Pats and the race for a top-two seed in AFC

MIAMI -- The Patriots punched their tickets to the playoffs on Sunday and climbed up the ladder in the AFC standings in the process (thanks to a Ravens loss to the Steelers).

The Patriots, now 9-3, currently share an identical record to both the Broncos and Ravens. Despite the fact that the Patriots were beaten by Baltimore earlier this season, they own the second seed in the current AFC playoff picture by virtue of the NFL's three-way tie breaking system (click here for all of the tiebreaker rules). The Patriots own the best conference record (8-1) of the three teams, meaning that if the playoffs started today, they would earn a first-round bye via a top two seed.

But the playoffs do not start today, of course, so there's much left to be decided.

Before flushing out some of the playoff scenarios and looking at upcoming schedules, here's a quick look at the AFC standings.

Division leaders

1. Houston (11-1, clinched playoff berth)

2. New England (9-3, clinched AFC East)

3. Baltimore (9-3)

4. Denver (9-3, clinched AFC West)

Wild cards

5. Indianapolis (8-4)

6. Pittsburgh (7-5)

In the hunt

7. Cincinnati (7-5)

Now a quick look at what lies ahead for each of the division leaders, and scenarios of note:


New England Patriots

Remaining schedule: vs. Houston (11-1), vs. San Francisco (8-3-1), at Jacksonville (2-10), vs. Miami (5-7)

Scenarios: If the Patriots win their remaining games, they will clinch at least the third seed in the AFC. If they win their remaining games but Baltimore also wins their remaining games (which includes a game against Denver in Week 15), the Ravens will take the second seed (Baltimore would win the head-to-head tiebreaker). If the Patriots win out and Baltimore loses at least one game, New England will take at least a top-two seed. With an upcoming game against Houston, the Patriots have a chance to make up ground toward a top seed.


Houston Texans

Remaining schedule: at New England (9-3), vs. Indianapolis (8-4), vs. Minnesota (6-6), at Indianapolis (8-4)

Scenarios: The Texans have already bought themselves some breathing room toward a top-two seed with victories over Baltimore and Denver, meaning they can clinch a top-two seed with two wins in their final four games. A win next week in New England would all but seal it, but two games against the Colts leave the AFC South still open for the taking. This team has the clearest path to a top-two seed.


Baltimore Ravens

Remaining schedule: at Washington (5-6), vs. Denver (9-3), vs. New York Giants (7-4), at Cincinnati (7-5)

Scenarios: The Ravens still control their own destiny for a top-two seed in the the AFC, as winning out would ensure that. A Week 15 game against Denver looms large, however, as they could quickly slide from second place in the AFC standings to fourth place. The AFC North is not entirely over at this point, although Baltimore has a comfortable two-game lead. Because of their head-to-head win over the Patriots, the Ravens still have the inside track on a two seed, but face a difficult schedule down the stretch.


Denver Broncos

Remaining schedule: at Oakland (3-9), at Baltimore (9-3), vs. Cleveland (4-8), vs. Kansas City (2-10)

Scenarios: Like the Patriots, the Broncos clinched their division on Sunday. They have the easiest remaining schedule of the top four teams, and are still in play for a top two seed. The aforementioned Week 15 contest against Baltimore could go a long way toward deciding that, although Denver lost head-to-head matchups with both Houston and New England earlier this season.

December is, as always, packed with playoff ramifications.

According to AccuScore projections relayed by ESPN Stats & Information, the Patriots actually have the best chance at that No. 2 seed at 47 percent. The Broncos come in second with a 30 percent shot and the Ravens a 23 percent chance. Baltimore has the most difficult remaining schedule with four quality opponents. New England has two tough opponents (Texans and Niners) and two easier ones (Dolphins and Jaguars). Denver has the easiest schedule of the group, but their loss to the Patriots could cost them in the end.

Your turn: What do you think is the most likely scenario for the Patriots? And just how important is a first-round bye for this team? Vote in the poll above and share your thoughts in the comments section.