FOXBORO -- So now we know who the Patriots can't play in their first-round playoff game two weeks from now at Gillette Stadium: They can't play the Ravens or the Texans. (Actually, they knew going into today that they couldn't play the Texans . . . but that's besides the point.)
That means it'll be either Denver, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati coming to Foxboro for what the NFL calls the "divisional round", but is, in actuality, the AFC semifinals.
And we now also know that one of those teams will play the Patriots on Saturday, January 14, at 8 p.m.
Here's how it shook out:
The Ravens clinched the AFC North title, and the No. 2 seed, by beating the Bengals, 24-16. Baltimore, like New England, receives a first-round bye.
Cincinnati, however, qualified for the playoffs despite the loss because both the Broncos and Raiders lost. (The Bengals only needed one of them to lose, but both came through.) They're the No. 6 seed, and they'll travel to Houston for a wild-card weekend matchup next Saturday.
Because both the Broncos and Raiders lost, Denver -- and Tim Tebow -- won the AFC West and the No. 4 seed. Denver lost to Kansas City, 7-3, but got help from San Diego, which beat Oakland, 38-26. The Broncos are seeded fourth and will host the Steelers, the No. 5 seed, in a wild-card matchup on Sunday.
The Steelers finished 12-4 after their 13-9 win over the Browns, but -- because they lost both their meetings with Baltimore this year -- had to finish with a better record than the Ravens to win the AFC North. They both went 12-4, and thus Baltimore gets the division title.
In the 1 p.m. games, the Jets eliminated themselves with a 19-17 loss at Miami that drew raucous cheers from the Gillette Stadium crowd. The Titans won a thriller,beating the Texans, 23-22, to keep their hopes alive for a few hours, but the Jets' loss meant that Tennessee could only make it if the Bengals lost and both the Raiders and Broncos won. Their trifecta didn't come through.
So the conference seeds are: 1, New England. 2, Baltimore. 3, Houston. 4, Denver. 5, Pittsburgh. 6, Cincinnati. Next weekend, the matchups are 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. Then they'll be reseeded, and the Pats will play the No. 4 seed.
(The reason they can't play Baltimore or Houston? The Ravens are guaranteed to be the No. 2 seed, and the Texans, if they win next weekend, will be the No. 3.)
For the Patriots to avoid the Steelers -- whom, we must assume, will beat Denver next weekend -- in the first round, the Bengals must win in Houston.