Because the Patriots throttled the Bears, 36-7, on Sunday, while the Jets fell to the Dolphins, 10-6, the Pats are zeroing in on some priority seating for the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots, who became the first team in the NFL to earn a playoff spot, will clinch the division title next week if they beat the Packers and the Jets fall to the Steelers. However, if the Patriots and Jets both win next week, the Patriots can claim the AFC East crown in Week 16 with a victory against the Bills or a Jets loss to the Bears.
"It's good, but we're just going to keep playing," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters Sunday at his postgame news conference in Chicago. "I'm sure when the end of the season comes, somebody will tell us what we need to do."
Later, someone informed Belichick of the Jets' loss to the Dolphins — the score went final during Belichick's news conference — and Belichick made a serious effort not to crack a smile before responding, "We can't be scoreboard watching and worrying about every other team in the league. We're worried about ourselves, just trying to play well. Whatever else happens, happens."
Here are the tiebreaking scenarios, in order of priority, between the Patriots and Jets:
1. Head to head
The Patriots and Jets split the season series, 1-1, so this is a wash.
2. Division record
The Patriots are 3-1 against the AFC East with a road game against the Bills and a home game against the Dolphins remaining on the schedule. The Jets are 3-2 against the AFC East with a home game against the Bills remaining.
3. Record against common opponents
(Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Bengals, Packers, Vikings, Bears and Lions). The Patriots are 8-1 with games remaining against the Packers (home), Bills and Dolphins. The Jets are 6-3 with games remaining against the Steelers (road), Bears (road) and Bills.
4. Conference record
The Patriots are 8-2 against the AFC, and the Jets are 7-3.
After that, tiebreakers go to strength of victory, strength of schedule and then a number of point-differential formulas.
So, if the Patriots and Jets both win (or lose) next week, the Jets could still catch the Patriots in the division race if the Patriots lose their last two games and the Jets win their last two. This scenario would cause each team to finish 12-4 (or 11-5), and the Jets would win the second tiebreaker by having a 4-2 division record against the Patriots' 3-3 division mark.
And, of course, the Patriots need to win the AFC East in order to have a first-round bye or home-field advantage. If they don't win the division, they'd enter the postseason with the fifth or sixth seed.
However, the Patriots would receive a big consolation prize if they beat the Packers and the Jets beat the Steelers next week. This would ensure that the Patriots finish with a better record than the AFC North-leading Steelers because the Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against Pittsburgh. That means the Patriots would be guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as long as they won the AFC East.
This is a lot of information to process, so let's break it down one more time, hopefully in simpler fashion.
The Patriots will clinch the AFC East title and a first-round bye under the following scenarios:
1. In Week 15, the Patriots beat the Packers, and the Jets lose to the Steelers.
2. In Weeks 15-17, the total number of Patriots wins and Jets losses equals at least two (New England's magic number).
The Patriots cannot clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs in Week 15, but they can accomplish that eventually under the following scenarios:
1. In Week 15, the Patriots beat the Packers, and the Jets beat the Steelers, and then in Weeks 16 and 17, the total number of Patriots victories and Jets losses equals at least one.
2. In Week 15, the Patriots beat the Packers, and the Steelers beat the Jets, and then in Weeks 16 and 17, the total number of Patriots victories and Steelers losses equals at least one.