Patriots Comeback had Major Implications in the AFC Playoff Picture
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Now that we've all had some time to recover from Tom Brady taking our collective breath away, it's time to look into the aftermath of the Patriots 34-31 overtime comeback win. To no one's surprise, this game had a colossal impact on the AFC's playoff picture.
At halftime, Denver had a seemingly insurmountable 24-0 halftime lead. Finishing off the win would put the Broncos firmly in the driver's seat for the AFC's #1 seed. With the win, Denver would improve to 9-1, remaining a full game up on divisional rival Kansas City (who lost earlier yesterday to San Diego). They would also go up two games over the conference's other three division leaders: New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
Of course, that's why they play the second half. By the end of the third quarter Denver was fighting for their lives, and by the end of the overtime they were left to scratch their heads and wonder what the hell just happened.
The stunning win gave the Patriots the all important head-to-head tiebreaker with Denver for the conference's number one seed and homefield advantage (think that played a factor yesterday?) throughout the playoffs. At 8-3, the Pats will need Denver to lose one more game for that to happen, something unlikely but not inconceivable. Denver's remaining schedule has them traveling to Arrowhead Stadium for a rematch with the Chiefs and two home games against the sneaky good Titans and Chargers, before finishing on the road against Houston and Oakland.
In fact, this serves as a reminder of how much mistakes (and yes, that botched call) really cost the Patriots last week. With a win over Carolina, the Patriots would be in sole possession of first place in the AFC, with the tiebreaker over their closest competitor in Denver. Instead, the Patriots find themselves in good shape to earn a first round bye, but still needing another Denver slip-up to steal home field advantage.
Furthermore, the rest of Sunday's action played heavily into the Patriots favor. Indianapolis had jumped ahead of the Patriots last week for the conference's #2 seed and playoff bye courtesy of New England's loss to Carolina, but the Colts promptly coughed that up by getting thumped by the Cardinals 40-11. Indy is now 2-2 since losing Reggie Wayne in Peyton Manning's return to the dome. Their two wins in that time were each by a 3 point margin, against lowly Houston and Tennessee. Their two losses? Combined score of 78-19. They still struggle to protect Andrew Luck, have no running game, and have few receiving options outside of the up-and-down TY Hilton and Coby Fleener. The schedule is also foreboding, with three good defenses (Titans, Bengals and Chiefs) in the last five games. Ruh Roh, Indy.
Kansas City also lost, surprisingly enough in a shootout to San Diego, but that game could have consequences far beyond the loss column. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, the Chiefs two best pass rushers, both left the game with injuries and both are undergoing MRI's today. That news could actually hurt the Patriots in the short term, as their availability could drastically hurt the Chief's chances of upsetting Denver this week, but it also serves as a major blow to another AFC contender.
Winning the AFC East is a foregone conclusion for most Pats fans, but last night's win also served to further distance themselves from the rest of the division. The Jets were absolutely thumped by the Ravens (fun fact: Geno Smith has 1 touchdown and 10 interceptions in his last six games), while the Dolphins blew a lead in heartbreaking fashion to Cam Newton and the Panthers. Despite dropping to 5-6, both teams remain firmly in the mix for the AFC's sixth seed, but the Pats win puts them up thee games in the division with only five to go. I don't want to count my "AFC East Champs" hats before they hatch, but...
Finally, the win put the Patriots one game ahead of the idle Bengals, the only playoff contender with a head-to-head tiebreaker over them. The Patriots destiny is in their own hands on this front: win out and you wont have to worry about that tiebreaker coming back to bite you. Fortunately for the Pats, the remaining schedule becomes much more friendly. The Patriots remaining schedule has them facing 2-8 Houston, 4-7 Cleveland, 5-6 Miami, 5-6 Baltimore and 4-7 Buffalo. Not necessarily easy (Cleveland has a strong defense and both Miami and Baltimore will likely be fighting for their playoff lives), but all five are certainly winnable games.
In short, the Patriots comeback did more than widen the head-to-head gap between Brady and Manning. It helped the Patriots emerge from the rest of the AFC's contenders, giving them an inside track towards, at the very least, an important first round bye.