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Why it was a successful Sunday for the Patriots, even though they didn’t play

The Patriots didn’€™t even need to take the field to have a very good Sunday.

New England, sitting at 9-3 heading into its Monday night game at home against the Texans, saw two AFC rivals go down to defeat and give a shot in the arm to their chances of landing the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture.

First, the Ravens were shocked in overtime by the Redskins, 31-28. Baltimore (9-4) would have clinched the AFC North with a win, but instead, lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2009 as Robert Griffin III (and later, backup quarterback Kirk Cousins) delivered an electrifying performance to help keep the Redskins playoff hopes alive.

As for the Ravens, they are a veteran team that is well aware of the fact that you need to be playing your best football at this time of year if you want a chance to excel in the postseason. However, they are 2-2 in their last four, with all four games decided by three points. (Compounding problems for the Ravens is the uncertainty surrounding the health of linebacker Terrell Suggs [1]. The veteran sat out Sunday’€™s game because of a torn biceps, and is a question mark going forward.)

Meanwhile, the Steelers lost to Philip Rivers [2] and the Chargers, 34-24, in a game that was nowhere near as close as the final score might indicate. (Pittsburgh fell to 7-6 on the season, and is tied with the Bengals for second place in the AFC North.) Despite the fact that Pittsburgh welcomed back starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger [3], the offense looked uneven, and never managed to get on track. The Chargers took a 27-3 lead and coasted down the stretch for the unlikely win.

Like the Ravens, the Steelers are a veteran bunch who knows the importance of playing your best football after Thanksgiving. But Pittsburgh remains a difficult team to try and figure out ‘€“ this year, the Steelers have won tough games on the road against Baltimore and the New York Giants [4], but they’€™ve also lost to the Titans, Raiders, Browns and the Chargers.

(In fact, the only place where the Patriots didn’€™t get any help this week was in Thursday night’€™s game between the Broncos [5] and Raiders, where an absolutely pathetic Oakland team submitted an all too typical performance, bowing to Denver and allowing the Broncos to move to 10-3.)

The fallout from this weekend means that if the Patriots can win their four remaining games ‘€“ Monday at home against the Texans, next Sunday at home against the Niners, Dec. 23 on the road against the Jaguars and Dec. 30 at home against the Dolphins ‘€“ they can secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture. Of course, that also comes with a first-round bye, which would be key for a team like New England that’€™s looking to get several key players healthy (including tight end Rob Gronkowski [6] and left guard Logan Mankins [7]) before the start of the postseason.

In fact, there remains an outside shot that the Patriots could still land the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but that would start with them winning out ‘€“ which would leave them with a 13-3 mark — and having current No. 1 seed Houston, currently at 11-1, lose at least two of its final four games, including Monday night’€™s game against New England at Gillette Stadium [8]. (That would give the Patriots the tiebreaker, if it came to that.) A possibility, but that would still leave the Texans with one of the top two seeds.

As of Sunday night, here’€™s a look at the remaining schedules for the Texans, Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Broncos, Bengals and Colts ‘€“ the top 7 playoff contenders in the AFC — along with their own record and strength of schedule the rest of the way:

Houston (11-1) Strength of schedule: 34-17 (.667)
Dec. 10 at New England (9-3)
Dec. 16 vs. Indianapolis (9-4)
Dec. 23 vs. Minnesota (7-6)
Dec. 30 at Indianapolis (9-4)

The toughest remaining schedule of any contender, but a win over New England on Monday night would pretty much put an end to the chase for the top seed. Two games left with the upstart Colts is intriguing ‘€“ Indy could not only help its own chances, but also help out the Patriots with win in at least one of those games.

Baltimore (9-4) Strength of schedule: 25-14 (.641)
Dec. 16 vs. Denver (10-3)
Dec. 23 vs. New York Giants (8-5)
Dec. 30 at Cincinnati (7-6)

A rough stretch for a team that’€™s struggling at this point. No easy outs here ‘€“ even the regular-season finale is on the road against the Bengals.

Patriots (9-3) Strength of schedule: 27-23-1 (.529)
Dec. 10 vs. Houston (11-1)
Dec. 16 vs. San Francisco (9-3-1)
Dec. 23 at Jacksonville (2-11)
Dec. 30 vs. Miami (5-8)

If New England wants to be assured of the top seed, it’€™ll have to run the table. If the Patriots get through the next two games, you have to feel good about their chances in the last two games.

Denver (10-3) Strength of schedule: 16-23 (.410)
Dec. 16 at Baltimore (9-4)
Dec. 23 vs. Cleveland (5-8)
Dec. 30 vs. Kansas City (2-11)

That game next week shapes up to be big ‘€“ if the Broncos can slip past the Ravens, chances are good they’€™ll run the table. That would keep the pressure on the Patriots. (If both teams finish 13-3, New England holds the tiebreaker because of its regular-season win over Denver.)

Indy (9-4) Strength of schedule: 24-13 (.649)
Dec. 16 at Houston (11-1)
Dec. 23 at Kansas City (2-11)
Dec. 30 vs. Houston (11-1)

With Kansas City on the schedule, you have to at least like their chances to finish 10-6 at the absolute worst. That should be enough to get them into the postseason with a wild card berth … which is nothing short of remarkable considering where this franchise was at this time last year.

Pittsburgh (7-6) Strength of schedule: 19-20 (.487)
Dec. 16 at Dallas (7-6)
Dec. 23 vs. Cincinnati (7-6)
Dec. 30 vs. Cleveland (5-8)

Dallas and Cincinnati have each won four of their last five, while the Browns and 3-2 in their last five games. Should be interesting, but if they somehow win the first two, you have to figure the Steelers have a great shot at finishing 10-6, which should be enough to get them in.

Cincinnati (7-6) Strength of schedule: 20-19 (.513)
Dec. 13 at Philadelphia (4-9)
Dec. 23 at Pittsburgh (7-6)
Dec. 30 vs. Baltimore (9-4)

The outcome of their last two games on their schedule will tell us if Cincinnati is playoff-worthy.