It’s that time of year when NFL coaches, players, and fans start paying a great deal of attention to the playoff picture, as teams jockey not only for a berth in the postseason but also one of the two byes in their conference, with which comes the coveted week off.
So any eagle-eyed Patriots fan who took a look at the AFC standings after Sunday night’s game between the Steelers and Ravens — a game Pittsburgh won, 23-20, with a 12-play drive that ate the remaining time on the clock and culminated in a 42-yard Shaun Suisham field goal — noticed there had been a change.
Entering Sunday, the Ravens held the No. 2 seed by virtue of their 9-2 record, and the 8-3 Patriots were the three seed, ahead of then-8-3 Denver since they’d won their head-to-head matchup with the Broncos.
But Baltimore’s loss shifted things, and for this week that defeat, combined with the Patriots’ win over Miami and Denver’s win over Tampa Bay, means New England is the second seed.
We’ll try to explain why as best as possible, and keep in mind that everything is fluid.
By NFL tiebreaking rules, to determine which teams get home-field priority among division titlists, which the Patriots and Broncos are now after Sunday’s victories, wild card tiebreakers are used.
(As an aside, there are up to 11 steps in this process, and if things still aren’t settled by then, it’s determined by a coin toss. If the Patriots won that toss, it’s a pretty safe bet they wouldn’t defer, like they do in games.)
So when there are three teams involved, as there are in this situation with the Ravens, head-to-head sweep is the first step. As luck would have it, the Patriots, Broncos, and Ravens all play each other this season.
New England lost to Baltimore in Week 3, and then beat Denver in Week 5. The Ravens host the Broncos Dec. 16.
But since that game hasn’t happened yet, it’s on to step two, which is won-lost percentage within the conference.
Since two of the Patriots’ three losses came against NFC teams – the Cardinals and Seahawks – they are 8-1 in the AFC.
Baltimore is now 8-2 in the conference after what was very likely Charlie Batch’s swan song in leading the Steelers to Sunday’s last-second win and a loss to Houston Oct. 21.
Denver is 6-2 in the conference, with losses to the Texans and Patriots.
And that is why New England is currently the No. 2 seed behind the 11-1 Texans.
But remember when we said all of this is fluid? That’s because things could change this weekend.
Denver has a very winnable game in Oakland on Thursday, and the Ravens are also on the road, against the Redskins Sunday. But the Patriots host Houston Monday night.
A Patriots loss, dropping them to 9-4, coupled with wins by the other two teams, would slide New England down to the fourth seed, while Baltimore would return to the two seed, and Denver would take over the third spot. But again, that could be temporary.
If all three teams win, New England would retain the second seed, again on the intra-conference record.
And if the three teams head into Week 15 with the same record, then the first tiebreaker comes back into play.
If Denver travels to Baltimore and loses, that would mean the Ravens swept the two teams they were tied with, and the Broncos had lost to the other two teams.
In that case, Baltimore would be the two seed.
A Broncos win in that game, meaning they would have earned a split, would cause things to revert back to tiebreaker two, and the Patriots would be the second seed.
And as soon as you think you have all of that figured out, it might change again by the end of the month.
No one wants to figure out what happens if tiebreakers such as strength of victory or “best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed” come into play.