Playing on Wild Card Weekend isn't a death sentence for Super Bowl hopes. Just ask the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, the 2011 New York Giants or the 2010 Green Bay Packers. But winning four games on the way to a title is much tougher. Just ask Bill Belichick.
The Patriots have made the playoffs 12 times under Belichick. All six of their Super Bowl appearances came with the benefit of a bye, out of nine tries. They didn't make it in three attempts without a bye. And that's what the Patriots could be facing following their perplexing loss to the Eagles on Sunday.
The Patriots are currently the No. 3 seed in the AFC, although they would clinch a playoff bye if they win out. Denver and Cincinnati face off in Week 16, guaranteeing another loss for the Bengals or Broncos. Then again, we should not assume the Patriots are winning out at this point.
There's no telling when Rob Gronkowski will be back in the lineup, and the Patriots have two difficult road matchups still on the schedule: Houston this week, and the Jets in Week 16.
This is a rare season in which a 13-3 team could be playing on Wild Card Weekend. (Last year the Patriots were the No. 1 seed at 12-4.) So who will be the odd team out?
*This is our weekly look at the AFC playoff picture. The official standings are here. We analyzed the NFC on Tuesday. *
Broncos in best position for No. 1
Denver is currently in the No. 2 spot, but it has the best chance to earn home-field advantage. Barely. It would be the third time in four seasons John Elway's bunch were the top seed in the AFC. We give them the edge because they host the Bengals in their big matchup. Win that game, and they have tiebreaks over the Bengals and Patriots. And they won't need a tiebreak anyhow if they finish 14-2.
The Patriots should not be counted out in the race for the top seed. Despite two tough road games, they are avoiding the Bengals-Broncos-Steelers round robin over the next few weeks. Pittsburgh is plenty capable of sweeping the Bengals and Broncos, which opens the door for the Patriots to get back to the top spot.
Forget that AFC South wild-card dream
It never seemed likely, but the AFC South had two teams in the playoffs as of last week. Houston's dispiriting defensive performance in Buffalo and the Colts' 45-10 loss in Pittsburgh should end the notion of two AFC South playoff teams. The rest of the AFC wild card contenders are better teams and have more favorable schedules. The winner of Texans-Colts in Week 15 will be the clear favorite to win the division, especially if it's the Colts. First team to nine wins is in. Eight might even get it done.
Pittsburgh is the AFC's key team
Even though they are currently the No. 7 seed, the Steelers are the team that matters most over the next month. They will have to at least split two games with Cincinnati and Denver, and then take care of business against road division cupcakes Baltimore and Cleveland. That would get the Steelers to 10-6, where they could still need tiebreak help to make the tournament.
As Sunday night's game showed, this is a team capable of winning out on the way to 11-5. If that happens, they would look like a wild-card team capable of winning the championship. Ben Roethlisberger gives them that chance.
Four teams for two spots
So we've mentally eliminated the AFC South teams from wild-card contention because they simply aren't that good. That leaves Kansas City, New York, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo battling for two spots. Forget the 5-7 teams because we strongly believe it will take 10 wins to make the playoffs.
The Chiefs are easily the safest bet of the group to make the playoffs. They are playing as well as any team in the NFL, and they don't face a team with a winning record the rest of the way.
This is setting up to be a fascinating AFC playoff group. Expect the wild-card teams this season to be capable of doing plenty of damage.