How Patriots Won Sunday Without Playing As AFC Playoff Race Tightens

Say hello to your AFC East-leading Patriots

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The New England Patriots won their seventh game of the season last Thursday, shutting out the Atlanta Falcons 25-0.

Then they scored two more victories while sitting on their couches.

As the 7-4 Patriots enjoyed their weekend off, they watched as two of their primary AFC competitors suffered embarrassing losses Sunday.

The division rival Buffalo Bills were routed by the Indianapolis Colts at home, surrendering 185 rushing yards and five total touchdowns to Jonathan Taylor in a 41-15 laugher. Down in Nashville, the AFC-leading Tennessee Titans lost 22-13 to a Houston Texans team that had been riding an eight-game losing skid.

Those results allowed the red-hot Patriots — now owners of the NFL’s longest active win streak at five games — to surge up the conference standings.

Eleven weeks in, New England has sole possession of first place in the AFC East for the first time since 2019. The 6-4 Bills sit a half-game back, with two season-shaping matchups between these two familiar foes still to come.

With Tennessee losing for the first time since Oct. 3, the Patriots — who sat at 1-3 after four weeks and 2-4 after six — have climbed to within one game of the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They currently sit in third place and can take over the top spot with a win over the Titans next Sunday and a Baltimore Ravens loss to the Cleveland Browns.

(A late Ravens rally prevented this from being an ideal Sunday for Bill Belichick’s club. Had Baltimore, which was playing without star quarterback Lamar Jackson, not scored with 22 seconds remaining to knock off the Chicago Bears, the Patriots would have come out of the weekend ranked second in the AFC.)

Under the NFL’s playoff restructure that went into effect last season, only the No. 1 seed in each conference receives a bye to the divisional round.

The Patriots, of course, haven’t clinched anything at this stage. The AFC remains hyper-competitive — 10 of its 16 teams have either four or five losses — and New England’s remaining schedule is treacherous. Its next four games are against the Titans (home), Bills (away), Colts (away) and Bills (home), bookended around a long-awaited Week 14 bye. Tennessee and Buffalo would be playoff teams if the season ended today, and Indy isn’t far back, having won three straight, five of its last six and six of its last eight to climb to 6-5.

Any stumble during that four-game gauntlet could send the Patriots sliding toward the playoff fringe. Maintaining their current momentum will be crucial. But anyone who doesn’t now view this team as a legitimate AFC title contender simply has not been paying attention.

The Patriots have outscored opponents 175-50 over the last five weeks and 94-13 over the last three. FiveThirtyEight gives them an 82% chance of making the playoffs (seventh-best in the NFL) and a 58% chance of winning the division.

Here’s an updated look at the AFC playoff standings, plus a peek at the remaining schedules for some of the conference’s top teams:

1. Tennessee Titans (8-3; AFC South leader)
2. Baltimore Ravens (7-3; AFC North leader)
3. New England Patriots (7-4; AFC East leader)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4; AFC West leader)
5. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)
7. Buffalo Bills (6-4)

In the hunt: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1), Indianapolis Colts (6-5), Cleveland Browns (6-5), Las Vegas Raiders (5-5), Denver Broncos (5-5)

Patriots’ schedule
vs. Tennessee Titans
at Buffalo Bills (Monday night)
Bye
at Indianapolis Colts
vs. Buffalo Bills
vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
at Miami Dolphins

Bills’ schedule
at New Orleans Saints (Thursday night)
vs. New England Patriots (Monday night)
at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
vs. Carolina Panthers
at New England Patriots
vs. Atlanta Falcons
vs. New York Jets

Titans’ schedule
at New England Patriots
Bye
vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
at Pittsburgh Steelers
vs. San Francisco 49ers (Thursday night)
vs. Miami Dolphins
at Houston Texans

Ravens’ schedule
vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday night)
at Pittsburgh Steelers
at Cleveland Browns
vs. Green Bay Packers
at Cincinnati Bengals
vs. Los Angeles Rams
vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Chiefs’ schedule
Bye
vs. Denver Broncos
vs. Los Angeles Rams
at Los Angeles Chargers (Thursday night)
vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
at Cincinnati Bengals
at Denver Broncos

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
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