AFC Playoff Picture: Patriots face uphill battle for home-field advantage

AFC Playoff Picture: Patriots face uphill battle for home-field advantage

The New England Patriots have won 70 percent of their games this season. They're still a very good football team. But their path to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance looks much rockier than in years past.

After Sunday's 34-10 road loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots sit third in the AFC's overall standings behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers. If the season ended right now, they would need to play on Wild Card weekend, something they haven't done since 2009.

Of course, a lot can change over the final seven weeks of the NFL season. With the Patriots heading into their bye week, let's reset the AFC playoff picture, starting with a look at the overall standings. (An asterisk denotes a division leader.)

AFC Overall Standings

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)*

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2-1)*

3. New England Patriots (7-3)*

4. Houston Texans (6-3)*

5. Los Angeles Chargers (7-2)

6. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)

In the hunt: Tennessee Titans (5-4), Miami Dolphins (5-5), Baltimore Ravens (4-5), Indianapolis Colts (4-5)

AFC Wild-Card Round Matchups (as of Nov. 13)

No. 3 Patriots vs. No. 6 Bengals

No. 4 Texans vs. No. 5 Chargers

So, how could the Patriots avoid a first-round matchup against the Bengals and possibly secure the AFC's top seed? Here's a look at the remaining schedules for Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and New England:

Kansas City: at Rams (in Mexico City), BYE, at Raiders, vs. Ravens, vs. Chargers, at Seahawks, vs. Raiders

Pittsburgh: at Jaguars, at Broncos, vs. Chargers, at Raiders, vs. Patriots, at Saints, vs. Bengals

Patriots: BYE, at Jets, vs. Vikings, at Dolphins, at Steelers, vs. Bills, vs. Jets

If the Patriots want the No. 1 seed, they'll likely need to win out -- and get some help. The Chiefs have just two games remaining against teams above .500 -- the 9-1 Rams and 7-2 Chargers -- and would need to drop two games or more to open the door for New England, which does hold the tie-breaker over Kansas City thanks to its Week 6 victory.

The Patriots have a decent shot at catching the Steelers for the No. 2 seed and at least getting a first-round bye. Pittsburgh has decently tough road matchups in Denver and Jacksonville, and a Week 15 NEw England victory over the Steelers could catapult them into the No. 2 spot.

This all assumes, of course, that the Patriots straighten out the issues that led to a 24-point loss to a middling Titans team. But as always in New England, the stakes are high: Bill Belichick's club is just 2-3 on the road this season and hasn't won an AFC Championship Game on the road since 2004.

Could Patriots ranking among dead money leaders cost team in 2020?

Could Patriots ranking among dead money leaders cost team in 2020?

The New England Patriots have won six Super Bowls over the last 20 years in part by spending wisely.

Is that all about to change?

The Patriots currently have the least amount of cap space of any NFL team at $1.85 million, per Spotrac. Part of the reason for that is the amount of money they're paying to players who won't play for them in 2020 -- otherwise known as "dead money."

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In fact, New England currently owes $24 million in "dead money," which according to Spotrac puts the team in dubious company.

Let's just say the Panthers, Jaguars, Rams and Dolphins aren't expected to be Super Bowl contenders in 2020.

And if the last four seasons are any indication, the Patriots would be bucking a trend just by going 9-7 in their first season of the post-Tom Brady era.

Brady is the primary reason why New England is in this position: He accounts for $13.5 million of that $24 million number, while Antonio Brown is next-closest with $4.5 million in dead money owed.

But such was the contract that Brady signed last August that gave him a potential out in 2020 -- one he took to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rather than take another pay cut to stay in New England.

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The Patriots, who have signed all of their 2020 draft picks, still can create extra cap space by trading or extending offensive guard Joe Thuney, who currently has a $14.7 million cap hit that's second-highest on the team.

New England also could restructure the deals of several other players -- like it did recently with Patrick Chung -- to free up more space.

That dead money isn't going away, though, so Bill Belichick and presumptive starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham have another historic precedent to overcome this season.

What's with Jarrett Stidham's surprisingly strong 2020 NFL MVP odds?

What's with Jarrett Stidham's surprisingly strong 2020 NFL MVP odds?

Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in total scrimmage yards in 2019. Jarrett Stidham attempted three passes that weren't intercepted.

Both players share the same odds to win 2020 NFL MVP.

That's right: The New England Patriots' second-year quarterback, who has yet to start an NFL game after backing up Tom Brady last season, is listed at +5000 to win the NFL MVP award at DraftKings Sportsbook.

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Stidham shares those +5000 odds with eight other players. Here's the list:

Josh Allen, QB, Bills
Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions

To reiterate: Stidham (who might not even start in Week 1) has the same chance to be named the NFL's best player as the league's rushing title holder (Henry), a former Rookie of the Year (Barkley) and the guy who was supposed to be Brady's heir apparent in New England (Garoppolo).

How is this possible? It's all about expectations.

Many expect the Patriots to nosedive following Brady's departure to Tampa Bay. But if Stidham can guide New England to a winning record or even a playoff berth, he could gain traction as a dark-horse MVP candidate who worked wonders with an offense lacking elite weapons.

Considering Bill Belichick's Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel after Brady got hurt in 2008, that scenario isn't totally far-fetched.

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Of course, there still are 11 players with better MVP odds than Stidham, including Brady, whose +1600 odds rank him behind Dak Prescott (+1400), Russell Wilson (+800), Lamar Jackson (+700) and favorite Patrick Mahomes (+400), per DraftKings Sportsbook.

But it appears there's faint optimism among oddsmakers that "The Stidham Plan" will pay off in a breakout season for the 23-year-old QB.