Laid out by chris price:
"As things stand right now, the Patriots are at No. 3, and they would face either the Bengals or Steelers in the wild card round, and then, the Broncos the following week in Denver in a divisional playoff game. If they dropped to No. 4 -- mostly likely, into a tiebreaker they would lose with the Ravens -- they would face the Colts in the first round at Gillette, and then, on to a meeting with the Texans. On paper, those are far more favorable matchups than the idea of traveling to Denver and facing the Broncos, particularly when you consider the fact that the Patriots had no issue beating Houston and Indy.
While there’s a school of thought that Denver’s built its No. 2 seed while feasting on the AFC West -- every team should be so lucky as to play the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers twice a year -- the Broncos’ win over the Ravens on Sunday should be taken as a small measure that Denver, now nine games into a winning streak, is a formidable team with whom to be reckoned.
I’m not completely sold on the Broncos, as they have only beaten three teams that have a record currently better than .500. But considering that out of the Broncos, Texans and Colts, it was Denver that gave the Patriots the best game of the three (by a long shot), it just makes sense to try and avoid them.Of course, if you set this plan in motion, you’re gambling on the fact that the rest of the playoff picture is going to play out as you hope -- that is to say, the Texans will stick at No. 1 and the Colts will stay at No. 5 spot. That seems to be fairly certain, as they both have winnable games this week -- Indy is at Kansas City, which is 2-12. Things are a little dicier for the Texans, who are home against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, who are 8-6.
The only real danger facing the Patriots could be in the fact that the Ravens won’t allow them to take a step back. After starting 9-2 and clinching the AFC North, Baltimore has lost three straight and is one of the most injury-ravaged teams in the league. At 9-5, they currently trail the Patriots by a game, but hold the tiebreaker because of their Sunday night win over New England in September. (Given the surreal nature of that game, wouldn’t it be interesting if that loss allows the Patriots to slip back into the No. 4 spot?)
Considering where they are right now and who they have to play over the final two games of the regular season -- the Giants and Bengals (both 8-6) -- there’s the very real possibility the Ravens end up at 9-7. That would do no good for the 10-4 Patriots if they’re interested in throwing on the brakes and trying to land that No. 4 spot. But if the Ravens win out and the Patriots split, the No. 4 seed belongs to Baltimore.
You don’t want to necessarily try it this week -- as crazy as this NFL season has been, there’s always the possibility that the Broncos lose, which would open the door for the Patriots to reclaim the No. 2 seed. But if the final week of the regular season sees New England with a chance to slip backward from No. 3 to No. 4, the Patriots should jump on it.
History supports the idea that the No. 4 seed can offer a better path to the Super Bowl than a No. 3 seed. Since the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, the No. 3 seed has advanced to the big game just two times, while the No. 4 seed has reached the title game on six occasions, winning three times. (A seed-by-seed breakdown of Super Bowl entrants can be found here.)
The bottom line? If there’s no bye week in New England’s playoff future now that the top two seeds are pretty much out of sight, carve one out. Give Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Chandler Jones and the rest of the banged-up starters a week to get their bodies right. Think long-term, and think about the Dolphins. After all, it’s the season of giving, and who doesn’t like getting a nice present this time of year?"