Yesterday morning, we assumed their best shot at the playoffs was to win the division outright.
Today, it might be the wild card.
Before we delve into yesterday's results and their implications, let's look at some possible scenarios for the Patriots to make the playoffs for the sixth straight season. There may be a few more mathematical possibilities that slipped our radar, but these are the clearest paths to the postseason:
If the Patriots go 2-0 over their final 2 games:
- The Pats can win the AFC East if they win their final two games against Arizona (at home) and Buffalo (on the road) and both the Jets (at Seattle) and Dolphins (at Kansas City) lose next weekend (the Jets and Dolphins play each other in Week 17).
- The Pats can win the AFC East by winning their final two games against Arizona and Buffalo and the Jets and Dolphins both go 1-1 over their final two games.
- If all three teams win next weekend, and the Pats beat the Bills in Week 17, the Jets-Dolphins game on the final Sunday of the season has to end in a tie for the Patriots to win the East.
- If the Patriots win their two remaining games and the Ravens lose one of their next two games (in Dallas next week and at home vs. Jacksonville in Week 17), New England is in as the wild card. Print the shirts.
- If the Pats win out, and the Colts manage to go 0-2 vs. the Jaguars and Titans, the Patriots are in, however unlikely that scenario might seem.
If the Patriots go 1-1 over their final 2 games:
- If New England loses to either the Cardinals or the Bills, they need Baltimore to drop both of its remaining games to win the wild card.
- The Patriots would need this nifty little scenario to win the East: Dolphins lose to Chiefs AND Jets lose to Seattle AND Jets-Dolphins game ends in a tie. Like those odds?
- There's one final possibility here, albeit a very confusing one: If either the Jets or Dolphins lose their last two games; and if the Patriots lose to the Cardinals and beat the Bills; and if the Ravens beat the Cowboys and lose to the Jaguars; New England and Baltimore would have the same record (10-6), and the same record within the conference (7-5) -- which is the first tiebreaker in a wild card scenario since the teams did not face each other this season. Complicating matters is that, if our math is right, they would also be tied in the next tiebreaker -- record against common opponents. So that means it could come down to strength of victory.
The bottom line is the Patriots still need help to make the playoffs. If the Ravens and either the Jets or Dolphins go 2-0 over the next two weeks and the Colts win one of their next two games, New England is out of the playoffs even if they win out and finish the season 11-5. In that case, the Pats would lose tiebreakers for both the division title (to the Jets or Dolphins) and wild card (to the Ravens or Colts).
The Patriots, as assumed, did their part yesterday in soggy Oakland. Another chapter was written in the Matt Cassel story, and it increasingly rivals the one Tom Brady scripted in 2001.
The Steelers took care of the Ravens, 13-9, in an ending that might have been preferable viewing in these parts if not for having to witness the useless fourth quarter for the home team. Can't CBS run some sort of instant poll and see whether Pats fans really wanted to witness those last five minutes or the end to a game that might help determine their postseason future? Or maybe there will just be a dish under my tree.
Then there are the Bills. I mean . . . where do we go here?
I was driving back from a quick jaunt to the mountains yesterday, listening to the game on Sirius, when The Play happened. The Bills were five yards away from essentially giving the Patriots an inside edge on the AFC East. Buffalo ran for 187 yards on the day. The Jets couldn't stop them. Did I mention it was second down? Second and five.
Of course, Dick Jauron inexplicably called a pass play, and J.P. Losman did the rest. Now, for anyone who tells you that listening to a ball game is better than actually watching it, presumably on a front porch sipping some lemonade, well, they're wrong. A play like this needed visual proof. The Bills really couldn't be this dumb, and the Jets really couldn't be this lucky. And yet, the pictures did indeed verify its authenticity. If the game truly meant anything for the Bills, "Second and five" would be Buffalo's answer to "Timlin in the eighth, Williamson in the ninth."
But the Steelers' win over Baltimore was big for New England, still mired in a three-way tie atop the AFC East. While the Jets face 3-11 Seattle before the season-ender vs. Miami and the Dolphins get the 2-12 Chiefs, Baltimore has the most difficult task among the remaining AFC playoff contenders, needing to play next week in Dallas (9-5) before getting the 5-9 Jaguars at home.
So now New England's easiest shot at the postseason looks to be the wild card.
Now, just for giggles (and by that I mean raising your simmering anger for Losman to a boil), let's imagine the Bills actually beat the Jets yesterday at the Meadowlands. There would be a two-way tie atop the AFC East with the Pats and Dolphins. New England would need to win out, and hope Miami loses next week, or see if the Jets could beat the Fish in the final game for the AFC East title. It's a bit easier worrying about one team needing to lose one game (while you win out, of course) than it is worrying about three teams needing to lose.
And just to further simplify things, you'll want to root for the Cowboys Saturday night on . . . NFL Network?
That thing under my tree better not be an oversized deep-dish pizza stone.