The Patriots still control their own playoff destiny, but missing the postseason isn’t exactly a far-fetched scenario.
In fact, it easily could happen if New England loses one of its final two games, including Sunday’s matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Patriots have a clear path toward clinching a playoff spot. All they need to do is win one of their final two games and have either the Dolphins or Raiders lose one of their final two contests. So, New England would punch a playoff ticket if it protects home field this weekend and gets a loss from either Vegas or Miami. If the Patriots fall to the Jaguars, they still can guarantee themselves a spot in the postseason by winning in Miami in Week 18.
Here are the remaining schedules for all three teams:
Patriots: vs. Jaguars, at Dolphins
Dolphins: at Titans, vs. Patriots
Raiders: at Colts, vs. Chargers
Things would get awfully dicey for the Patriots if they lose this weekend. Should they slip up, and the Raiders and Dolphins both win, New England would begin Week 18 outside of the playoff field. To say the Patriots can’t avoid a letdown against the 2-13, undermanned Jaguars would be a huge understatement.
But a victory this weekend guarantees the Patriots nothing. If they win Sunday but lose in the finale, and the Raiders and Dolphins win out, both of those teams would leapfrog the Patriots and be in the playoffs. At that point, Bill Belichick’s team would need Indianapolis to lose to Jacksonville in the season finale to hold onto the AFC’s final wild card spot.
If that doomsday scenario makes you uncomfortable, consider this: New England is just 2-6 in its last eight trips to Miami. Not good!
New England still could back into the playoffs if it loses both of its remaining games, but it would need a lot of help. Ending the season on a four-game losing streak would leave the Patriots with a 9-8 record. Four teams currently have eight wins with two games left, while three teams have exactly nine wins, including two that hold tiebreakers over New England.
Finishing with nine wins would invite a ton of unwanted trouble for the Patriots. While using ESPN’s playoff simulator, we found a way for both the Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers — currently 8-6 and 7-7-1, respectively — to make the playoffs over New England.
Yes, the Steelers have a tie, but that’s considered better than a loss. Finishing 9-7-1 would give Pittsburgh one fewer loss than a 9-8 Patriots team.
You probably shouldn’t be, as New England is much better than Jacksonville and the odds are against Miami and Vegas winning out. Plus, the Patriots match up well with the Dolphins, whose seven-game win streak is even more fool’s gold than the one the Patriots went on.
But the reality is that the Patriots, who already would be in the playoffs had they beaten the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, now are playing with fire. If they’re not careful, they could get burned.