As the New England Patriots prepare to open the second half of their season against the Buffalo Bills, they find themselves sitting in the third seed in the AFC with a projected wild card matchup hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What's it going to take for them to ascend to one of the two seeds to secure a first-round bye? Let's break it down.
First Seed in the AFC
The Texans have a two-game lead over everyone at this point, but they do have a handful of challenging road games that could open the door to a team below them (at Bears, at Patriots, at Lions, at Colts). The Patriots are fortunate to get the Texans in Foxboro in what will surely be billed as a potential AFC Championship game preview.
Even if the Pats dispatch Houston, they'll still need to pick up another one. Really, it's the Ravens that are the problem because the Pats already lost to them. They'll need two pick up two on them no matter what, though that doesn't look impossible with the Ravens' slate.
Really, I still wouldn't be surprised to see it come down to New England and Pittsburgh, aka the old guard.
Odds of First Seed: 40 percent
Second Seed in the AFC
Currently, the Ravens hold the second seed spot, but their remaining schedule is tougher than any of the other contenders. That includes two against the Steelers and trips to Denver and the Giants. Couple that with the losses of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, and it looks like the Pats should have a chance to jump their two-game lead.
It should be the Patriots, Broncos and Texans vying for the two byes, assuming the Steelers and Ravens beat up on each other.
The Week 15 matchup between the Broncos and Ravens will have a big impact on the AFC seedings. That's also the week the Patriots host the 49ers, so that weekend could be the one for the Pats to make their move.
Odds of Second Seed: 30 percent
Third Seed in the AFC
If the Texans and Ravens both lose no more than two more games, the third seed is likely where the Pats would be headed. Then it will mean the real battle will be between New England and Denver fighting for the third seed. It's impossible to project which of those would be preferable.
One of the wild cards will likely be the Ravens or Steelers, while the other will be a flawed or surprise team like San Diego, Indianapolis or Miami. It will depend on who the one seed is and how preferable it is to travel there or to the second seed.
Odds of Third Seed: 20 percent
Fourth Seed in the AFC
If the Texans, Ravens or Steelers and Broncos all get hot and the Pats don't, they'll end up here at the four seed, ensuring they'll need to win one home game and two road games to get back to the Super Bowl.
Houston looks like the only somewhat appealing road game, although what happened to Wes Welker last time they were there certainly isn't something they need to re-live.
The Pats have won and lost in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego and Denver. Any of those games would basically be a toss up. But in Foxboro the Pats would be strong favorites against any of them.
Odds of Fourth Seed: 10 percent
Right now, the Patriots' primary two concerns should be erasing the Ravens' two-game lead and holding off the Broncos.
They can worry about the Texans when they see them in Foxboro.
The second and perhaps first seeds are within reach, but it might take a third straight season of going 8-0 over the final two months of the regular season. It's not impossible, but this year's schedule doesn't have any gimmes outside of their Week 16 trip to Jacksonville.
The Patriots have little margin for error, but their fate still is in their hands if they can continue to improve and start putting forth their best efforts of the season.
By the time they get to the playoffs, they'll have an excellent sense of how they match up with the rest of the NFL. As always, it's about getting hot at the exact right time, no matter who or where they're playing.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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