With just two games to go the Patriots find themselves in unfamiliar territory. While they still control their own destiny in a fight for a first-round bye, they also have yet to wrap up as much as a playoff spot. In fact, depending on a variety of factors New England could finish with any of the six seeds except No. 5, as well as out of the postseason altogether.
We'll try to explain, although don't blame us for the popsicle headache that is likely to ensue ...
First, the Patriots would clinch the AFC East with one win in their final two games, therefore eliminating the possibility of being a wild card.
The 10-4 Patriots currently stand with the No. 2 seed, one game behind both Denver and Kansas City, who each stand at 11-3. The Broncos currently own the tiebreaker over the Chiefs, therefore they hold the top spot while the Chiefs would drop to No. 5 as the first wild card. In order for the Patriots to capture the No. 1 seed, they would need both to lose at least once. New England holds the edge in the tiebreaker over Denver based on their 34-31 victory in the teams' lone meeting.
However, a Broncos loss would only allow the Patriots to move up if Kansas City loses as well. Otherwise the Chiefs would remain ahead of the Patriots as the AFC West champ and take the No. 1 seed. If the Chiefs lose one of their remaining games (Indy, at San Diego), the Patriots would win the tiebreaker based on conference record.
Assuming the Broncos or Chiefs win out, the Patriots could still get the second seed with two wins. If they drop one of their remaining games, then Cincinnati and Indianapolis would need to lose at least one game. If the Bengals win out and finish 11-5, they would have the advantage over the Patriots based on head-to-head while the 11-5 Colts would top New England based on a better conference record. A full list of tiebreaking rules can be found here.
If both teams win out and all three finish 11-5, the Bengals would be 2, the Colts 3 and the Patriots would drop to 4.
Moving down the list of scenarios, the only way the Patriots can finish with the 6 seed is by losing both games while Miami wins both, thus giving the Dolphins the division crown based on their 4-2 division record compared to New England's 3-3 mark (assuming a loss to Buffalo).
This bleak scenario could actually get worse if Baltimore beats Cincinnati in its finale and the Bengals manage to win at home against Minnesota on Sunday. That would leave the Ravens as AFC North Champs, the Dolphins atop the AFC East while Cincinnati and New England would be tied at 10-6. Since the Bengals beat the Patriots, they would grab the final playoff spot while New England's season would come to an end.
Confused? If so here's a list of clinching scenarios the NFL sent out for the Week 16 games in the AFC.
CLINCHED: Denver – playoff spot
Indianapolis – AFC South
Kansas City – playoff spot
Denver clinches AFC West division and a first-round bye with:
1) DEN win KC loss
Denver clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) DEN win KC loss NE loss or tie
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England clinches AFC East division with:
1) NE win or tie OR
2) MIA loss or tie
New England clinches a first-round bye with: 1) NE win CIN loss or tie IND loss or tie OR 2) NE tie CIN loss IND loss New England clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CIN loss or tie
Cincinnati clinches AFC North division with:
1) CIN win BAL loss or tie OR
2) CIN tie BAL loss
Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CIN win MIA loss or tie OR
2) CIN tie MIA loss
Baltimore clinches a playoff spot with:
1) BAL win MIA loss SD loss or tie
Miami clinches a playoff spot with:
1) MIA win BAL loss CIN loss