The New England Patriots entered Week 15 with a clear view of their playoff picture and a chance to clinch their tenth consecutive division title with a win against the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday. The Houston Texans, who topped the Jets on Saturday, moved to 10-4 and remained firmly in contention for the two-seed in the AFC. The Patriots (9-4), owning the tiebreaker against the Texans and the Chiefs (11-3), could not only maintain their grasp on the second bye, but stay in the hunt for the number one overall seed with a win in Pittsburgh.
To say things did not go as planned would be quite the understatement. Tom Brady and company had every opportunity to take control of the game, and their playoff picture, with chances before halftime, after halftime, and in the closing moments of the fourth quarter to put points on the board. They squandered them all. With the notorious score-halftime-score operation within reach, the Steelers forced the Patriots into a much less desirable punt-halftime-punt gameplan. Leading 14-10, the Steelers squashed a promising Patriots drive in the fourth quarter by bringing pressure and forcing an uncharacteristic red-zone interception from Tom Brady, his first in two seasons. And after Brady orchestrated a drive within the Pittsburgh 30 yard-line in the closing minutes, the Steelers defense held once again, forcing a series of errant throws from Brady as the Patriots unsuccessfully tried to even the score.
Snapping a five-game skid with their 17-10 victory, the Steelers stripped the Patriots of their ability to control their own destiny as they pursue that extra week off. So after the series of unfortunate events that was Week 15, where do the Patriots stand in the AFC playoff picture?
Despite the many negatives stemming from that contest, one important silver lining should not be overlooked. The Patriots are still very much in the hunt for a bye week. To have any chance, however, the Patriots must win their final two games against the Bills and Jets, both at Gillette Stadium. Assuming they get the job done in two December home games, the simplest path to the two-seed is if the Texans lose at least one of their final two games. Houston will travel to Philadelphia next week to face an Eagles team that just took down the Rams in Los Angeles, then conclude the regular season with a home game against the Jaguars.
Patriots Nation will have to root for Nick Foles and the Eagles next week, as hard as that might be.
While the two-seed is still in play, if the Texans win out and the Chiefs and Chargers win at least one more game, the Patriots’ best-case scenario lands them in very unfamiliar territory, in a playoff game on Wild Card Weekend. Both at 11-3, The Chiefs and Chargers have already clinched playoff births. The second-place team in that division already has the five-seed locked up as the first wild card. Still assuming that the Patriots win out, they will draw a matchup with the six-seed. The Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Titans and Dolphins all sit within one game of each other, so the final two weeks will shed some much needed light on the Patriots’ first round opponent. If they finish as the three-seed as speculated, they would not have to face the Chiefs or Chargers until the AFC Championship game.
To find the last time the Patriots played in a Wild Card game, you’ll have to go all the way back to 2009, where they lost to the Ravens 33-14. To find their last Wild Card victory, you’ll have to go back three more years, when they beat the Jets in 2006.
On the Road Again
Wild Card Weekend or not, the road to the Super Bowl will almost definitely not go through Gilette Stadium, but instead through Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City or the StubHub Center in Los Angeles. In the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots have played in a total of 24 playoff games excluding Super Bowls. Of those 24, only 6 have been away from Foxborough. Of those six road playoff games, the Patriots have gone 3-3. Interestingly enough, their last road playoff victory also came in 2006, against the San Diego Chargers in the Divisional Round. The Broncos have been eliminated from playoff contention, which eliminates the house of horrors that is Mile High Stadium from the playoff map.
The Patriots have won four straight home games against the Bills. They’ve won seven straight against the Jets. With the table set for two victories to close out the season, the fate of the Patriots’ extra week off lies in the hands of Nick Foles and Cody Kessler. After finishing with a 3-5 record on the road in the regular season, the Patriots will almost certainly have a chance to exercise these demons come playoff time.
-Ethan Roy is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @ethan_roy1