Barring an epic collapse, the Patriots will set themselves up with an ideal path to the Super Bowl, and they'll lock up homefield advantage through the AFC playoffs with one win or tie, or one Jets loss or tie in the final two weeks of the regular season.
From there, the Patriots will rest up during their first-round bye and eye which team they'll host in the divisional round. Obviously, it's a badge of honor to knock off the league's toughest competition on the way to the Super Bowl, but the judgment-free Vince Lombardi Trophy doesn't come in different sizes.
If the Patriots are looking for the easiest journey to Dallas, they'd in all likelihood want to avoid the Ravens and Chargers, each of whom gave New England a sizable challenge earlier this season. And while the Patriots have to feel good about the way they beat the Colts in Week 11, Indy would likely be carrying a five-game winning streak into a divisional-round matchup, and the Colts' combination of momentum and experience would make them a tough out.
Aside from that, the Patriots' best matchups might be the Steelers, Jets, Chiefs and Jaguars, based on the Pats' recent beatdowns of Pittsburgh and New York, as well as questions over the legitimacy of Kansas City and Jacksonville.
After that, it's a giant what-if game. In the spirit of this column, let's predict the Chiefs win their last two regular-season games at home against the Titans and Raiders to knock the Chargers out of the playoffs. Let's also assume the Colts beat the Raiders on the road and the Titans at home to secure the AFC South title and knock out the Jaguars.
Then, let's go out on a limb and say the Steelers will take care of business at home against the Panthers and then on the road in Cleveland to win the AFC North. And finally, it also seems very likely the Ravens beat the Browns on the road and the Bengals at home.
Under those scenarios, here's how the AFC playoffs would be seeded:
(Note: The Chiefs were the biggest reach for this exercise, in terms of predicting the remaining schedule. If the Chargers finish with two wins and the Chiefs lose one game, the Chargers would win the AFC West title. They'd also win the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Colts and take the third seed.)
The above seedings will give the Patriots and Steelers a first-round bye, while the Chiefs would host the Jets and the Colts would host the Ravens. The visitors would appear to have the advantages in this scenario, so let's predict the Jets and Ravens both win on wild-card weekend.
This would send the Jets to New England and the Ravens to Pittsburgh for a second helping of that awesome prime-time slate in Week 13. Despite Baltimore's late home loss in that divisional showcase, the Ravens still look like the better team, but none of that matters in this rivalry. However, as previously stated, the Patriots should be rooting for the Steelers, which would set up yet another AFC Championship clash between New England and Pittsburgh.
It should go without saying that none of this matters for the Patriots unless they take care of their own business, but as far as the AFC playoffs are concerned, they should want a few key things to happen.
Kansas City needs to stave off San Diego (if the Chargers get the No. 3 seed, they'd have a great chance to beat the Jets, and that could send the Ravens to Gillette Stadium in the divisional round), Baltimore needs to win out to keep the Jets as the sixth seed, and Pittsburgh needs to beat the Ravens in the divisional round.
If those things happen, the Patriots would be lined up for their most ideal path to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
Who do you want to see the Patriots play in the playoffs? Leave your comments below.
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