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Can Patriots hold onto the No. 1 seed? Simulating the AFC playoff race

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Chances are you've seen the forecasts that predict New England Patriots vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the most likely Super Bowl LVI matchup. Chances are you've groaned.

Are we getting a little ahead of ourselves? Sure, the Patriots enter their bye week as the AFC's No. 1 seed at 9-4, but three teams are just a half-game behind them with four games to play. How likely is it that at least one of those teams catches up and forces New England to play on Wild Card weekend as the No. 2 or No. 3 seed?

NFL playoff picture: Pats fans should root for these teams Sunday

We enlisted our partners at Strat-O-Matic to help with that question.

Using their powerful simulation tool that predicted the Patriots' success back in early November, they played out the remaining 2021 regular-season games for New England and its top AFC competitors, then simulated the entire playoffs based on that seeding.

As Patriots fans will discover, results were mixed.

First, here's a look at the AFC's playoff contenders, with remaining schedules and odds to finish as the No. 1 seed:

AFC Path to Playoffs
NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Now for a look ahead in Strat-O-Matic's simulation.

Patriots' final four games

Simulation Station Patriots Final Four Games
NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Good news: New England takes care of business down the stretch.

A 28-20 road loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15 snaps the Patriots' seven-game winning streak, but they rally to take down the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins to finish the season 12-5.

Not too shabby for a team with a rookie quarterback that began the season 2-4.

 

Final NFL Standings

Simulation Station NFL Standings
NBC Sports Boston Illustration

The Patriots indeed get a first-round playoff bye as the AFC's No. 1 seed, with the surprising Cleveland Browns (11-7) right behind them at No. 2.

Tom Brady's Bucs edge the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals grab the top seed in the NFC, sparking endless chatter about a Patriots-Bucs collision course in the Super Bowl. But...

NFL Playoff Results

Simulation Station NFL Playoffs
NBC Sports Boston Illustration

... Brady vs. Bill Belichick Part II is not meant to be.

The Patriots defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 31-24 to reach the AFC Championship Game, but the Colts get the better of them again in a 31-19 upset at Gillette Stadium.

Indy rides that momentum into SoFi Stadium, demolishing Tampa Bay 31-13 in Super Bowl LVI for its first title since 2006.

Apparently Frank Reich has the magic touch against Belichick and his former quarterback, at least in this simulation.