New England Patriots: Examining multiple playoff angles in Week 12

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 03: Linebacker Matthew Judon #99 of the Baltimore Ravens attempts to sack quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 03: Linebacker Matthew Judon #99 of the Baltimore Ravens attempts to sack quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots during the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

Every week is important in the NFL, but the deeper we get into the 2019 season, the more is at stake for the New England Patriots and their playoff push.

By virtue of their victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11, the New England Patriots assured themselves of a 19th consecutive winning season. That mark is the second-longest in NFL history, just one shy of tying the Dallas Cowboys, who had 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-1985.

The Patriots are also inching closer to both their 11th consecutive postseason appearance as well as their 11th consecutive division title. Should they win the AFC East again this year, they’ll further extend their own record for the longest streak of consecutive division titles won by an NFL franchise.

New England obviously has a lot at stake this season, as they are also attempting to win their seventh Super Bowl championship in franchise history, which would break a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Lombardi Trophies won by a single NFL team.

Time is of the essence too. Tom Brady is 42 and Bill Belichick is 67, and while both men have expressed their desires to continue their current NFL careers for at least a couple more years, nothing is guaranteed in this sport. Rumors and speculation abound even now – particularly concerning Brady’s future beyond 2019 – so it’s clear that the overarching mission this year is to win that seventh Super Bowl ring before any monumental changes can occur.

The Pats are currently right in the midst of their most difficult stretch of the season. The team played two division leaders in back-to-back weeks, the Ravens and the Eagles, going 1-1 during that span. They now face another three teams that either lead or are tied for the lead in their respective divisions: the Cowboys, Texans, and Chiefs.

After New England completes this five-game gauntlet, they’ll be rewarded with a relatively easy three-game slate to conclude their regular season. The Patriots draw the Bengals, Bills, and Dolphins to close out the year. Two of those three teams have losing records, and two of the three games will be played at home in Foxborough – including the most important game against the Bills in Week 16.

All in all, the Patriots (9-1) have six games left on their regular season schedule. Here are the various scenarios and postseason outlooks for the Patriots based off how they perform across those six games, courtesy of the mathematicians at

  • If they win all six, they’ll not only make the playoffs – they’ll clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC as well, guaranteeing themselves a first-round bye and home-field advantage until Super Bowl LIV… no matter what their other competitors in the conference do.
  • If the Patriots win five of the next six games, they still make the postseason and earn themselves a bye, but there’s a 10% chance they fall to the No. 2 seed. That would happen only if the Ravens win out in this scenario, leaving both Baltimore and New England with identical 14-2 records on the season. In that instance, the Ravens would win the tiebreaker because of their head-to-head victory in Week 9. The Patriots cannot finish lower than the No. 2 seed if they win five of their next six games.
  • Even if the Patriots only win four of their next six games, their odds are very good for one of the AFC’s top two seeds in the playoffs and a first-round bye. In this scenario, New England still has a 65% chance at the No. 1 seed and a 34% chance at the No. 2 seed. Interestingly, the Patriots actually have a better chance of finishing as the first wild card with the No. 5 seed (1%) than they do as the No. 3 (<1%) or No. 4 (<1%) seed in this scenario. The reasoning behind this has everything to do with the Bills being currently two games behind the Patriots at 7-3, while every other AFC team (other than the Ravens) is at least three games behind New England, if not more. Buffalo would need to represent one of those two New England losses to avenge their earlier head-to-head defeat to the Patriots, and then hope to win the other tiebreakers to capture the AFC East and relegate New England to being a wild card. The Patriots cannot be the No. 6 seed if they win exactly four more games; it’s the No. 5 seed or higher for New England in that scenario.
  • Here’s where the Patriots’ odds and probabilities really start to change dramatically. If New England goes just 3-3 over the next six weeks, their odds for the No. 1 seed plummet from 65% at four wins to just 22% at three wins. Their odds of being the No. 2 seed in this scenario are about even at 49%, they have a 19% at the No. 3 seed, and they have a 1% chance at the No. 4 seed. Again, their odds of being the first wild card and the No. 5 seed (9%) are better in this scenario than their odds of being the No. 4 seed, thanks to the Bills’ present record. Once again, the Patriots cannot be the No. 6 seed if they win exactly three more games; it’s the No. 5 seed or higher for New England in this scenario too.
  • If the Patriots win just two of their next six games, New England all but loses out entirely on the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs (2%). Their odds of earning the No. 2 seed fall to 16%, their odds at No. 3 rise to 32%, and their odds at No. 4 climb up to 16%. The Patriots would also have a 29% chance at becoming the No. 5 seed, and for the first time in these scenario projections, they’d be eligible for the No. 6 seed (yippee) with a 4% probability. This also represents the first scenario on this list in which New England could hypothetically miss out on the postseason altogether, even with a final record of 11-5… though the odds are slim (<1%). Of course, die-hard Patriots fans will note that the last time the club missed the cut for the playoffs back in 2008, the team record was indeed 11-5.
  • If hell freezes over and the Pats win just one of their last six games, they’ll finish the season at 10-6 and see their odds of earning a first-round bye all but vanish completely: No. 1 seed (<1%) and No. 2 seed (1%). Their odds at securing the No. 3 seed would also fall to just 7%, while their odds at landing the No. 4 seed would rise to 25%. New England would have the same odds at winning the No. 5 seed as the No. 6 seed in this scenario (28%), and their chances of missing the playoffs would rise from less than 1% at 11-5 to 12% at 10-6.
  • If hell freezes over, melts, and then freezes over again, and the Patriots lose all six of their remaining games this season to finish 9-7, they’ll understandably have a less than 1% chance at earning any of the top three seeds in the AFC. Somewhat remarkably, the Pats would still have a 9% shot at the No. 4 seed in this scenario, meaning there’d be a chance for New Englanders to see their team host a playoff game at Gillette Stadium after all. The Patriots would likely lose out on the No. 5 seed (3%) in this nightmare scenario, but they wouldn’t have terrible odds at the No. 6 seed at least (21%). The worst part of this probability is the whopping 66% chance that the Patriots would miss out on the postseason altogether – although even that would probably be fitting if Tom Brady and Bill Belichick lose to the currently winless Cincinnati Bengals this year.

If that was in any way confusing or overwhelming to digest, let’s make this whole thing a whole lot simpler…

The Patriots need to win at least three of their next six games to clinch a spot in the postseason. If they do exactly that and win half of the games left on their regular season schedule at minimum, they’ll make the playoffs no matter what.

Right now, they need to win five of their final six games to guarantee they get to host a playoff game as one of the top four seeds in the conference. That magic number could fall quite a bit if the Patriots keep winning and the Bills slip up somewhere along the way, but for now, the number remains five.

Not that anyone was really worried, but the Jets (3-7) and the Dolphins (2-8) have both been mathematically eliminated from AFC East contention at this point. Even if the Patriots were to lose out and finish the year 9-7, they’d have a better record than the Dolphins would if Miami won out (8-8) and they’d win the tiebreaker over the Jets if New York were to win out (9-7) because the Patriots swept the season series.

The concern for the Patriots in the race for their 11th consecutive division title is the Buffalo Bills, who played New England tough back in Week 4, and who actually have a better record at present than the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, or anyone else in the AFC that’s not either the Patriots or the Ravens.

The most important order of business for the Patriots is of course to win their own game this week against the visiting Dallas Cowboys (6-4).

Aside from that, New England benefits from the fact that two of the current six playoff seeds in the AFC have to play each other on Thursday night this week. The 6-4 Indianapolis Colts visit the 6-4 Houston Texans with divisional supremacy on the line, meaning that one of those two teams will drop to five losses on the year in Week 12.

New England should also be rooting for the Denver Broncos to upset the Bills on the road this week. It’s probably a long shot, but the Broncos have a good defense and have been playing up to the level of their competition of late, many of whom are playoff hopefuls. Even if Buffalo wins in Week 12, they’ll likely have a tough time over the next four weeks against the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots – especially with three of those four games coming on the road.

Outside of the Patriots’ own game against the Cowboys and the Bills’ game against the Broncos, easily the most impactful game in Week 12 from a New England playoff angle happens on Monday Night Football, when the 8-2 Ravens travel to take on the 6-4 Rams in Los Angeles. If New England beats Dallas and Baltimore falls to L.A., the Patriots’ cushion over the Ravens expands to two games with five games remaining.

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When it comes to examining the AFC playoff pecking order and identifying the Patriots’ biggest threat in the conference, there’s no need for any equations or advanced algorithms – it’s easily the Ravens. Any losses on the part of Lamar Jackson and that dangerous Baltimore offense only stand to put a safer distance between the Patriots and the Ravens in the race for home-field advantage in the postseason.