How the New England Patriots Can Clinch the AFC East and the No. 1 Seed in Week 18

Things have been a little bit … unusual around the New England Patriots this season.

You know things are a little off-center when Bill Belichick opens a press conference by apologizing to the media for being a Grumpy Gus after a loss. It’s not exactly the Patriot Way when they win a game by only throwing the ball three times.

But the biggest difference in 2021 from so many Patriots seasons that preceded it was the fact that New England is not the defending AFC East champions.

A string of 11 straight division titles and 17 out of 19 was snapped last season by the Buffalo Bills.

And wouldn’t you know it, the Bills are trying to win the division again this year.

The Patriots have one last chance this season to put an end to this madness and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. But if it’s going to happen, they will need help from a very unlikely source.

The Patriots have to beat Miami on Sunday and … gulp … root for the New York Jets

The Patriots can still clinch the AFC East and No. 1 seed
Mac Jones | Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Patriots and Bills enter Week 18 with identical 10-6 records, but the Patriots gave away their tiebreaker advantage to the Bills by losing to them in Foxboro in Week 16. The Bills’ victory gave them a split of the two-game season series and vaulted the Bills over the Patriots by virtue of a better division record.

That means the Patriots must finish with a better record than the Bills in order to win the division. And that means, like it or not, the Patriots will have to root for the New York Jets to come through and knock off the Bills in Orchard Park on Sunday.

No problem.

The Patriots will have their own hands full against a Dolphins team that has been a thorn in the side of the Patriots for years. Miami already won the first meeting between the two this season and would love nothing more to deny the Patriots a division title in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first season as Patriots’ head coach.

If the Patriots win, the Bills must either lose to the Jets or tie. If the Patriots tie, the Bills must lose. Those are the only scenarios that bring the division title back to Foxboro.

The Patriots can still claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with a lot of help

If the Patriots win and the Bills stumble, the Pats don’t necessarily have to settle for the division title. In fact, because the Patriots own the common opponent tiebreaker over the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots can do no worse than be seeded No. 3 if they win the division and finish 11-6.

Where the Patriots can really make a move is if they win Sunday and either the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs or Tennessee Titans lose. The Patriots own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Titans and the conference record tiebreaker over the Chiefs, so if either should lose, coupled with the tiebreaker over Cincinnati, the Patriots would move up to the No. 2 seed.

And if the Chiefs and Titans both lose, the Patriots would vault all the way up to the top seed in the AFC and strike fear in the hearts of all who would be forced to come to Foxboro.

The Patriots can do no worse than the No. 6 seed if they lose Sunday


NFL Playoff Picture: When Did the New England Patriots Last Make the Postseason as a Wild Card Team?

If the Bills win or Patriots lose, New England still makes the playoffs but does so as the Wild Card, something that has not happened ever in the Bill Belichick era. In the three previous seasons dating back to 2001 that the Patriots did not win the East (2002, ’08, ’20), they did not make the playoffs at all.

In this scenario, the Patriots would be locked into either the No. 5 or No. 6 seed.

If the Patriots lose to Miami and the Las Vegas Raiders beat the Los Angeles Chargers, the Patriots would drop down to No. 6. A Colts win and Patriots loss would also drop New England to No. 6. All other scenarios including a Patriots loss would leave them in their current slot at No. 5.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference