a tall order against two rivals that have owned recent history against New England. Still, it provides a sense of clarity and a path against two teams the Patriots should know as well as anyone.

Finish 9-8 with a winning record and they're in. Finish 2022 with a losing record for the second time in three years and they're out, left to wonder how they can return to prominence against the teams that they're guaranteed to face at least twice per year.

New England will first face the Dolphins in Foxborough this Sunday for their regular season home finale before traveling to Buffalo for the 17th and final game. Entering any season, the road to the playoffs always starts through the division and that remains true here in Weeks 17 and 18. However, the matchups against these two particular teams over the last two-plus seasons have not been kind and were symptomatic of New England's lost dominion over a division that they owned for two decades.

The problems really began late in 2019 with the Patriots needing to knock off a 4-11 Dolphins team in the season finale to secure a bye. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Miami pulled off the upset 27-24 despite dropping their earlier contest in Week 2, 43-0, setting the stage for a cataclysmic playoff loss at home to the Titans that signaled Tom Brady's final game as a Patriot.

The Patriots would then spring Cam Newton on Miami in 2020's opener, getting a 21-11 victory, but since then it's been all Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, with Miami winning four straight. That included this year's opener where the Patriots lost the turnover battle 0-3 in a lackluster 20-7 defeat.

Coming off four-straight losses, Miami looks ripe for the taking but that is largely contingent on Tua continuing the mistakes that marred the second half of their loss to the Packers when he ended the game with three-straight interceptions. Still, Miami remains an explosive offense that can strike from anywhere on the field and one that will provide plenty of challenges for the Patriots defense that has been hit hard by injuries at cornerback.

Buffalo has experienced similar success since stopping Newton's comeback attempt in Week 8 of 2020, winning five of six with New England's lone win coming in storm-like conditions last season where the Patriots prevailed 14-10 despite Mac Jones attempting just three passes.

In three games since, including last year's Wild Card playoff round, Buffalo's average margin of victory is over 17 points, as the Patriots have struggled to keep pace with Josh Allen and his offense. In this year's Week 13 24-10 victory for Buffalo the Pats had their second-lowest offensive output of the season, just 242 total yards.

Outside of the weather game, the Patriots haven't given the Bills the same kind of problems that the Dolphins and Jets have, especially in the non-competitive playoff game last January. But what will Buffalo be playing for next weekend? Perhaps homefield, perhaps nothing. Either way, with a win over Miami, New England will have something to play for and that might just be enough to flip recent AFC East history on its head.

Now, after all of the twists and turns of the 2022 season, it still all boils down to the division. How the Patriots perform against these divisional rivals that they see twice a year, that they should know as well as anyone and that they should be constructed to compete against, will weigh heavily over the offseason. Despite a recent lack of success against these teams and another sputtering post-Thanksgiving stretch, the Patriots still have a chance to write an unexpected ending to their 2022 season.

"As a team, we've just got to come back and be consistent for the rest of the games we play and the rest of the time we're here," summed up Matthew Judon following the loss to Cincinnati. "But also as a team, man we are just a band of brothers and we stand behind each other. Like I said, we expect each other to play better every game. It doesn't matter how many tackles you got. How many yards you got, how many touchdowns you got. We expect more from each other. And that's how you lean on each other and become a good team."

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