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Pats look to give the Bengals a lump of coal on Christmas Eve

Joe Burrow and the reigning AFC champs are headed for a Foxborough showdown that could be pivotal in the playoff race.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow looks to throw a pass during the first half of an NFL football game New York Jets, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow looks to throw a pass during the first half of an NFL football game New York Jets, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Associated Press

Had the Patriots handled their business against the Dolphins on the season’s final Sunday, or had the Chargers not choked their finale away to the Raiders, the AFC playoff bracket would’ve been seeded differently last January.

The Pats would’ve been the No. 5 seed and traveled to the No. 4 Bengals — instead of going to Buffalo, where they were subsequently shellacked by the Bills. As it were, Cincinnati hosted Las Vegas, scoring the first of three wins that earned it a Super Bowl berth.

Might history have played out differently had second-year quarterback Joe Burrow’s first postseason hurdle required him to clear a Bill Belichick-led defense? Or could avoiding Buffalo and Josh Allen have possibly given Mac Jones more of a puncher’s chance in his first playoff foray?

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We’ll never know the answers to those questions, or how they may have affected the proceedings of the last postseason. But on Christmas Eve we will, finally, get to see how the Patriots match up with the Bengals — and that game could have a significant impact on the postseason that’ll be seeded and staged a few weeks thereafter.

A month ahead of the game, both the Pats and Bengals stood at 6-4, again occupying similar territory in the middle of the AFC playoff landscape. That was all subject to change over the season’s final seven weeks, of course, but assuming the teams remain tight into January the outcome of their head-to-head matchup could be a huge factor because it would be used to break a tie between them.

So, even though Santa won’t have quite yet arrived in Foxborough, one of these teams could leave Gillette Stadium late that afternoon having already received one big item from their wishlist — while the loser shuffles to the showers muttering “bah humbug” and fretting about the fate of their season.

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