The New England Patriots, flawed as they are, keep winning, and the rest of the AFC East is coming apart. With each week, it becomes safer to say the Patriots will be in the playoffs when the regular season comes to an end.
So now that "if" is taken care of, the question then becomes "where?"
Throughout the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, New England has approached the playoffs from several different seeds and seen the perks and benefits of the higher slots for themselves. Playing out of a bye, the Patriots have been to the Super Bowl five times and won three of them. When they've had to play during wild card weekend, their season has invariably ended at the hands of another AFC opponent.
Can the Patriots still land the coveted first-round pass? At this point in the season, anything's possible. But the field is starting to settle, and New England, barring improvement and a little luck, looks poised for another Super Bowl run.
Here's a look at how likely the Patriots are for each playoff positioning:
No. 1 seed: 5 percent
Unlike last year, the Patriots can't just focus on themselves this winter.
Last year's team only needed to win, and it wouldn't be passed for the top seed. That's exactly what happened, as New England rolled to an 8-0 second half, landed home-field advantage and were on the brink of a fourth Lombardi Trophy.
This year, the Texans have the top seed on lock. Houston is 8-1 with a two-game advantage on New England, and the Texans appear to be the class of the conference, with a potent offense and an outstanding defense.
Houston's also got a soft schedule to close out the season, so the chances of the team fading away due to the level of competition is slim to none.
The Patriots do get a crack at the Texans in December, and it'll be a must-win if New England wants a shot at the top seed, but there's just too much ground for the Patriots to make up.
No. 2 seed: 25 percent
The Patriots only need to pick up one game to tie Baltimore for this spot (although the Ravens do hold the tiebreaker). The picture for this seed is a lot brighter than the No. 1 position.
Baltimore has looked highly vulnerable throughout this season, even considering the team's 35-point win over the Raiders last Sunday. The defense isn't playing with the same ferocity and the offense has looked lackluster at moments.
The Oakland blowout may have flipped the switch for a team that hadn't posted an emphatic win since its opener, but the finishing slate isn't an easy one for the Ravens. Baltimore still must face Pittsburgh twice (though Ben Roethlisberger's health is up in the air), and is in line for a pair of December challenges against the Manning brothers.
It's far from a guarantee, since New England is essentially two games behind the Ravens and is hardly without tough games itself, but an ill-timed slump for Baltimore could make this interesting.
No. 3 seed: 30 percent
This is where New England currently is, and it might very well be where it ends up.
If New England can hold off Andrew Luck this weekend and take care of business against inferior Jets and Dolphins teams, then it'll be 9-3 going into the high-stakes game with Houston. A 9-3 Patriots team would have to be feeling good with what would be six straight wins and Belichick's penchant for getting his team to play its best football late.
It's totally reasonable to see this team finishing the season 12-4, which would be tough to beat for a top-three position, even with the Broncos coming up strong in the rear view mirror.
And about those Broncos...
No. 4 seed: 40 percent
New England's finishing schedule isn't too tough, but Denver's is downright simple.
The Broncos finish up against, in order, San Diego, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Baltimore (by far the toughest game), Cleveland and Kansas City again. That's a slate rivaling what New England feasted upon in the second half last season.
The Patriots' awful defense makes it difficult to imagine them beating both Houston and San Francisco, and makes a pair of losses sound like a real possibility. Add in the confident Colts this weekend and a Thanksgiving game against the Jets, who should have beaten the Patriots in Foxborough, and New England sinking to 11-5 doesn't sound too outlandish.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine Denver losing twice to those teams listed. New England's got the tiebreaker, which could very well make the difference in the end, but the Broncos have to like their chances of being able to catch up to and slip by the Patriots late in the year.
No. 5 seed: 0 percent
No. 6 seed: 0 percent
New England will not be a wild-card team this year. They'll win the AFC East, and even if they don't, finishing behind either the Jets, Dolphins or Bills would mean having too bad a record to beat out the rest of the divisions for a berth anyway.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!