With a 6-6 record going into Week 14's Thursday night game against the Rams in Los Angeles, the Patriots are alive in the NFL playoff picture. New England, however, still has the odds stacked against it to make the NFL playoffs for an 18th consecutive season.
The Patriots currently are No. 10 in the conference with their .500 record. Before thinking about catching either the No. 6 Dolphins (8-4) or No. 7 Colts (8-4) for one of the final two AFC wild-card spots, they also need to jump both the No. 8 Raiders (7-5) and No. 9 Ravens (7-5).
The bad news is two games are a lot of ground to make up in only four weeks. The good news is the Patriots already have the right kind of wins that can help them extend their postseason streak with Bill Belichick and without Tom Brady.
Here's a look at New England's schedule and resume and what help it will need to get into the playoffs:
Can the Patriots make the playoffs?
The NFC West-leading Rams (8-4) on the road are a tough way to start. Then it's all division game rematches, at the Dolphins (8-4) in Week 15, vs. the Bills (9-3) in Week 16 and vs. the Jets in Week 17.
Although it's unreasonable for the Patriots to run the table at 4-0 to finish 10-6, there's a fair shot at 3-1 and 9-7. Going 2-2 or worse simply won't cut it to get in by at best remaining .500 at 8-8 as that would require a lot of help to jump three teams.
Which team ahead of the Patriots is in most trouble?
The Raiders will host the Colts in Week 14 and host the Dolphins in Week 16 as their toughest games left. The Colts have to go to the Steelers in Week 16 two weeks after their trip to Las Vegas.
While that seems pretty daunting, there's no doubt the Dolphins have it worst. They need to host the Chiefs in Week 14, go to Las Vegas in Week 16 and close at the Bills in Week 17. The missing game there in between is the home game against the Patriots.
On the flip side, the Ravens have it by far the easiest after getting back above .500 in Week 13. They do play at the Browns in Week 14, but that's balanced by vs. Jaguars, vs. Giants and at Bengals in the final three weeks.
Looking at all that, the Raiders, Colts and Dolphins can all do damage to each other while also having it rough in their other games.
The Patriots should root for the Raiders to lose both the Colts and Dolphins games to finish 2-2 and 9-7 or worse. In that case, the Colts would likely finish 3-1, getting in at 11-5. The Dolphins, even with the Raiders win, are a good bet to lose the Chiefs and Bills games. The Ravens then need to finish 2-2 against a favorable schedule.
Having the Colts surge to big double-digit wins may not sound great for the Patriots, but it makes more sense to try to beat out the Raiders, Dolphins and Ravens at 9-7 for No. 7.
How the Patriots can make the playoffs
Three-quarters of the answers are easy. The Patriots beat the Dolphins at home in Week 1, the Raiders at home in Week 3 and the Ravens at home in Week 10. They hold all the tiebreakers there and can maintain those by sweeping the Dolphins in Week 15.
So if the Raiders, Dolphins, Ravens and Patriots all end up 9-7, the Patriots would be the last team in behind the Browns and Colts.
Now let's put the Patriots head-to-head with the Colts. The Rams game won't affect the Patriots' conference record. So if the Patriots go 3-1 with that being their lone loss, they would have a 8-4 mark in AFC play. The Colts would need to go 1-3 to finish 9-7. That would put their conference record at 5-7, so the Patriots would win that tiebreaker, too.
The Titans, other than at the Packers in Week 16, have a very favorable schedule. However you look at it with them the Colts in the AFC South, both the division winner and the wild card should have double-digit wins, which doesn't do the Patriots any good.
When removing the Titans, Browns and Colts out of equation based on future win probability, there's a good chance the Patriots will get the right kind of help beyond their own direct second shot at the Dolphins. At 9-7, the Patriots would have a real chance to get in if there aren't more than six AFC playoff teams with 10 wins or more. If the Patriots can somehow take care of the Rams, too and finish the season on a six-game winning streak to get to 10-6, they would be near locks to get in.
The Patriots need multiple events to break their way, starting with their own improved performance, but based on whom they've beaten, whom they play and whom their playoff competition plays, everything can add up nicely for the calculated Belichick.