Will the New England Patriots be able to fend off the Buffalo Bills for the AFC East crown this season? And if so, when will they clinch the division?
It might seem like a forgone conclusion that the New England Patriots will win the AFC East for the 11th time in a row this season, but for once, they actually have a legitimate competitor who may keep things interesting down the stretch.
The Patriots (8-1) currently have a two-game lead over the Buffalo Bills (6-3) for first place in the division. New England won the head-to-head matchup in Week 4 in Orchard Park, New York – though that game was the narrowest win of the season for the Pats. Starting Bills quarterback Josh Allen was also knocked out for nearly the entire fourth quarter of that game after suffering a concussion.
It’s been a long time since the Patriots have had to play meaningful football at the end of December – at least when it comes to wrapping up their division, that is.
But the NFL’s schedule-makers seem to believe that the rematch between these two rivals could have major ramifications on who ends up ultimately taking the division and clinching a spot in the postseason. The league recently flexed Bills/Patriots in Week 16 to December 21 as the middle game in a special Saturday triple-header.
Could the AFC East really still remain undecided at that late point in the season? And what are the chances that the Buffalo Bills actually wrestle the division away from the New England Patriots this year?
The Patriots still have to face the Eagles (away), Cowboys (home), Texans (away), Chiefs (home), Bengals (away), Bills (home), and Dolphins (home). Those opponents have a combined record of 30-34.
The Bills will take on the Dolphins (away), Broncos (home), Cowboys (away), Ravens (home), Steelers (away), Patriots (away), and Jets (home). Those opponents have a combined record of 32-31.
Mathematically-speaking, the Patriots (0.468) have an easier remaining schedule based off opponents than the Bills (0.507). They also have the aforementioned two-game lead, plus they’ve already won the head-to-head matchup.
The Bills will certainly have their chance to even the season series with the Patriots at one game apiece, but to do so they’ll have to win on the road in Foxborough. Keep in mind, the Patriots have never lost at home to the Bills when Tom Brady plays all four quarters…. ever.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Buffalo taking the AFC East from New England if it comes down to that Week 16 matchup at Gillette Stadium and Brady’s healthy. Even if the Patriots slip up against some of their tough upcoming opponents, Brady has historically had the Bills’ number throughout his Hall of Fame career.
New England figures to have some difficult outs coming up against the Eagles, Cowboys, Texans, Chiefs, and Bills. They should easily take care of both the Bengals and the Dolphins (assuming they still have something to play for against Miami in Week 17).
Buffalo will probably beat the Dolphins this week, the Broncos next week, and the Jets at home in Week 17. Games against the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots look like far less of sure things for the Bills, however, when it comes to that all-important win column.
Assuming that the Patriots are able to win more games this season than their division rivals, when might New England clinch the AFC East?
The Pats are already six games up on both the Jets and the Dolphins with just seven games left to play. New England swept the season series against New York and won the first meeting against the Fins in Miami. If the Bills beat the Dolphins this weekend and the Jets lose on the road against the Redskins – very realistic possibilities all around – then both teams will be eliminated from potentially catching the Patriots in the division, no matter how New England fares from here on out.
Let’s assume for a minute that the Patriots win just half of their next four games during the remainder of this difficult stretch of the schedule. New England should win all four – and we’re obviously hoping that they do just that – but let’s imagine they go 2-2 at worst since all four opponents are legitimate playoff contenders and lead their respective divisions. That would put the Patriots at 10-3 heading into Weeks 15-17.
It’s also probably fair to predict the Bills could go 2-2 over their next four games – at Miami and Dallas, and home for Denver and Baltimore. Doing so would put Buffalo’s record at 8-5 heading into Weeks 15-17, while still keeping New England’s lead in the division at an even two games over the Bills with just three games remaining.
In this scenario, both clubs would play AFC North teams on the road at the exact same time (1:00 pm EST) on Sunday, December 15.
The only difference is that the Patriots will be facing the Bengals – who are currently winless at 0-9 – and the Bills would be facing the Steelers, who are currently 5-4 and riding a four-game win streak. Cincinnati won’t have anything to play for at that point, but if Pittsburgh keeps up their present pace they’d almost certainly be playing for a wild card spot in the AFC… and they’d be playing at home in Heinz Field before an impassioned crowd with something to cheer for.
It’s easy to imagine the Patriots demolishing the Bengals and the Bills falling to the Steelers in this very-plausible scenario. If that happens, New England climbs to 11-3 and Buffalo falls to 8-6… and that all-important Week 16 clash suddenly becomes a heck of a lot less important, since the Patriots would have already clinched the AFC East six days prior.
As fun as it is to speculate about hypothetical realities, scenarios, and situations, there’s obviously still a lot of time left – and a lot of games to be played – before we can really begin analyzing postseason probabilities and playoff likelihoods. For the time being, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a world where the Bills overtake the Patriots in the AFC East – though both teams will likely make the playoffs this year at minimum.