By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
BOSTON (CBS) -- With the way the 7-0 Patriots are playing right now, and the weakness of their remaining schedule, the road to Super Bowl 50 looks as likely as ever to go through Foxboro. As long as they win as many games as possible (and I'm not going there with you-know-what-and-0 yet), the Patriots should end up with home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs.
Just one problem: there are two other undefeated teams in the conference, and they both have a chance to beat the Pats for the top two seeds.
The Patriots and Broncos are both 7-0 and don't play each other until Week 12 at Denver. But of course, that game will decide the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams and render all other tiebreakers pointless - it's the Cincinnati Bengals (also 7-0) that could present a problem when NFL Playoff seeding is decided.
The undefeated Bengals are exceeding most people's expectations this season, mainly on the strength of quarterback Andy Dalton enjoying a career-best season. The former second-round pick looks to have made a leap forward this season, but still has questions to answer about his ability to perform in the postseason and big games in general.
For argument's sake, let's assume the Bengals are not frauds and are now a formidable playoff foe for the Patriots or Broncos. If they maintain their current pace and finish with the same amount of wins as the Patriots, they would have a chance to beat New England in tiebreakers for home field advantage. Don't laugh - it's true.
Since the Patriots and Bengals don't face each other in the regular season, the playoff tiebreakers between the teams come down to circumstances somewhat beyond their control. If their records against the AFC could be the impressiveness of the teams' wins that could determine playoff byes.
The Patriots and Bengals share the same record against the AFC, so right now the Patriots own the tiebreaker over the Bengals through "strength of victory". This obscure criterion measures the winning percentage of the opponents each team has beaten and awards the higher seed to the team with the higher winning percentage among defeated opponents. The Bengals' opponents have a combined record of 22-32 (.407) through eight weeks, while the Patriots' opponents are a combined 21-29 (.420). The "common opponents" criterion doesn't yet apply because it doesn't meet the minimum number of four, which it will when Cincinnati plays Denver in Week 15.
Of course, this could all prove meaningless if the Patriots simply finish with a better record than the Bengals. But Cincinnati's schedule looks arguably just as easy as New England's, with two games remaining against the Cleveland Browns and upcoming matchups against the lowly Houston Texans, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Ravens. Both New England and Cincinnati have to go to Denver to play the Broncos, who could decide their own fate with victories in those games. Three AFC teams with at least 14 wins is a realistic possibility.
Between both the Patriots' and Bengals soft remaining schedules, one big outlier is the 6-2 Arizona Cardinals, who play Cincinnati at home in Week 12 and do not play the Patriots in the regular season. A victory over the Cardinals would give the Bengals a massive boost in the strength of victory tiebreaker.
As stunning as this sounds, the Patriots may actually need to go 16-0 to secure the #1 seed in the AFC. If they lose at Denver and both of those teams end up 15-1, obviously the Broncos win the top seed; if the Bengals also manage a 15-1 record, they could leapfrog the Patriots for the #2 seed if these complicated tiebreakers shake out the way they potentially could.
Of course, these are all BIG ifs. It's still too early to think about anyone going 16-0, and it remains a question mark for Dalton to play this way throughout the season for the Bengals (and for coach Marvin Lewis not to screw it up). The Broncos, meanwhile, have been saved by their defense for most of the season while Peyton Manning and Gary Kubiak have struggled to figure out the best way to run the offense. So unless they can keep the momentum going from their impressive 29-10 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football, it would be difficult for the Broncos to lean on their defense as heavily as they have all the way to 15 wins - especially as the weather gets colder and the games get tougher for Manning to throw.
Whatever happens with Denver and Cincinnati from here on out, the Patriots just need to focus on winning as many games as possible. Because if they and the Bengals end up with the same record, it could be their opponents' performance, rather than their own, that could determine who gets home field.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Read more from Matt here. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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