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What's at stake in Broncos-Patriots showdown?

There has been a lot of talk about this week's Denver Broncos-New England Patriotsmatchup. The angles have been as varied as paths to greatness for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to Wes Welker's health to what Denver learned from the Patriots' up-tempo offense.

Somewhat lost in all the quarterback greatness: There isn't a more important game left on the AFC schedule this year for playoff positioning. Here's what's at stake in Sunday's game:

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If the Patriots win

  1. New England should be considered a favorite for a playoff bye with a win Sunday. Football Outsiders' great playoff odds roster says the Patriots currently have a 35.8 percent chance for a bye. That's actually lower than the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the playoff tiebreaker over the Patriots because they beat them head-to-head.

A win against Denver would change all that. The Patriots' offense is coming off its best two-week stretch of the season. This is a squad that has lost just three times in November and December since 2010.

Beating Denver would signify another strong stretch run to come. The Bengals' closing schedule is tougher than the Patriots' after this week, and Cincinnati already has four losses.

  1. A loss by the Broncos would make next week's AFC West showdown in Kansas City even more intriguing. Despite looking like the best team in the league all season, Denver could be staring at a must-win in Arrowhead next week or it could get stuck with the No. 5 seed in the AFC.

The Broncos have a huge homefield advantage, and they want to get that No. 1 seed again. The path to the Super Bowl probably would have to include three consecutive road games if they somehow lost this week in New England and then in Kansas City.

  1. A Broncos loss also would raise real questions about Denver's ability to win in a tough road environment after also falling in Indianapolis. It will be fascinating to see if the Broncos' offense looks the same in sub-freezing temperatures. It's hard to imagine the Patriots generating much pass rush, so New England's path to victory is most clear in a shootout.

If the Broncos win

  1. With a victory, Denver will all but guarantee that the AFC West winner will get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Broncos should cruise to homefield advantage if they win the next two weeks. Their final four games are not difficult.

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  1. The Patriots still should be in great shape to win the AFC East no matter the result. A loss would throw them into a three-team battle for the No. 2 seed with Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Colts have just three losses, but they have looked wobbly of late. The Bengals look like the better candidate to take the second seed if the Patriots fall.

New England is used to playing its best football as Thanksgiving approaches. A two-game losing streak to power teams would indicate this Patriots squad is a cut below the league's best.

*We previewed every Week 12 game in the latest "Around The League Podcast." *

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