Patriots

Where the Patriots fit into a crowded AFC playoff picture

The Patriots are a longshot entering Week 15, but they could still make some noise and disrupt things for others.

Timothy T Ludwig
Josh Allen and the Bills could catch the Steelers for the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

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Kansas City is flying high, Pittsburgh is stumbling, and Buffalo is nearing its first division title since 1995. How does the rest of the AFC field stack up? Just how easy is Baltimore’s stretch-drive schedule? And what does New England have to do to keep its postseason dream alive? Keeping in mind there are seven available playoff spots this year, here’s a snapshot of where the AFC playoff picture stands as of Tuesday.

1. Chiefs (12-1)

Remaining schedule: at Saints (10-3), vs. Falcons (4-9), vs. Chargers (4-9)

Games against teams .500 or better: 1

Opponents’ record: 18-21 (.462)

The skinny: Hard not to be impressed with the state of the Chiefs. They looked like they were disinterested at times in the early going Sunday against Miami, but flipped a switch and ended up winning relatively easily. Not sure what sort of impact home field will have in the playoffs this year, but at this point, it’ll be a surprise if the AFC title game is anywhere other than Arrowhead again this January.

Patriots’ perspective: Kansas City gave New England an early holiday present with the blowout of the Dolphins, allowing the Patriots to creep a little closer in the wild-card race.

2. Steelers (11-2)

Remaining schedule: at Bengals (2-10-1), vs. Colts (9-4), at Browns (9-4)

Games against teams .500 or better: 2

Opponents’ record: 20-18-1 (.513)

The skinny: This is getting dicey. Pittsburgh has lost back-to-back games after an 11-0 start, and could be in real danger of losing the second seed. The Steelers should be thankful they have the Bengals this coming week, which should give them an opportunity to regroup. But there are still questions that need to be answered between now and the start of the playoffs.

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Patriots’ perspective: At this point, it looks like none of Pittsburgh’s remaining games will impact New England’s schedule.

3. Bills (10-3)

Remaining schedule: at Broncos (5-8), at Patriots (6-7), vs. Dolphins (8-5)

Games against teams .500 or better: 1

Opponents’ record: 19-20 (.487)

The skinny: Buffalo is definitely for real. The Bills are nearing their first division title since 1995, which means that when it comes to the AFC East, the Patriots could be reduced to the role of potential spoiler. Considering how Buffalo is playing and the continued struggles of the Steelers, the Bills could be in the mix for the No. 2 seed if they can take care of business.

Patriots’ perspective: New England could still throw them for a loop with an upset next week in Foxborough. If I’m the Patriots, I’m interested in doing everything I can to make sure Buffalo has something to play for heading into the final week of the season — if the Bills don’t have to play their starters in that one and Miami has something on the line, that could theoretically impact New England’s playoff chances.

4. Titans (9-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Lions (5-8), at Packers (10-3), at Texans (4-9)

Games against teams .500 or better: 1

Opponents’ record: 19-20 (.487)

The skinny: Tennessee has one more sizable challenge in Green Bay. Regardless of what happens there, the Titans’ ceiling figures to be at least 11 wins.

Patriots’ perspective: Tennessee’s schedule doesn’t look like it’ll impact New England the rest of the way.

5. Browns (9-4)

Remaining schedule: at Giants (5-8), vs. Jets (0-13), vs. Steelers (11-2)

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Games against teams .500 or better: 1

Opponents’ record: 16-23 (.410)

The skinny: Cleveland was so very close, but for the Browns, Monday’s crushing loss made them look like a team that isn’t quite there just yet. At the same time, they still have a shot at the AFC North if they win out and Pittsburgh keeps stumbling. That could make the regular-season finale against the Steelers worth watching.

Patriots’ perspective: A Browns’ win would have really given New England a boost, but Cleveland’s slate the rest of the way shouldn’t have an impact on the Patriots. Bottom line? Kevin Stefanski is off Bill Belichick’s Christmas card list.

6. Colts (9-4)

Remaining schedule: vs. Texans (4-9), at Steelers (11-2), vs. Jaguars (1-12)

Games against teams .500 or better: 1

Opponents’ record: 16-23 (.410)

The skinny: Indy is one of those teams stuck in the middle — not quite good enough to challenge the KC-Pittsburgh-Buffalo combo, but with that schedule, they’re still realistically eyeing 11 wins and a wild-card berth.

Patriots’ perspective: No remaining Colts’ games figure to play a role in the Patriots’ playoff chase.

7. Dolphins (8-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. Patriots (6-7), at Raiders (7-6), at Bills (10-3)

Games against teams .500 or better: 2

Opponents’ record: 23-16 (.590)

The skinny: The Dolphins did a nice job responding to Kansas City’s outburst, but Miami was just overmatched. If Miami can hold on and Tua Tagovailoa keeps the starting job the next few weeks, he has a chance to be the lone rookie quarterback to start an AFC playoff game this year. That regular-season finale against Buffalo is looking less and less important with each week.

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Patriots’ perspective: It’s still a long shot — and New England would have to climb over the Ravens and Raiders to get there, which is almost impossible after Monday night — but the Patriots could still theoretically surpass Miami. New England needs the Dolphins to lose two of their remaining three games to have a chance.

IN THE HUNT

8. Ravens (8-5)

Remaining schedule: vs. Jaguars (1-12), at Giants (5-8), at Bengals (2-10-1)

Games against teams .500 or better: 0

Opponents’ record: 8-30-1 (.205)

The skinny: Baltimore survived in dramatic fashion Monday night, with Lamar Jackson returning to the field in the fourth quarter to lead the Ravens back. After that ugly three-game slide, Baltimore has won two in a row. Two different teams, two different years, but it’s worth mentioning that the 2012 Ravens lost three straight late in that season before going on an epic run that culminated in a Super Bowl title.

Patriots’ perspective: If you’re the Patriots, you could have talked yourself into thinking there was a chance you could have found a way past Baltimore if the Browns had hung on Monday night. But now, the Ravens’ pillowy-soft schedule down the stretch might ultimately be what dooms the Patriots’ playoff chances. The Ravens are inconsistent, but those three layups could be just the escort to the postseason that Baltimore needs.

9. Raiders (7-6)

Remaining schedule: vs. Chargers (4-9), vs. Dolphins (8-5), at Broncos (5-8)

Games against teams .500 or better: 1

Opponents’ record: 17-22 (.436)

The skinny: No faith at all in the Raiders, who beat the Chiefs but were blown out by the Falcons. Given that track record, Las Vegas could end up 10-6 or 7-9 and I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

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Patriots’ perspective: New England has to like the fact that it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Raiders, but Las Vegas’ inconsistency leaves them a bit of a mystery. Ultimately, I still believe the Patriots will end up ahead of the Raiders between now and the end of the season — it’s just a matter of how it happens.

10. Patriots (6-7)

Remaining schedule: at Dolphins (8-5), vs. Bills (10-3), vs. Jets (0-13).

Games against teams .500 or better: 2

Opponents’ record: 18-21 (.462)

The skinny: I want to believe New England will bounce back from the ghastly loss to the Rams and at least throw a wrench into Miami’s playoff push. However, the fact they have lost seven of the last nine December/January games they’ve played in South Florida tempers my overall enthusiasm a bit.

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