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Patriots hold on to No. 2 seed while pushing Ravens to brink

12.22.13 at 9:37 pm ET
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The Patriots not only wrapped up the Ravens but took a big step toward a first-round bye. (AP)

The Patriots not only wrapped up the Ravens but took a big step toward a first-round bye. (AP)

BALTIMORE — The Patriots’ 41-7 blow out of the Ravens wasn’t just window dressing on their fifth straight AFC East title that was clinched before the game even began.

With the win Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Patriots held on to the crucial No. 2 seed in the AFC, which they can clinch next week with a win over the Bills at Gillette Stadium or a Cincinnati loss at home to the Ravens.

The Bengals routed the Vikings at home, 42-14, Sunday to improve to 10-5. Cincinnati clinched the AFC North when the Patriots completed their romp over the Ravens. The Bengals hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots by virtue of a 13-6 win at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 6. The 11-4 Patriots hold a one-game lead heading into the final week.

The top two seeds have a first-round bye in both conferences. Why is a first-round by so important? All five trips to the Super Bowl under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have occurred when the Patriots had a bye. The closest they have come to advancing to the Super Bowl without a bye was in 2006 when they won at home in the wild card round against the Jets and beat the Chargers on the road before losing to the Colts in the AFC championship.

The only time the Patriots have ever won three games to advance to the Super Bowl came in 1986 when they won in New York, Los Angeles and Miami before losing Super Bowl XX to the Bears.

The Patriots are 11-4 and control their destiny heading into the final week. The Patriots also have an outside chance at the No. 1 overall seed if they win and the 12-3 Broncos slip up and lose to the Raiders in Oakland. In that case, the Patriots would be the No. 1 and the Broncos would finish as the No. 2 seed.

If the Patriots lose to Buffalo and the Bengals beat the Ravens, the Patriots would finish as the No. 3 or 4 seed and be forced to play a home game in the wild card round Jan. 4-5 then heading out on the road. If that scenario unfolds, the Broncos and Bengals would receive the top two seeds and, with them, the two first-round byes. The Patriots would lose a tiebreaker with the Colts. The Patriots would finish as the No. 4 if they lose and the Colts win their season finale at home against Jacksonville.

The loss was a crushing one for the Ravens, who fall to 8-7 and saw their four-game win streak come to an end. The Ravens still can qualify for the playoffs, but their fate is no longer in their own hands. They must beat Cincinnati and hope that either Miami loses at home to the Jets, or the Chiefs beat the Chargers, or the Dolphins, Steelers and Chargers all lose.

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