Pats on bumpy road to se­cur­ing AFC bye

Boston Herald - - NHL / NBA SCOREBOARD / RACING - Evan Lazar

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.

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