FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After seven months of minicamps, training camps, practices and games, the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals have suffered through the rigors required to get them to this point. They’ve played well enough to win their respective divisions and earn a spot in the playoffs, yet with one regular-season game remaining, their postseason seeding relies more on outside sources than their own doing.
The Patriots (10-5) and Bengals (10-5) are jockeying for the third and fourth seeds in the AFC, and that outcome could shake out very easily or in extremely complicated fashion. The Pats visit the Houston Texans (8-7) on Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Bengals travel to take on the New York Jets (8-7) on Sunday night at 8:20, which is the last game on the NFL’s regular-season schedule.
By the time the nightcap comes around, we’ll have a clear-cut answer on how the Bengals’ result will affect the Patriots — if at all. To start off simply, if the Patriots win and the Bengals lose, the Pats will take the third seed, and the Bengals will fall to No. 4. And vice versa.
OK, easy enough.
If the Patriots and Bengals finish with identical records, though, a calculator will be a major necessity.
Assuming the Patriots and Bengals finish the regular season with the same record, here is the order of the NFL tiebreakers that will be used to distinguish between the two. You’ll be able to use this as a reference point throughout Week 17:
1. Head to head: The Patriots and Bengals didn’t play each other in 2009, so throw this one out.
2. Conference record: The Patriots and Bengals are each 7-4 against the AFC, and they each play an AFC opponent Sunday. Since we’re assuming the Patriots and Bengals finish with the same record, this tiebreaker is of no use.
3. Record in common games, minimum of four: By the end of Week 17, the Patriots and Bengals will have each played the Broncos, Ravens, Texans and Jets. The Pats and Bengals are each 2-2 against those teams, and they both have a common opponent coming up Sunday. Therefore, this tiebreaker is also of no use.
4. Strength of victory: Here’s where it gets fun. Take the teams the Patriots and Bengals have beaten, add up their records, calculate their winning percentages and compare. Since this will be the most likely method to break a tie between the Patriots and Bengals, we’ll go a little more in depth with this one.
Here is who the Patriots have defeated in 2009, along with their current record and Week 17 opponent (Note: Asterisk indicates that team was defeated twice, and the league formula includes that team’s record twice):
*Bills (5-10): host Colts
Falcons (8-7): at Buccaneers
Ravens (8-7): at Raiders
Titans (7-8): at Seahawks
Buccaneers (3-12): host Falcons
Dolphins (7-8): host Steelers
Jets (8-7): host Bengals
Panthers (7-8): host Saints
Jaguars (7-8): at Browns
Total: 65-85 (.433)
Notes: It’s dangerous, but let’s assume there are no ties. The Patriots start out with one win and one loss due to the Falcons-Bucs game. The Ravens (at Raiders), Titans (at Seahawks) and Jaguars (at Browns) all have winnable games, while the Dolphins (vs. Steelers) and Panthers (vs. Saints) are up against it. It’s also too difficult to determine the Bills’ outcome against the Colts because we don’t know the extent of Peyton Manning’s playing time. Finally, if the Pats and Bengals both lose in Week 17, the Patriots’ strength of victory would improve due to the Jets’ Week 17 win against the Bengals.
Here is who the Bengals have defeated in 2009, along with their record:
Packers (10-5): at Cardinals
*Steelers (8-7): at Dolphins
*Browns (4-11): host Jaguars
*Ravens (8-7): at Raiders
Bears (6-9): at Lions
Lions (2-13): host Bears
Chiefs (3-12): at Broncos
Total: 61-89 (.407)
Notes: The Bengals need their opponents to achieve five more victories than Patriots opponents in Week 17. The Patriots can clinch the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker if their opponents earn seven victories in Week 17. Keep in mind that a Buffalo victory or defeat would count twice for the Patriots. The Steelers-Dolphins game is the big one because the Steelers count twice for the Bengals, and the Dolphins count once for the Patriots. Therefore, if the Dolphins defeat the Steelers, the Bengals would have almost no chance to claim the strength-of-victory tiebreaker.
Second note: If the Patriots and Bengals both win Sunday, that would have very little effect on these calculations since their Week 17 opponents would each finish the regular season with 8-8 records.
Third note: Even if the Patriots and Bengals take care of business Sunday, there are 10 other games that have an impact on the strength-of-victory tiebreaker.
5. Strength of schedule: The Patriots have a fairly considerable advantage here, as their opponents have a 115-110 record (.511) and the Bengals’ opponents are 105-120 (.467). While it’s mathematically possible, there is virtually no chance for the Bengals to make up enough ground to claim this tiebreaker.
The rest: If the Patriots and Bengals are still tied, the order of the remaining tiebreakers is as follows: best combined ranking among AFC teams in points scored and points allowed, best combined ranking among NFL teams in points scored and points allowed, best net points in AFC games, best net points in all games, best net touchdowns in all games and then a coin toss. These tiebreakers are far too dependent on other circumstances to project.
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