The New England Patriots hit their bye week at an impressive 7-2, atop the AFC East with a two-game lead and currently sitting in second place in the conference. If the playoffs started today, the Pats would have a first-round bye for the fourth straight season.
The Patriots will face two big tests coming out of the bye, but then end the season with five straight games against teams currently without winning records.
Things look bright for the Patriots' playoff chances, with Football Outsiders having them a near lock at 93.9 percent. Their most likely seed according to Football Outsiders? The fourth (30.9 percent) or third (30.0 percent), with a 20.1 percent shot at the second seed and a bye.
Let's take a look at what needs to happen for New England to not only get into the playoffs, but grab a first-round bye.
There's no need to rehash the long list of injuries the Patriots have suffered this season. What matters now is who can still help them down the stretch.
Shane Vereen and Aqib Talib headline the list of players who should return to action against the Carolina Panthers after the bye. Vereen will give the offense an instant boost, as they've lacked a true receiving back since he went down after Week 1.
Talib was playing like the best cornerback in the NFL before straining his hip flexor in Week 6 against the Saints. The Patriots will need Talib, especially for their Week 12 game against the Broncos.
First-year player Armond Armstead and rookie receiver Mark Harrison could also be activated from the PUP list, though the Pats clearly need the defensive lineman Armstead more than they need a fourth rookie wide receiver. Armstead could bring some additional interior pass rush which would be especially useful against Peyton Manning.
The Pats have been hit hard by injuries and turnover, but the adjustment and recovery periods are almost behind them. Once they are back to health in some key spots, the team should continue to blossom.
The Pats are done with their divisional games until Weeks 15 and 17 and could lock up the AFC East even before that. The Jets are currently two games back and pose the biggest threat to New England's AFC East title hopes.
The Jets' have shown flashes this season and have been far better than most pundits expected, even beating the Patriots in Week 7, but do they have the consistency to make up the two games? It seems like a tall order, especially with no more games directly against the Pats.
The Bills (3-6) are quickly fading, though this has already been a positive reset year for them. Injuries have hit them hard as well, but with a solid defense and a promising young quarterback in EJ Manuel, the future looks bright.
The Dolphins (4-4) aren't out of the running yet, but the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy is certainly not what a team sitting on the fence needs right now. Their win over the Bengals could provide a spark, but Miami does not have much margin for error.
They'll need to win both games against the Jets to have a shot at the division or playoffs. To overtake the Patriots they'd like have to win out, or come close to it.
Anything can happen, but given how the Pats usually perform toward the end of the season and that they're just starting to find their stride and get healthy, it's likely they'll have the division locked up by early December.
|5 Key Remaining AFC Games|
|11/17||Chiefs @ Broncos|
|11/24||Broncos @ Patriots|
|11/24||Jets @ Ravens|
|12/1||Broncos @ Chiefs|
|12/8||Colts @ Bengals|
At this juncture, it looks like the Pats will be going head-to-head with the Colts for the second seed. The Chiefs and Broncos have two games against each other left, leaving one with the likely top seed and the other sliding to the fifth seed, even if they have the second-best record in the conference.
The Patriots' best-case scenario is for the Broncos and Chiefs to split their games against each other. The Chiefs also must play the Colts in a game that could have a big impact on the AFC standings.
The Patriots also would lose a tiebreaker to the Bengals, who have a two-game lead in the AFC North over the 4-5 Browns.
The Bengals and Ravens still have yet to meet, and those two games could help the Patriots and Browns. The Patriots should be pulling for the Ravens to beat the Bengals, then hope to beat the Ravens themselves in Week 16, putting the Bengals and any tiebreakers in the rear-view mirror.
There is still much drama to unfold in the other three AFC divisions, with the first- and second-place teams in the South and West still having two games to play against each other. In the North, the first-place Bengals and third-place Ravens still have yet to meet.
Those divisional games will have a big impact on who the Pats will be competing against for playoff position.
Fate is in their hands
The Patriots have just one non-conference game left, their first game after the bye week against the Panthers. Then they end their season with six straight AFC contests, and from that group, only the Broncos have a winning record.
There will still be some stiff challenges, especially in Miami and Baltimore, but this is a manageable slate for Tom Brady and the Pats. Cleveland's defensive coordinator Ray Horton also gave New England plenty of problems when he was with the Cardinals in 2012.
The Patriots have managed to overcome a lot of adversity early this season, and to be 7-2 is quite impressive, but there is still not much room for error. Getting players back from injury is just the boost the team needs as it heads toward the stretch run of the season.
With a favorable schedule and the Pats hitting their late-season stride like they usually do, it's a good bet there will be playoff football in Foxborough in January for the eleventh time in 13 years.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.