The New England Patriots’ Week 18 opponent might not have anything to play for after all.
Thanks to the NFL’s decision to flex next weekend’s Kansas City Chiefs-Las Vegas Raiders game to Saturday afternoon, the Buffalo Bills could have the AFC’s No. 1 seed locked up before they host the Patriots next Sunday at Highmark Stadium.
If the Bills defeat the Cincinnati Bengals this week on “Monday Night Football” and the Chiefs lose to the Raiders on Saturday, Buffalo would clinch a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
In that scenario, Bills head coach Sean McDermott could choose to rest quarterback Josh Allen and other key players against the Patriots, as that game would have no bearing on where Buffalo could finish in the standings. Obviously, that approach would increase the Patriots’ chances of booking their own playoff berth, as a win over Buffalo would get them in as the AFC’s No. 7 seed.
Nearly all of New England’s eight victories this season have come against either backup QBs (Jacoby Brissett, Sam Ehlinger, Colt McCoy, Teddy Bridgewater) or ones who later were benched (Mitch Trubisky, Zach Wilson twice). The lone outliner: Detroit’s Jared Goff, whom the Patriots vanquished in Week 5.
Conversely, if the Bills lose to the Bengals and the Chiefs beat the Jarrett Stidham-led Raiders, Buffalo would be unable to earn the top spot in the AFC regardless of what happens in Week 18. That also could prompt McDermott to rest starters against New England, though that’s less likely since the Bills’ status as the No. 2 or 3 seed still would be unsettled.
The AFC’s second seed would host the Patriots, Miami Dolphins or Pittsburgh Steelers on wild-card weekend, while the No. 3 seed would host the Los Angeles Chargers. The top three teams in the conference will be Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati, in some order.
The Patriots, who kept their season alive Sunday with a 23-21 win over Miami, also can make the playoffs if they lose to Buffalo, but that would require the Dolphins to lose to the New York Jets, the Steelers to lose to the Cleveland Browns and the Tennessee Titans to lose to or tie the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The NFL’s flex scheduling also moved Titans-Jaguars to Saturday night, meaning the Patriots could know in advance whether they’d need a win to secure a playoff spot. The Jags will be on short rest against a Titans team that played on Thursday night this week and sat many of its starters.
The Patriots have lost three straight and five of their last six against the Bills, though they did win 14-10 in a Buffalo windstorm last season. The kickoff time for this latest matchup had yet to be announced as of Sunday night.