Patriots Clinch AFC East Title, Control Destiny for First-Round Bye in Playoffs


December 18, 2011

Patriots Clinch AFC East Title, Control Destiny for First-Round Bye in PlayoffsWith the AFC East title in hand, the Patriots are closing in on a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The Patriots wrapped up their ninth division title in 11 years Sunday with a 41-23 victory against the Broncos, and they departed from Denver with the inside track at the No. 2 seed in the postseason.

"It never gets old," Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "You work so hard the whole year to get to just one of those steps, and this is one of them. To come out division champs, that's awesome."

New England improved to an AFC-best 11-3, pending the results of the games involving the 10-3 Ravens (Sunday night against San Diego) and Steelers (Monday night against San Francisco). The Texans lost Sunday to the Panthers to fall to 10-4.

If the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers all finish 13-3, the Ravens would win the AFC North and claim the top seed in the conference. The Patriots would take the No. 2 seed and lose the tiebreaker to Baltimore, which would have a better record against common opponents (5-0 to New England's 4-1 mark). Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would finish with the fifth seed.

The Texans are closing in on the third seed, and the Broncos (8-6) have a one-game edge on the Raiders (7-7) for the AFC West lead, which would likely translate into the fourth seed. The Jets (8-6), Bengals (8-6), Titans (7-7) and Raiders will battle for the final wild-card berth. If the Jets and Bengals each win their last two games, the tiebreaker would filter down to strength of victory, where the Jets had an edge as of Sunday.

The Patriots finish with home games against the Dolphins and Bills. If New England loses one of those games and the Texans win their last two games (at Indianapolis, home against the Titans), the Texans would win the tiebreaker due to a better record against AFC opponents. Therefore, it's still important for the Patriots to finish the job in order to get a first-round bye.

However, the Patriots can lock up a bye next week with a victory against the Dolphins and a Texans loss to the Colts.

If the standings hold up over the next two weeks, the Ravens and Patriots would get the first weekend off, while the third-seeded Texans would host the sixth-seeded Jets and the fourth-seeded Broncos would host the fifth-seeded Steelers. The Patriots would then host the higher remaining seed, while the Ravens would host the lower seed.

There are plenty of remaining scenarios, but the Patriots' playoff picture really started to clear up with Sunday's division-clinching victory against the Broncos.

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