It took 17 weeks and some ups and downs but the Patriots managed to clinch a spot in the postseason thanks to their convincing win over Jacksonville and some help from Tennessee.
The Patriots snapped their two-game losing streak by destroying an undermanned Jaguars team, 50-10, and then found out that the Titans had taken down Miami, clinching at least a wild card spot. New England (10-6) can still win the AFC East, but that will take a victory over the Dolphins to close the season coupled with a Jets win in Buffalo.
For a short time it looked like the Patriots might receive more than a little help on their playoff run as the Falcons took a 15-14 halftime lead over the Bills before Buffalo rallied in the second half and won going away, 29-15. That kept the Bills (10-6) in first place thanks to their better division record and now they need only to take care of New York in the finale to clinch their second straight division title.
The playoff race in the conference is still muddled, and there are two spots left to be determined. Five of the seven spots have been locked up but one of the last two will come down to Las Vegas and the Chargers, who will meet Sunday with the winner taking the final spot. Indy needs only to beat lowly Jacksonville to clinch a wild card. Technically, the Steelers (7-7-1) and Ravens (8-8) remain in contention but need a lot of help.
While we know the identity of five playoff teams, seeding remains in flux. Tennessee's win put the Titans in the top spot after the Chiefs eight-game winning streak ended in Cincinnati. Tennessee (11-5) defeated the Chiefs (11-5) in their head-to-head matchup, therefore the Titans need only to beat Houston to clinch the first-round bye. If the Titans fall, KC would vault back to No. 1 by taking care of Denver on the road. If both Tennessee and KC lose, the Bengals could take the No. 1 seed with a win in Cleveland. And the Patriots could grab the bye by winning and having the Bills, Titans and Chiefs all lose.
The Bengals (10-6) currently hold the three seed ahead of Buffalo thanks to a better conference record. Obviously those seeds could switch based on results on Sunday.
Here's a look at the current standings in the AFC:
|Rank||Team||Record||Conf. Record||Week 18 Opponent|
|2.||Kansas City||11-5||6-5||at Denver|
|5.||New England||10-6||8-3||at Miami|
|7.||L.A. Chargers||9-7||6-5||at Las Vegas|
|8.||Las Vegas||9-7||7-4||L.A. Chargers|
As things currently stand the Patriots would be headed back to Buffalo in two weeks for a wild card matchup. But they could wind up in a variety of spots including first or seventh. In fact, the Patriots could possibly finish in any seed other than No. 4. There are a host of variables to make the various scenarios possible, but the one known constant at this stage is the Patriots will be back in the playoffs.