Sizing up the AFC Playoff field

Sizing up the AFC Playoff field
November 27, 2013, 12:00 am
Share This Post

The next time the Patriots take the field, it will be December. That pretty much says at all about where we are on the season, and what’s exactly on the line for Belichick, Brady, Hoomanawanui and company.
 
“December football.”
 
It may not pack the same punch as “September baseball” but it’s the closest thing to it in all of professional sports. (Just for reference: Tom Brady is a career 41-6 in December.)
 
As it stands today, the Pats have just about wrapped up the AFC East. Again. They’re up three games on the Jets and Dolphins with five left to play, and that leaves their magic number at three. In other words, any combination of three New England wins and Miami (or Jets) losses will give the Pats their 10th division title in the last 11 years. TEN IN 11 YEARS! It’s hard not to take that for granted these days, but every once in a while the insanity of that number catches me off guard.
 
(Just for reference II: Do you know how many AFC East titles the Jets have won in 50 years? Answer: Four.)
 
Also helping matters is New England’s schedule, although you wouldn’t have said that back in September. I remember checking out the post-Denver slate when the season started and initially fearing for the Pats’ playoff lives. Back then, this Sunday’s game at Houston was supposed be one of the biggest challenges of the entire season, especially on the heels of the Broncos game. Week 14’s match-up against the Browns was whatever, but that was followed by a Week 15 trip to Miami to take on the upstart Dolphins. That was followed by a Week 16 trip to Baltimore to take on the defending champs. The season culminated with a Week 17 visit from the Buffalo, and that point, who knew? Maybe the Pats would still be fighting for the division title?
 
They won’t be. In reality, the Texans have lost nine straight and are tied for the worst record in the league. The Browns have been better than most people expected, but their bubble burst last week and they’re probably stuck with Brandon Weeden at quarterback from here on out. The Ravens are still in it, and will pose the biggest threat down the stretch, but they’re not the team we’re accustomed to. Wouldn’t be a shock to see the Pats favored in Baltimore. The Dolphins are still showing signs of life in the face of endless controversy, but they’re nowhere near the threat they looked to be in September. As for the Bills? They still stink.
 
In all, the Pats five remaining opponents have a combined record of 20-35. None of them have a winning record. They rank 30th, 29th, 24th, 23rd and 22nd, respectively, in points scored a game. Obviously, you never want to assume too much in the NFL, everything can change in an instant, but at the very least, the Patriots find themselves in a favorable spot as December hits. Now, their focus moves beyond the division and onto playoff seeding, home field advantage and a first round bye.
 
As I type, the Pats (8-3) occupy the second seed in the AFC, and realistically, only two teams are a threat to overtake them: The Colts and Bengals, who are both 7-4.
 
Of the two, Cincinnati is the biggest concern, mostly because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against New England. The Bengals are in San Diego on Sunday. Then they host the Colts (a huge game for the Pats), before wrapping up the season at Pittsburgh, and then at home against the Vikings and Ravens. Those are teams with a combined record of 24-30. Not great, but that’s life in the AFC this season.
 
As for those Colts, well, November wasn’t the greatest month in terms of boosting their late-season expectations. They were 2-2 with the two losses coming by a combined score of 78-19. In one of the two wins, they needed a flurry of late heroics to beat the miserable Texans. Moving forward, Indianapolis still has two very difficult road games left in Cincinnati and Kansas City, not to mention a big division match at home against the Titans this Sunday. But regardless of the schedule, the Colts, especially with the loss of Reggie Wayne and ineffectiveness of Trent Richardson, look like they’re at least a year away from being taken seriously.
 
So that’s looking down in the standings. More importantly, let’s look up.
 
The Broncos and Chiefs are the only teams in the AFC with a better record than the Pats, and thankfully, only one of them can/will qualify for one of the two first round byes. Still, New England is in a race with both for the best record in the conference, and they’re currently one game back.
 
What are the chances that the Pats leap frog them and land home field advantage?
 
We’ll have a much better idea after Sunday, when Denver and Kansas City meet again at Arrowhead.
 
The Broncos are currently favored by 3.5 points, and that’s about right. With the Chiefs coming back to Earth these last two weeks, and all the injuries they’re suddenly facing on defense, that 9-0 start must feel it happened years ago. Of course, if Kansas City wins, all that trepidation disappears. But if they lose? The Chiefs will stand at 9-3, with three of their last four games coming on the road. Sure, those road games are in Oakland, DC and San Diego, but the road is the road.
 
Meanwhile, after this week, the Broncos are in a good place. They’ll finish with two home games against the Titans and Chargers — decent opponents, but not in the same league at Sports Authority Field — followed by two road games. First one in Houston, and we all know what’s going on there. And in Week 17, they play in Oakland, where they’ve won in four of their last five trips. Hard to believe that the presence of Matt McGloin will do much to change that. Either way, win or lose to KC, it’s fair to wonder if the Broncos will lose again after that.
 
So, that’s why New England needs to hope like hell that the Chiefs somehow find a way to beat Denver this Sunday. That’s also why last Sunday’s overtime win was so ridiculously important.
 
Today, the Pats are one game back of the Broncos, but more importantly, they’re also one game back of owning that No. 1 seed. That’s because they own the tiebreaker. If they’d lost that game on Sunday, they’d currently be two games back in the standings, but it would really be three games. In other words, it would be over. In other words, more than its place within a historic rivalry, or how it played into the drama between Wes Welker and the Pats, Sunday’s game changed the face of the battle atop of the conference standing.
 
That misplayed punt may very well decide the location of the AFC Championship Game.
 
But we’ll get there when we get there.
 
First, December football.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine