Pats on bumpy road to securing AFC bye
As the AFC playoff picture begins to take shape, the Patriots find themselves in the familiar territory of chasing the No. 1 seed.
However, looking at the remaining schedules of the AFC teams in the hunt, the Patriots (7-2) have one of the bumpier roads to the top of the conference to snag one of the two playoff byes — a luxury they’ve enjoyed in each of the past seven seasons.
Out of the six AFC teams with winning records, the Patriots have the secondtoughest schedule remaining, with their last seven opponents boasting an average win percentage of .517. Only the 5-4 Bills have a more grueling path with an opponent win percentage of .535.
The bad news doesn’t stop there for the Patriots.
Two of the most potent threats to the Pats — the Chiefs and Steelers — have favorable schedules down the stretch.
The Chiefs’ remaining challengers have a combined win percentage of .374, with a game against the reeling New York Giants (1-8) up next.
The Steelers’ opponents have an average win percentage of .444, but their schedule looks potentially even smoother based on the eye test. They’ll square off against Marcus Mariota and the 6-3 Titans tomorrow and have a showdown with the Patriots in Week 15, but they also have the luxury of facing a few teams that are playing without key pieces of their rosters.
For example, they have the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers in Week 12, the Texans minus Deshaun Watson in Week 16, and the winless Browns to end the regular season.
Still, it’s the upstart Jaguars who look to have the easiest road left among AFC contenders.
Jacksonville boasts the best scoring defense in the NFL (14.9 points per game) and the best point differential in the AFC (plus92). The Jags are in a tremendous position despite having perhaps the worst quarterback, Blake Bortles, among the AFC contenders.
They play just two teams currently .500 or better in their final seven games and have matchups against the winless Browns, the onewin 49ers, and the Jacoby Brissett-led Colts in the last seven weeks.
So what does this mean for the Patriots?
Well, the road to a playoff bye probably won’t be as easy as things appeared in Sunday’s win at Denver. But it’s also conceivable the schedule won’t be as imposing as the numbers might suggest.
The Patriots will play AFC East rivals in five of the all final seven games. And as they so often have in recent years, the division rivals appear to be weakening just as the Patriots are rising.
The Bills surprised many early in the season but are now losers of two straight by a combined 50 points.
Todd Bowles and the Jets (4-6) have exceeded preseason expectations but have lost four of their past five.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins (4-5) look like one of the worst teams in the NFL with a point differential that ranks 29th in the league (minus-87).
Another factor for the Patriots is that all of their remaining games are in the AFC, so all will apply to tiebreaking scenarios at the end of the season.
For now, the Patriots can control their own playoff seeding by winning out. And they can start that march Sunday when they face the sub-.500, disappointing Oakland Raiders in Mexico City.