FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Even though there's still some regular season football left in 2019, we already know all four AFC division winners this Week 16 Sunday morning. The Patriots, of course, are champs of the East, while the Ravens, Chiefs, and Texans have clinched the North, West, and South crowns.
This is important information because it helps determine 2019 playoff seeding and gives us the remaining puzzle pieces for New England's 2020 regular season opponent slate.
AFC EAST REGULARS: SIX GAMES
By virtue of the league's rotating schedule formula, we already knew 14 of the 16 foes long before today. As always, six games remain constant. The Patriots will host their three AFC East rivals – the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets – and travel to Buffalo, Miami, and New York to take them on in their hometowns.
Eight of the other 10 contests are subject to the NFL's rotating schedule formula, which is designed to ensure that every club in both conferences plays one another at least once every four years, with the venues alternating between home and road games.
WEST WORLD: EIGHT OPPONENTS
In 2020, New England is scheduled to take on all four members of the NFC West, just as the Patriots did four years prior in 2016. Next season, the teams that visited New England in 2016 – the Seahawks and Rams – will welcome the Patriots to Seattle and Los Angeles, respectively, while the Cardinals and 49ers (who both hosted the Patriots in 2016) will journey to Foxborough.
Like the NFC West, the AFC West quartet is also next up in 2020 on the Patriots' rotating schedule. Three seasons earlier in 2017, New England played the Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Chargers at Gillette Stadium, while the Broncos and Raiders contests took place on the road (the Denver game was at Mile High, but Oakland and New England met in Mexico City as part of the NFL's International Series).
Next autumn, those venues will be reversed. The Broncos and (soon-to-be-relocated-to-Las-Vegas) Raiders will travel to New England, while the Patriots must visit L.A. and K.C.
As noted at the top of this post, the final two Patriots foes next season are determined based on the final standings in each division this season. Those spots are always filled by one team in each of the remaining two AFC divisions that aren't fully included in the triennial rotation. One is a road game, the other a home game, and both teams must finish in the same place in their respective divisions as the Patriots did in theirs in the previous season.
Because the Patriots will be defending AFC East Champions in 2020 (for an NFL record 11th straight season), they will face the 2019 winners of the AFC North and South, the aforementioned Ravens and Texans, respectively. Again, the locations are determined by the rotating system.
In 2017, New England hosted the then-AFC South champions (coincidentally, also Houston) and visited the reigning AFC North-winning Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Those venues will flip-flop in 2020, meaning the Patriots will welcome Baltimore, the 2019 North winners, to Foxborough next regular season, and take a trip to Houston, the 2019 South champs, for the second consecutive season.
With a trio of West Coast trips on the Patriots' 2020 docket, it will be interesting to see how the NFL's schedule-makers slot those games. If any combination of those two Los Angeles matchups and the Seattle trip are in back-to-back weeks, New England might elect to practice remotely in the Pacific Time Zone, as they've done on a number of previous occasions in similar circumstances.
Most recently, in 2017, for instance, the Patriots traveled to Colorado to play the Broncos, then stayed in the area for a week to practice at altitude before heading south to Mexico City to face the Raiders.
Such travel plans won't be finalized, of course, until the complete schedule, with precise dates and times for all 2020 regular season contests, is announced by the NFL, most likely in mid-April, prior to the 2020 NFL Draft. Stay tuned at that time for a thorough analysis of the Patriots' 2020 regular season schedule.