Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Patriots can clinch division on Sunday, but seeding is far from decided

The New England Patriots have just concluded what was widely perceived to be the toughest part of their schedule.  However, the toughest part of their schedule may, in fact, be ahead of them.

Sure, in going 4-1 against the likes of the Broncos. Colts, Lions, Packers and Chargers the Patriots endured and even prospered against some of the best offenses that the league has to offer - and not too shabby a list of defenses either - but the real test for the current top seed in the AFC comes in the final three weeks of the regular season against the other three teams in their division.
Rivalries like the one with Buffalo are always dangerous propositions

The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are hovering just above the .500 mark for the season with identical 7-6 records and the Jets' season was doomed before it even started, but if history teaches us anything, it is that division rivals always tend to play above and beyond their capabilities when playing each other...

...and when you add in to that the fact that the Patriots have been steamrolling each of them for going on a decade and a half now, things like hate and revenge are motivating factors.

That said, the next three weeks presents itself like the proverbial Murderer's Row: The Dolphins in Foxborough this Sunday, then off to New York to play the Jets the following week, then the Patriots wrap up the regular season hosting the Buffalo Bills three days after Christmas.

Win all three, and New England is assured of the number one seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but if they lose even one all bets are off as the Denver Broncos are right on the Patriots' heels with a similar record, the only thing separating them being a week nine shellacking of the Broncos by New England and the resultant tie-breaking, head-to-head advantage that comes with it.

The math is very simple for the Patriots.  Win out and take the top seed in the conference, a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Losing even one game gives birth to a literal myriad of playoff possibilities:

Divisional Scenarios:

Miami 7-6:  By losing at home to the Baltimore Ravens, the Dolphins blew their opportunity to make the AFC East interesting, but falling to 7-6 and a full three games behind New England, the only way that Miami can win the division now is by beating New England next Sunday in Foxborough as part of winning out, while the Patriots drop their last three games.

The chances of that happening are very slim.  Instead, the Patriots have a scenario where they can clinch the division with a win over the visiting Dolphins next week.

Despite the win, the Ravens are still on the outside looking in behind Pittsburgh, who holds a tie breaker over Baltimore based on a better division record.

Buffalo 7-6:  The Bills losing to the Broncos last Sunday does not eliminate them from contention for a division title, but it does severely damage any hopes that they have of making the playoffs.

The Chiefs blowing a lead at Arizona gives Buffalo a glimmer of hope in the wildcard standings though Kansas City holds a head-to-head tie breaker between the two, which is essentially a one game lead with just three games remaining, plus Buffalo would have to overcome Pittsburgh and Baltimore and San Diego to even sniff the wildcard.

Their best bet of making the post season is to win the division, the chances of which are slim to none.

Conference Scenarios:

Denver Broncos (10-3): The Broncos don't have a cake walk of a schedule, and to lose at least once more is a possibility, though if Denver brings it's "A" game, they are tough to beat.  The Patriots certainly helped them out by beating their closest division rival last Sunday night in San Diego, meaning that the Broncos can clinch the AFC West with a win at San Diego this coming Sunday.  After that, their chances to clinch come at Cincinnati and then finishing at home against the resurgent Raiders.

Should Denver win out or even compile a better record than New England in the next three weeks, they will hold the number one seed.

Indianapolis Colts (9-4): A blowout victim to New England in week 11, the Colts have virtually no chance of overcoming the Patriots, who have a game up in the loss column and hold that head-to-head tie breaker, meaning, simply, that the Colts would have to win out against Houston, at Dallas and at Tennessee while the Patriots lose 2 of their final 3 in order for Indianapolis to gain one of the top 2 seeds. particularly since the Broncos have the same head-to-head advantage by virtue of their narrow week 1 win over the Colts.

On the upside, the Colts can clinch the AFC South division with a win over the Houston Texans at home this Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1): The Bengals will be lucky to come out of the regular season with anything more than a purple heart.

They lead the tough AFC North by a slim 1/2 game over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who stomped them last Sunday by a score of 42-21, and whom they play on the final Sunday of the season.  Also lurking just a half game back is the Baltimore Ravens, but Cincinnati holds the head-to-head tie breaker over them, meaning their lead over the Ravens is more like a game and a half.

The Bengals have a tough closing schedule of having to go to Cleveland this Sunday, then hosting the Broncos the following Sunday before going to Pittsburgh for the season finale.  they will be lucky to win the division, and any loss may doom their playoff chances.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5): Again, it would take the Patriots losing all three of their remaining games and the Steelers winning out for any sort of disruptive scenario to emerge concerning the two teams, but the possibility exists nevertheless.

With games remaining on the road at Atlanta and two home games remaining against Kansas City and Cincinnati, the possibility exists for the Steelers to sweep their final three games, but all one has to do its to look at the fact that Pittsburgh has lost to the Jets and Saints in the last four weeks to know that the possibility is a slim one, though a victory over the Bengals could set them up for a division title.

Longshots: The Ravens and Chargers, both 8-5, are longshots to make the playoffs, but both have the capability to play the spoiler as both have games remaining against playoff contenders - but neither have a realistic shot at unseating either New England or Denver from the top two seeds.

Neither do the Texans, Chiefs or Browns who are all 7-6 and are mathematically eliminated from gaining a top 2 seed in the AFC - but like their 8-5 counterparts, all have games remaining against playoff contenders and could figure in the spoiler role and could possibly make the playoffs if the right opportunities play themselves out.

It's a goofy cliche, but absolutely true: The New England Patriots are in control of their own destiny. If they win out against their division rivals, they also win every advantage there is of getting to the Super Bowl in Arizona - but lose just once, and their fate is controlled by someone else, and that's not the best way to fly.

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