COMMENTARY | While fans of the New England Patriots continue to argue about the "Immaculate Perception" call that decided Monday's matchup against the Carolina Panthers, Bill Belichick and his team have already turned their attention towards Sunday's showdown with the Denver Broncos.
Beyond the obvious storylines -- another Peyton Manning-Tom Brady tilt, Wes Welker's return -- the game's implications stretch far beyond just a simple win or loss.
Monday's result brought the Patriots back to the rest of the pack, tying them with the Indianapolis Colts and leaving the Cincinnati Bengals just a half game behind for the second seed in the AFC, and a first round bye. The bye is so crucial to going deep into the playoffs; in the 12-team era, 34 of the 46 teams to play in the Super Bowl have had the first weekend off.
Between any two teams, the first tiebreaker will always be head-to-head, if applicable. At the moment, the only team the Patriots own that tiebreaker over are the Miami Dolphins. Down the stretch, the only games of consequence appear to be against the Broncos on Sunday, and the second matchup with the Dolphins in Week 15.
If there is no head-to-head, or if the series was split, as is the case with the New York Jets, we go to the next step. Within a division, the next tiebreaker is record against the division. The Patriots are 3-1 against the AFC East while the Jets are 2-2, thus the Patriots currently hold the edge against the Jets, but it's not locked up.
Should we end up with a tie in division record, we go to the next step: "common opponents" (CO). These are all games against mutual opponents of the two tied teams, and a minimum of four is necessary. Outside of a division, conference record trumps the CO tiebreaker.
So, to recap:
-Tiebreaker order between division opponents: 1) head-to head 2) division record 3) record against CO 4) conference record.
-Tiebreaker order between non-division opponents: 1) head-to-head 2) conference record 3) record against CO
While there are still six weeks to go, it's never to early too begin scoreboard-watching. So, who do Patriot fans want to keep an eye on?
Arizona Cardinals Over Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck hasn't been the same since he lost his number one weapon, Reggie Wayne, and Trent Richardson has been an abject failure since arriving in Indianapolis, but they can still sneak into a high seed with a Charmin-soft schedule the rest of the way. However, Arizona is no pushover, and they're fighting for a playoff position themselves. Bruce Arians has his team playing hard, and Carson Palmer has been good enough. There is a very real possibility of a road upset for Indianapolis.
They haven't played -- and won't play -- New England, who currently leads in CO 1-0 to 2-1. But there is still much to be decided. The four common teams are Miami, Houston and Denver, and yes, divisional opponents count twice.
A New England win over Denver would be a huge boost in the tiebreaker against Indianapolis, and an Indianapolis loss to Arizona puts them one game back in overall record, though it obviously wouldn't affect their conference record. Indianapolis will be a team to pay attention to for several weeks.
Baltimore Ravens over New York Jets
It may pain some New England fans to cheer for the team that ended their season last year, but New York is still very much alive in the AFC East race. Their head-to-head split with New England is big, and with two games each remaining against the division, anything can happen. Should that become tied, things get dicey for New England.
The easiest way to look at CO is to consider "non-common opponents" (NCO), of which there are only two between division rivals. A worse record against NCO means a better record against CO. New York played (or will play) Oakland and Tennessee while New England played (or will play) Denver and Houston. New York has already lost to Tennessee and thus hold the lead 0-1 to 0-0.
Carolina Panthers over Miami Dolphins
If you haven't gotten over Monday's non-call, it's time to. Like New York, Miami is still alive in the AFC East race, though their path is a little tougher. If Miami runs the table, they will have split with New England and swept New York, tying New England's division record. If New England also loses to Buffalo in this scenario, Miami wins the AFC East, but that's probably not going to happen. So we go to the next step.
Unfortunately for Miami, they are already 2-0 against NCO, clinching a draw at best. If New England also beats both their NCO, we go to conference record. Like with CO and NCO, a worse record against the NFC means a better one against the AFC. With New England's NFC portion of their schedule finished at 3-1, any losses they pick up the rest of the way will be against AFC opponents. Miami already has two NFC losses and thus, in any tied scenario where we get this far, will have clinched the conference record tiebreaker, giving them the division.
What About Kansas City?
Right now, New England is not too far off from a shot at home-field advantage. A win over Denver goes a long way in securing that, but the AFC West is still very undecided. Should New England beat Denver and gain the head-to-head tiebreaker, they'll want to cheer against Kansas City the rest of the way, giving Denver the division. If they lose the head-to-head with Denver, they'll want to cheer for Kansas City the rest of the way and avoid the head-to-head tiebreaker with Denver.
In Week 12, tiebreaker scenarios can be murky and very confusing, but the picture will begin to clear as we progress toward the end of the season.
Questions? Comments? You can follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7.
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