The Patriots are in the AFC East driver’s seat, but how soon could they clinch their division?
Well, it’s complicated — but it doesn’t have to be.
New England has won seven games in a row and now holds a two-game lead over the Buffalo Bills for first place in the AFC East. The 9-4 Patriots also have the same record as the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs but own the top spot in the AFC due to the conference record tiebreaker.
The first-round bye situation is a convoluted one that deserves a separate conversation. For now, let’s focus on the AFC East.
New England controls its own destiny in the division, which it is looking to win after finishing in third place last season. With four games remaining, the soonest the Patriots could clinch the AFC East is in Week 16, when they will host the Bills in a post-Christmas rematch of last Monday’s wind-chilled thriller.
To be clear: New England can’t win the division with a win Saturday over the Indianapolis Colts, coupled with a Buffalo loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. However, if the Patriots beat the Colts on Saturday, they will have an opportunity to clinch the AFC East when they host the Bills on Dec. 26, regardless of all other outcomes.
So, the quickest and most straightforward path toward a division crown is for the Patriots to win their next two games.
Should New England lose to Indianapolis, it still could clinch the AFC East in Week 16 if it beats Buffalo and the Miami Dolphins lose either of their next two games: Sunday against the New York Jets and Monday, Dec. 27 against the New Orleans Saints.
Yes, the 6-7 Dolphins, winners of five in a row, still have a prayer, but they’d need to win out and get a ton of help from teams facing the Patriots and Bills.
Additionally, the Patriots can eliminate the Dolphins simply by winning two of their final four games. (New England hosts the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17 and visits Miami in Week 18 for its regular season finale.) If the Patriots go at least .500 in their final four games, the Bills can’t withstand a single loss.
As for disaster scenarios, there are a couple worth considering. Even if the Patriots win this weekend and the Bills lose, Buffalo, thanks to the divisional record tiebreaker, would win the AFC East if it wins out and New England loses out. If Miami also wins out, the Patriots would finish third in the division.
And then there’s this hypothetical chaos: the Patriots beat the Bills in Week 16 but lose the rest of their games, and Buffalo and Miami both win their remaining matchups. All three teams would finish 10-7, with the Patriots winning the AFC East due to the conference record tiebreaker, which is fourth in the tiebreaker ranking.
Just some things to think about as we enter the final month of the season.