While there is no doubt that the Patriots can punch their own ticket by winning out, with three weeks to go the playoffs seem a world away in the AFC.
Unlike in the NFC where two teams, Green Bay and San Francisco, have already clinched a division title, and two, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, seem to have a handle on the final stages of the season, the AFC is still up in the air. With just three games to play 11 teams have a legitimate shot a postseason play. The Patriots know that if the defeat the next three opponents they will win the AFC East and likely maintain at least the number two seed in the conference. But what if they lose one or two of the games, what then. Here is a breakdown of the other teams still in the playoff picture and how they may intermingle with the Patriots playoff chances, with extra notice on the two division opponents still alive and imprinted on the upcoming schedule.
The Dolphins remaining opponents are the Raiders, at Minnesota and at the Patriots. If they win out they will win the AFC East. If the Patriots defeat the Dolphins on the final day of the season, New England would then hold all tie breakers with Miami by virtue of a season split and better division record. With the way the season has unfolded in the AFC, there is a strong likelihood that both teams will drop at least one game between now and Dec. 29, meaning that game could potentially be for the division title. In terms of wild cards, the Dolphins will have beaten San Diego and Denver and lost to Kansas City.
New York (7-6)
After a poor start, the Jets have jumped back into the playoff race. The Jets remaining schedule is at Chicago, at the Patriots and a home finale against the Packers. If they win out they would only be 10-6 and would have split with both the Dolphins and the Patriots. They would then hold the tiebreaker with both teams based on a better division record. In terms of wild card scenarios based on at best a 6-6 conference record and losses to Kansas City and Oakland, although they did beat both San Diego and Denver.
Outside of the AFC East the Patriots could potentially be battling a group of teams that includes Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Oakland, San Diego, Denver and Kansas City for playoff spots. With losses to three of the four AFC West teams, the Patriots would beat only the Chiefs in a tiebreaker. A win over Tennessee this Monday would not only give a tiebreaker win over the Titans, but would improve New England's conference record that currently sits at a less than impressive 5-4. Excluding the Jets and Broncos, the Patriots currently have the worst conference record of the potential AFC playoff teams.
Although the picture is anything but clear, one thing is clear for the Patriots: Win and you are in. Outside of that, a lot is going to happen over the next three weeks, things that can't even be remotely predicted at this point. Love it or hate it, parity has set in to the AFC and it has left us with a playoff race that will surely come down to the wire.