Week 16 of the NFL season now is complete, and the New England Patriots remain mathematically alive in the AFC playoff race.
To stay that way, they need a win this Sunday.
A Week 17 loss to the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium would officially eliminate the Patriots from playoff contention. But a victory over Miami — which could be without injured starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — would keep them in the mix entering the following week’s regular-season finale in Buffalo.
There are two possible paths to a postseason berth for New England. The simplest: beat the Dolphins, then beat the Bills. The 7-8 Patriots control their own destiny, so winning out would get them in regardless of how other playoff hopefuls around the league fare.
The other avenue is more complicated and would require several other results to break the Patriots’ way. They can earn a playoff spot by beating Miami and losing to Buffalo, but only if all of the following happen:
-The New York Jets lose to the Seahawks in Seattle this week and then beat the Dolphins
-The Pittsburgh Steelers lose at least one of their final two games
-The Las Vegas Raiders lose at least one of their final two games
-The Jacksonville Jaguars do not beat the Houston Texans this week and then lose to the Tennessee Titans
With the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers already locking down the first and second wild-card spots in the AFC (in some order), the Patriots can finish no higher than seventh in the conference, which likely would earn them a first-round trip to Buffalo, Kansas City or Cincinnati. The No. 7 seed visits the No. 2 seed, with the top seed in each conference earning a bye to the divisional round.
The Bills can clinch the No. 1 seed this week with a win over the Bengals on Monday night and a Chiefs loss to the Denver Broncos. That would be the ideal outcome for the Patriots, as it could prompt Buffalo to rest quarterback Josh Allen and other starters in Week 18. New England is 1-5 against Buffalo in the post-Tom Brady era, including a 47-17 loss in last season’s wild-card round and a 24-10 home defeat earlier this month.
The odds of Denver upsetting Kansas City are low, however, as the 4-11 Broncos have been one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams and just fired their head coach.