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Patriots playoff picture: How New England is sitting pretty in 2021 NFL wild-card standings

The Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons in 2020, finishing 7-9 in the first season in a long time without Tom Brady starting at quarterback. Surprising no one, coach Bill Belichick with rookie first-rounder Mac Jones now as his starting QB, has New England right on track to return to the AFC postseason after the one-year hiccup.

Going into Thursday night’s Week 11 game at Atlanta, the Patriots (6-4) have won four consecutive games and five of six to surge into wild-card contention. At the same time, with the reigning strong AFC East champion Bills (6-3) slumping of late, the Patriots also have a chance to take back the division title after finishing third behind the Dolphins last season.

Here’s a breakdown of where the Patriots stand now and their potential playoff path ahead for the stretch run of the 2021 NFL season:

What is the Patriots’ current AFC playoff position in the NFL standings?

The Patriots, with their 6-4 record, would be the second of three AFC wild-card teams at No. 6, sandwiched between the Steelers (5-3-1) and the Chargers (5-4). They will jump up to the No. 5 seed and top wild card by winning as big favorites against the Falcons.

Before Week 8, the Patriots had a rather weak resume, with two wins against the Jets and one over the Texans. But since Week 8, they have added key wins over the Chargers and Browns. On top of now holding the head-to-head tiebreakers over both of those teams, they also hold a strong 5-1 conference record, helped by going 4-0 on the road this season.

How tough is the remaining schedule and what key games do they have left?

The combined record of the Patriots’ remaining opponents is .515. After the Falcons (4-5), they don’t face teams with current losing records until the Jaguars (2-7) and the Dolphins (3-7) back-to-back in Weeks 17 and 18 to close the season.

From the Falcons game, they will have a mini-bye before facing the AFC No. 1 Titans (8-2), coached by Belichick disciple Mike Vrabel, at home in Week 12. Then the Patriots travel to Buffalo in Week 13, ahead of a late Week 14 bye. That should help them regroup for going to the pesky Colts and hosting the Bills.

What are the Patriots’ chances of earning an AFC wild-card berth?

The most important game in meeting the simple goal of returning to the playoffs is beating the Titans, with the Colts being a close second. That assumes the Patriots won’t lose at home to the Jaguars or on the road to Brian Flores’ Dolphins — who beat them in New England in Week 1.

The Patriots should feel good about finishing 3-1 in the conference and 8-2 overall in AFC play, which would help them with tiebreakers against teams that they didn’t play. They also would be helped by no real wild-card threat from the AFC South — especially if they beat the Colts — while the winning non-first place teams in the AFC North and AFC West beat up on each other with a lot of division play left in the final two months.

Should the Patriots jump the Steelers going into Sunday, they should like their chances to make the playoffs over them, the Bengals and the Raiders, as well as the Browns and Chargers. The recent hot streak has put New England in a great position in the second half.

What are the Patriots’ chances of wining the AFC East over the Bills?

The Patriots, who still haven’t had their bye, trail the Bills by only a half-game. Assuming they take care of business in Atlanta and Buffalo dispatches Indianapolis, that won’t change going into Week 12.

The Bills have a very simliar strength of schedule left (.513). They still need to play two NFC South teams to whom the Patriots lost, the Saints (on the road on Thanksgiving) and the Buccaneers (on the road in Week 14). They balance that out with the Panthers, Falcons and Jets — three teams to boost the Patriots’ record.

The Patriots are trending to going 4-1 (10-5) in their non-Bills games left. The Bills, with one fewer loss, have a good shot to finish 5-1 (11-4) in their non-Patriots games.

That would then put the burden on the Patriots to sweep their pair with Buffalo to finish a game ahead, because a split would keep the Bills a game ahead. Should the Bills underachieve with their schedule, it could turn the Week 16 game between the teams in New England into the division decider.

The Bills won the AFC East by three games last season and were six games better than the Patriots. Now the Patriots are well positioned to make them sweat to earn a repeat, perhaps into January.

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