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Patriots AFC Playoff Picture: Race For First-Round Bye Remains Tight, With Potential 'Hat And T-Shirt Game' On Tap In Miami

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots sure have come a long way since their 1-2 start to the 2018 season.

Since that dreadful night in Detroit, the Patriots have won eight of their last nine games to improve to 9-3, owning a commanding lead in the AFC East. Their lead in the division is such that they can clinch the division crown (for the 10th straight year) if they can beat the 6-6 Dolphins in Miami next Sunday.

Of course, winning in Miami has never been easy for the Patriots during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. The Patriots lost there on a Monday night in Week 14, and they lost in Miami in Week 17 of the 2015 season to lose out on the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Brady's record in Miami is just 7-9.

The Patriots, though, won't have much room for error in that game in Miami on Sunday, because the fight to earn a first-round playoff bye remains as tight as can be.

The Chiefs won on Sunday, despite having their running back dumped off the roster on Friday night, to improve to 10-2 on the season. If the Chiefs finish their year 14-2, they'll earn the No. 1 seed. If they end up dropping at least one game and sharing a record with the Patriots, then New England will leapfrog them in the standings, by virtue of having won the head-to-head matchup.

That scenario of course requires the Patriots to end the year on a hot streak, which is something they'll probably need to do if they want to hold on to that No. 2 overall seed in the AFC. That's because the Houston Texans have completely forgotten how to lose, now having won nine straight games to stand neck and neck with the Patriots with a 9-3 record. The Patriots own that tiebreaker as well, having beaten Houston in Week 1. But if the Patriots slip up at all in the final four weeks of the season, the Texans figure to be in position to take advantage.

Complicating matters is the rise of the Los Angeles Chargers, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night to improve to .... you guessed it, 9-3. That puts them just a game behind the Chiefs, with a head-to-head matchup at Arrowhead scheduled for a Thursday night in Week 15. Given their position, the AFC West is clearly not at all settled at this point in time. And if the Chargers end up passing the Chiefs in the West, then the tiebreaking process between the Chargers and Patriots would come down to the teams' records in either conference games or games against common opponents, records that are yet to be determined.

Of course, with four weeks left to play, a lot can happen. But the Patriots know this: If they win their final four games (at Miami, at Pittsburgh, vs. Buffalo, vs. New York Jets) then they will finish in the No. 2 seed at the very worst, giving them a break on wild-card weekend and earning themselves a home date in the divisional round. If the Chiefs slip, the Patriots could slide on up to the No. 1 seed, but that is only if the Chargers don't end up in better position than the Patriots, which remains possible.

Here's a look at the remaining schedule of all involved teams.

CHIEFS (10-2)
Week 14: vs. Baltimore (7-5)
Week 15: vs. L.A. Chargers (9-3)
Week 16: @ Seattle (7-5)
Week 17: vs. Oakland (2-10)

Week 14: @ Miami (6-6)
Week 15: @ Pittsburgh (7-4-1)
Week 16: vs. Buffalo (4-8)
Week 17: vs. N.Y. Jets (3-9)

TEXANS (9-3)
Week 14: vs. Indianapolis (6-6)
Week 15: @ N.Y. Jets (3-9)
Week 16: @ Philadelphia (5-6)
Week 17: vs. Jacksonville (4-8)

Week 14: vs. Cincinnati (5-7)
Week 15: @ Kansas City (10-2)
Week 16: vs. Baltimore (7-5)
Week 17: @ Denver (6-6)

STEELERS (7-4-1)
Week 14: @ Oakland (2-10)
Week 15: vs. New England (9-3)
Week 16: @ New Orleans (10-2)
Week 17: vs. Cincinnati (5-7)

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