The New England Patriots are guaranteed at least one home game in the AFC playoffs. Beyond that, it's all about the rest of the field.
The path to a first-round bye got a bit narrower when New England lost to the San Francisco 49ers a couple of weeks ago, but there is a path to get there nonetheless.
The Patriots no longer control their own destiny to a first-round bye, so what needs to happen for them to get one?
1. Handle Business with a Win over the Dolphins
Let's start with the most obvious. If New England loses to Miami, you can forget about a first-round bye. Nothing less than a 12-4 record to finish the season will do, because both of the current front-runners will finish with a record at least that good.
The Patriots played the Dolphins just over three weeks ago in a hard-fought contest that was closer than most expected. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was pressured on 27.3 percent of his drop-backs (12 out of 44), a slight uptick from his season average of 25.5 percent to date.
Four times, the Dolphins drew within seven points or less of the Patriots, but New England was able to drain the clock at the end with a heavy dose of running back Stevan Ridley. Dolphins players were vocally upset (via The Palm Beach Post) about the way New England attacked them at the end of the game, running the same play at the same gap repeatedly, so the Patriots may go about things similarly this time around.
Vegas: Patriots -10 (courtesy of Spreadapedia)
Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus: Patriots (unanimous)
The Broncos are riding a 10-game winning streak into a home stand against the 2-13 Chiefs.
Don't let the records fool you, though; the last time these two teams met, the Broncos offense was held in check by the Chiefs defense in Kansas City, and Denver was able to escape with a 17-9 win. Peyton Manning's 90.5 passer rating was one of his three lowest of the season (scary, right?)
The Broncos can't afford to lose, because that would make the Patriots' path to a first-round bye that much easier and would open Denver up to the possibility of traveling to New England.
The Chiefs are a longshot to pull off the upset, but Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel has had some success against Peyton Manning in the past (albeit with better personnel), so while slim, the possibility still exists that the Chiefs could win.
Vegas: Broncos -16 (courtesy of Spreadapedia)
Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus: Broncos (unanimous)
The Colts gave the Texans a run for their money in the previous meeting, and although the Colts lost 29-17, they were twice within one possession. Although Indianapolis has already locked up its playoff spot and can't improve its seeding, Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne told the Indianapolis Star (via ESPN Boston):
We're too young to rest. We probably need to put everybody out there and have them continue to play. I don't think we can afford [to rest]. I can't speak for everybody, but I'm built to play.
The Texans opened up a larger window to a first-round bye when they lost to the Minnesota Vikings at home in Week 16. The Colts are 6-1 at home this year, and should be emotionally fired up with the return of head coach Chuck Pagano, who has been battling leukemia and hasn't been on the sidelines since Week 3.
If the Patriots are going to lock up a first-round bye, the Colts may be their Obi-Wan Kenobi: Their only hope.
Vegas: Houston -4.5 (courtesy of Spreadapedia)
Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus: Texans (6-5)
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.