This much we know: The Patriots will play at least one more game after this Sunday. What we don’t know is when it will be and who will it be against.
As Week 17 approaches, the range of possibilities for the Patriots’ playoff seeding isn’t a whole lot clearer than it was a week ago.
The Patriots could finish as high as the top seed in the conference or as low as the fourth seed, which would mean a rematch with the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Good fortune would have to befall the Patriots in order for them to secure a top-two seed (and the accompanying first-round bye), as both Houston and Denver control their own destiny for the top seeds in the conference.
If either team falters, however, and the Patriots take care of business against the Miami Dolphins, they would once again earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, and would take the top seed if both Denver and Houston lose.
There’s a number of factors in play this Sunday, and we haven’t even scratched the surface on the task at hand: Miami.
It was just four weeks ago that the Dolphins pushed the Patriots to the brink in a 23-16 game (which clinched a fourth consecutive AFC East crown for the Patriots), and this team has proven to be more competitive than most expected.
And while the players and coaches are locked in on the Dolphins, with the playoffs just around the corner, it’s natural from the outside to have an eye on both this Sunday and potential playoff opponents as well.
With all circumstances in mind, here’s a look at what to watch for in Week 17:
1. Texans-Colts outcome. Part of the equation for the Patriots’ playoff fate will be decided by the Texans and Colts matchup at 1 p.m. on Sunday. While the Patriots players won’t necessarily be watching the game, one would have to believe they’ll know the result of the game before they take the field at 4:25 p.m. Should the Texans lose, the Patriots will know precisely what’s at stake, and a top-two seed is more than enough motivation for this team against the Dolphins. (Note: The Patriots will have a close eye on the Broncos-Chiefs game as well, but Denver kicks off at the same time as New England.)
2. The Patriots’ approach. Should Houston win, the chances of the Patriots earning a top-two seed grow slim, as the 2-13 Chiefs have really struggled this season. If Denver were to go up early on Kansas City, might the Patriots adjust their strategy as it relates to playing starters the entire game? This factor might come into play more later in the game if Denver holds a late lead of its own.
3. Gronk Watch. Tight end Rob Gronkowski spoke to the media on Wednesday, a suggestion that he’s further along in his recovery from a broken forearm. But he’s not quite there yet, and might not be ready for Sunday. He’s practiced this week on a limited basis, and his availability for this Sunday appears to be strictly limited to a medical decision, not a competitive situation.
4. Start fast, cut down turnovers. The Patriots have fallen behind 31-3 and 10-0 over their past two games, and need to find a way to get on track early against Miami. The offense has also been hurt by turnovers, particularly early interceptions by quarterback Tom Brady, who has four in the past two games. Don’t count on Brady’s struggles lasting much longer, and look for the Patriots’ offensive efficiency to pick up early in the game this Sunday.
5. Protecting Brady. It was against the Dolphins in Week 13 that a streak of 11 sacks allowed in four games by the Patriots began, and the test will be stiff this Sunday in slowing down Cameron Wake off the edge. Wake, voted a Pro Bowl starter on Wednesday, is amongst the most disruptive players in football, and gave an ailing Sebastian Vollmer fits in Week 13. Protecting Brady is always a priority for the Patriots' offense, and it will need to show it’s ready to handle a big task this Sunday against Wake and the Fins.