As the AFC playoff picture begins to take shape, the Patriots find themselves in the familiar territory of chasing the No. 1 seed.
However, looking at the remaining schedules of the AFC teams in the hunt, the Patriots (7-2) have one of the bumpier roads to the top of the conference to snag one of the two playoff byes — a luxury they’ve enjoyed in each of the past seven seasons.
Out of the six AFC teams with winning records, the Patriots have the second-toughest schedule remaining, with their last seven opponents boasting an average win percentage of .517. Only the 5-4 Bills have a more grueling path with an opponent win percentage of .535.
The bad news doesn’t stop there for the Patriots.
Two of the most potent threats to the Pats — the Chiefs and Steelers — have favorable schedules down the stretch.
The Chiefs’ remaining challengers have a combined win percentage of .374, with a game against the reeling New York Giants (1-8) up next.
The Steelers’ opponents have an average win percentage of .444, but their schedule looks potentially even smoother based on the eye test. They’ll square off against Marcus Mariota and the 6-3 Titans tomorrow and have a showdown with the Patriots in Week 15, but they also have the luxury of facing a few teams that are playing without key pieces of their rosters.
For example, they have the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers in Week 12, the Texans minus Deshaun Watson in Week 16, and the winless Browns to end the regular season.
Still, it’s the upstart Jaguars who look to have the easiest road left among AFC contenders.
Jacksonville boasts the best scoring defense in the NFL (14.9 points per game) and the best point differential in the AFC (plus-92). The Jags are in a tremendous position despite having perhaps the worst quarterback, Blake Bortles, among the AFC contenders.
They play just two teams currently .500 or better in their final seven games and have matchups against the winless Browns, the one-win 49ers, and the Jacoby Brissett-led Colts in the last seven weeks.
So what does this all mean for the Patriots?
Well, the road to a playoff bye probably won’t be as easy as things appeared in Sunday’s win at Denver. But it’s also conceivable the schedule won’t be as imposing as the numbers might suggest.
The Patriots will play AFC East rivals in five of the final seven games. And as they so often have in recent years, the division rivals appear to be weakening just as the Patriots are rising.