On Sunday, the New England Patriots claimed first place in the AFC East without playing a game. And on Thanksgiving Day, they fell into second place — again, without taking the field.
The Buffalo Bills decimated the Saints in New Orleans on Thursday night, 31-6. In doing so, they improved to 7-4, both redeeming their disastrous Sunday showing against the Indianapolis Colts and tying the 7-4 Patriots in winning percentage.
But by virtue of NFL tiebreaker rules, the Bills take over first place.
The first tiebreaker actually calls for the team with the better head-to-head record to take the advantage, but the Bills and Patriots haven’t played each other yet. The first of two meetings is slated for Dec. 6 in Buffalo, while Gillette Stadium will play host to the second meeting Dec. 26.
Instead, the advantage in the standings goes to the team with the better record in divisional games — and that’s where the Patriots fall short. Buffalo is 3-0 against AFC East opponents, with two wins against the Miami Dolphins and another against the New York Jets. The Patriots are 2-1, with two defeats of the Jets following a season-opening loss to Miami.
Before the Patriots get to their first meeting with the Bills, they’ll play the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. If they win, and the Baltimore Ravens lose, they will reclaim the top spot in the standings with a game in hand, though it won’t improve their divisional record since the Titans are in the AFC South.
That puts even more pressure on the Dec. 6 meeting against the Bills, because a Buffalo win would give them a head-to-head advantage and the advantage in divisional games, with one more head-to-head matchup to potentially split the series.
Beyond the two matchups with the Bills, the Patriots have one more AFC East game on the schedule — a Week 18 game against the Dolphins. But as Week 1’s game proved, they can’t be counted out either.
Buffalo also has one more divisional game on the schedule outside of the games against New England, a season finale against the Jets.
So while a Thursday night victory over the Saints doesn’t mean too much on the surface, it could have major implications for the Patriots down the road.