SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Bill Belichick is the type of coach who doesn't leave anything to chance, but when it comes to his team's chance of reaching postseason play with three games to go, Belichick is taking a pass on breaking down playoff scenarios.
"All I know is that there are a lot of teams in contention," said Belichick yesterday. "So right now we're worried about Oakland. We'll win as many games as we can. I'm sure if we qualify somebody will let us know."
Lost in the euphoria of the Patriots' season-saving 24-21 victory Sunday over the Seattle Seahawks - a win that put them in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East - was the very sobering reality that even if they win their final three games of the season (at Oakland, home against Arizona, and at Buffalo), they still might have their noses pressed to the playoff glass come January.
Since the NFL went to a playoff format of six teams per conference in 1990, no 11-5 team has ever missed the postseason. But the Patriots (8-5) find themselves in the precarious position of needing a little help from their foes to avoid the ignominious honor of becoming the first team to do so. It's not enough for them to win. They need other teams to lose.
"It's always a tough situation when you have to depend on other people, other teams, to beat this team, or 'This team needs to win,' " said defensive end Richard Seymour. "You never want to be in a situation like that, where you have to depend on somebody else. I think we have an opportunity in front of us, and it's up to us to take advantage of it."
It almost seems unfair that a team that has overcome injury after injury after injury could finish 11-5 and get sent home. But it could happen.
The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, who are tied with the Patriots atop the AFC East, control their own playoff destinies. Win out and win the division. The two meet in the final week of the season at Giants Stadium, so they both can't finish 11-5. However, either would win the division at 11-5 over an 11-5 Patriots team.
The first tiebreaker in any scenario is head-to-head play. The Patriots split with both Miami and the Jets. Within a division, the second tiebreaker is division record. The third is record vs. common opponents and the fourth is conference record.
If the Jets win out, they'll win the AFC East by virtue of division record, which would be 5-1. The Patriots can't finish any better than 4-2 in the division.
If Miami wins out, it would edge the Patriots on the basis of conference record. Both the Patriots and Dolphins would be 4-2 in the division and 10-2 against common opponents, but Miami would end up 8-4 in conference play. The Patriots can't do any better than 7-5.
The outlook isn't much better when it comes to the AFC's two wild-card slots, currently held by the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, both of whom are 9-4.
The Patriots would need the Colts to lose two of their final three games to beat them out because Indy defeated New England this season.
In a two-team wild-card tie, conference record is the second tiebreaker, which gives Baltimore the edge if it finished in a tie with the Patriots at 11-5. The Ravens are 7-3 in AFC play with conference games left against the Steelers and Jaguars.
Of course, trying to project playoff scenarios with three games to go is like trying to predict where a single snowflake will land in a blizzard.
The Ravens could lose two games and the Patriots are in at 11-5, or the Jets and Dolphins both could finish 10-6. Or it could all be rendered irrelevant by a Patriots loss, something they probably can't afford at this point.
"Yeah, probably not, that's the way it's looking," said receiver Wes Welker. "We got to make sure we're bringing it each and every week. The playoffs are almost starting a few weeks earlier."
"All we can do is take it one game at a time," said Seymour. "A lot of people say, 'Well, you've got to win.' But we don't know what we have to do yet. I think that our goal right now is just to go in and get a win in Oakland and let the chips fall where they may. We can't control what some other team does."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com