Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight.com joined The Drive on Monday to break down what needs to happen for the Patriots to make the playoffs.

The New England Patriots have won 4-of-5 games and are at .500 for the first time since they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs back in week four. The team is showing signs of life and Patriots fans have a right to be optimistic about the final month of the regular season.

But keep in mind, the team is still 10th in the AFC hierarchy and has just a 16-21% chance to make the postseason depending on where you look. If Bill Belichick can get the Pats to play like they showed in Sunday’s 45-0 rout of the L.A. Chargers, they’ll have a chance to win every game remaining on their schedule. If the Pats somehow win-out, they would have a 96% chance of making the postseason. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…first, let’s see how we can make those 1-in-5 odds come to fruition.

A perfect world -

Week 14:

Every game is a must win for the Patriots, starting with Thursday’s contest vs. the L.A. Rams. The Pats will enter the week 14 match-up two games out of a wild card berth and three games back in the division.

The Rams are no slouch. At 8-4 they lead the NFC West and are currently the #3 seed in the NFC playoff picture. L.A. had a much easier time defeating the Arizona Cardinals in week 13 (38-28) than the Pats did in week 12 (20-17) and are three weeks removed from an impressive 27-24 Monday Night Football victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s with good reason the Rams have opened as 6-point favorites vs. the Pats.

But let’s be homers and say the Pats pull the upset, like they did vs. Baltimore as 7-point dogs. That gets the Pats to 7-6. Now, let us look at week 14’s other key games in the AFC wild card race…

Kansas City def. Miami (8-5); Chiefs are 7.5-point favorites.

Indianapolis def. Las Vegas (7-6); Colts are 3-point favorites and Vegas in the last two weeks has lost 43-6 to Atlanta and beat the Jets who served it up on a silver platter.

Cleveland def. Baltimore (7-6 – assuming a win vs. DAL in W13); the Browns prove they’re for real.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 14:

1. KC (12-1), 2. PIT (11-2), 3. BUF (10-3), 4. TEN (9-4), 5. CLE (10-3), 6. IND (9-4), 7. MIA (8-5)

In the hunt: 8. New England (7-6), 9. Baltimore (7-6), 10. Las Vegas (7-6)

That’s right, Patriots fans. Just like that New England is back in the driver’s seat heading into a week 15 match-up with the Dolphins.

Week 15:

The Patriots travel to South Beach with one foot on the dance floor. A win against the Dolphins and in the span of two weeks they go from a 16-21% chance to make it, to the 7-seed in the AFC postseason.

Note: according to ESPN’s FPI – which we ignored for Pats vs. Rams, but that is neither here nor there – the Patriots rank 13th in the NFL while the Dolphins are 19th. So, it’s much less of a stretch to say the Pats will squeak out a victory in Miami than it is to assume a win vs. the Rams. Even if it is the torturous December trip to Hard Rock Stadium.

In the other key games…

(8-6) Las Vegas def. L.A. Chargers; Raiders are 17th in FPI, Chargers are 27th.

(8-6) Baltimore def. Jacksonville; Ravens are 7th in FPI, Jaguars are 31st.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 14:

1. KC (13-1), 2. PIT (12-2), 3. BUF (11-3), 4. TEN (10-4), 5. CLE (10-4), 6. IND (10-4), 7. NE (8-6)

In the hunt: 8. Miami (8-6), 9. Baltimore (8-6), 10. Las Vegas (8-6)

Two feet on the dace floor…now just waiting for the music to start.

Week 16:

The Pats host Buffalo on Monday Night Football. The division is wrapped up but that doesn’t lessen the importance of this game for the Pats, who can’t afford a slip up. Like the first time around, this game will come down to the final possession, but this time Cam won’t cough it up.

In the other key games…

(9-6) Miami def. Las Vegas (8-7); yes, the Raiders are the slight FPI-favorite (17th-to-19th), but this is a game Miami’s D can control to keep the ‘Phins in the mix heading to week 17.

(9-6) Baltimore def. N.Y. Giants; Ravens are 7th in FPI, Giants are 26th.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 16:

1. KC (14-1), 2. PIT (13-2), 3. BUF (11-4), 4. TEN (10-5), 5. CLE (11-4), 6. IND (10-5), 7. NE (9-6)

In the hunt: 8. Miami (9-6), 9. Baltimore (9-6). (Las Vegas [8-7] is now eliminated from postseason contention due to both New England and Miami owning the tiebreaker over them.)

Week 17:

It all comes down to the final week of the season for the Patriots against a team that has been trying to lose games all season long. The way to analyze this one is not to say the New York Jets “stand” in the way of the Pats punching their ticket to the playoffs, but rather the Pats stand in the way of the Jets clinching the #1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. No contest, the Pats B team could win this game with the magnitude of what a loss means for the Jets’ franchise.

With the win, the Patriots clinch the 3rd wild card and the 7-seed in the AFC playoffs.

AFC Playoffs:

1. KC (15-1), 2. PIT (13-3), 2. BUF (12-4), 4. TEN (11-5), 5. CLE (12-4), 6. IND (11-5), 7. NE (10-6).

A stumble vs. the Rams and a whole lot of help –

One of these next two scenarios may be the likeliest path to the playoffs for the Pats as winning out would include victories over three potential playoff teams. A daunting task for any team and certainly this Jekyll and Hyde Patriots squad.

Week 14:

L.A. Rams def. New England (6-7); Rams are 6th in FPI, Patriots are 13th.

Kansas City def. Miami (8-5); Chiefs are 1st in FPI, Dolphins are 19th.

Indianapolis def. Las Vegas (7-6); Colts are 14th in FPI, Raiders are 17th.

Cleveland def. Baltimore (7-6); while the Ravens are 7th in FPI and the Browns are 20th, this game takes on greater importance for Cleveland to win, should the Pats drop a game. Given the way the two teams are currently playing, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility the Browns prevail.

AFC playoff standings after Week 14:

1. KC (12-1), 2. PIT (11-2), 3. BUF (10-3), 4. TEN (9-4), 5. CLE (10-3), 6. IND (9-4), 7. MIA (8-5)

In the hunt: 8. Baltimore (7-6), 9. Las Vegas (7-6), 10. New England (6-7)

Two back with three to play.

Week 15:

(7-7) New England def. Miami (8-6); Pats are 13th in FPI, Dolphins are 19th.

(8-6) Las Vegas def. L.A. Chargers; Raiders are 17th in FPI, Chargers are 27th.

(8-6) Baltimore def. Jacksonville; Ravens are 7th in FPI, Jaguars are 31st.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 15:

1. KC (13-1), 2. PIT (12-2), 3. BUF (11-3), 4. TEN (10-4), 5. CLE (10-4), 6. IND (10-4), 7. LV (8-6)

In the hunt: 8. Miami (8-6), 9. Baltimore (8-6), 10. New England (7-7)

One game out with two left on the schedule.

Week 16:

(8-7) New England def. Buffalo; Buffalo is 10th in FPI, but the Pats played them close in the season’s first meeting.

(9-6) Miami def. Las Vegas (8-7); like the previous exercise, I still like Miami in this game despite the ‘Phins being the FPI-favorite.

Giants def. Baltimore (8-7); the Pats must root for the regional enemy in this one and hope the 26th ranked Giants can knock off the 7th ranked Ravens. Otherwise, the Ravens head to Cincinnati in week 17 with a chance to finish 10-6 and shut the Pats out of the postseason.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 16:

1. KC (14-1), 2. PIT (13-2), 3. BUF (11-4), 4. TEN (10-5), 5. CLE (11-4), 6. IND (10-5), 7. MIA (9-6)

In the hunt: 8. Baltimore (8-7), 9. New England (8-7). (Vegas is eliminated from contention by virtue of Miami’s head-to-head win vs. Vegas).

Time to become Bills fans, Patriots nation.

Week 17:

(9-7) New England def. N.Y. Jets; Patriots are 13th in FPI, Jets are 32nd.

Buffalo def. Miami (9-7); Bills secure the #3 seed with a victory over the Dolphins.

(9-7) Baltimore def. Cincinnati; Ravens are 7th in FPI, Bengals are 28th.

(9-7) Oakland def. Denver; Raiders are 17th in FPI, Broncos are 25th.

AFC Playoffs:

1. KC (15-1), 2. PIT (13-3), 2. BUF (12-4), 4. TEN (11-5), 5. CLE (12-4), 6. IND (11-5), 7. NE (9-7)

Patriots sneak in under the wire thanks to their head-to-head tiebreakers vs. Miami, Baltimore and Vegas, who all finish 9-7 also.

Same thing, except the Pats beat the Rams but lose week 16 vs. Buffalo –

In this scenario, you take everything that happened in the last one and simply flip the results of Pats @ Rams and Bills @ Pats. Everything else remains equal, the Pats finish 9-7 and box out Miami, Baltimore and Las Vegas.

A loss to Miami, and a ton of scoreboard manipulation –

The final way the Patriots can make the postseason is if they win three of their final four games but that one loss comes vs. Miami. If it plays out this way, Pats fans need to hope that is the only win remaining on the schedule for the Dolphins, while the Raiders and Ravens also trip and fall down the stretch.

Week 14:

(7-6) New England def. L.A. Rams; despite being 6-point underdogs, I magically have the Patriots beating L.A. in three of the four scenarios listed…

Indianapolis def. Las Vegas (7-6); Colts are 14th in FPI, Raiders are 17th.

Cleveland def. Baltimore (7-6); once again, a pair of Ravens’ losses will prove crucial.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 14:

1. KC (12-1), 2. PIT (11-2), 3. BUF (10-3), 4. TEN (9-4), 5. CLE (10-3), 6. IND (9-4), 7. MIA (8-5)

In the hunt: 8. New England (7-6), 9. Baltimore (7-6), 10. Las Vegas (7-6)

Week 15:

(9-5) Miami def. New England (7-7); December in South Beach is never kind to the Pats.

(8-6) Las Vegas def. L.A. Chargers; Raiders are 17th in FPI, Chargers are 27th.

(8-6) Baltimore def. Jacksonville; Ravens are 7th in FPI, Jaguars are 31st.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 15:

1. KC (13-1), 2. PIT (12-2), 3. BUF (11-3), 4. TEN (10-4), 5. CLE (10-4), 6. IND (10-4), 7. MIA (9-5)

In the hunt: 8. Las Vegas (8-6), 9. Baltimore (8-6), 10. New England (7-7)

Week 16:

(8-7) New England def. Buffalo; once again, teams are only separated by 3 slots in the FPI.

(9-6) Las Vegas def. Miami (9-6); Raiders are 17th in FPI, Dolphins are 19th.

N.Y. Giants def. Baltimore (8-7); unlikely, but once again likelier for the Pats’ sake than Cincy knocking off the Ravens in week 17.

AFC Playoff Standings after Week 16:

1. KC (13-1), 2. PIT (12-2), 3. BUF (11-3), 4. TEN (10-4), 5. CLE (10-4), 6. IND (10-4), 7. LV (9-6)

In the hunt: 8. Miami (9-6), 9. New England (8-7), 10. Baltimore (8-7)

Week 17:

(9-7) New England def. N.Y. Jets; Patriots are 13th in FPI, Jets are 32nd.

Buffalo def. Miami (9-7); Bills secure the #3 seed with a victory over the Dolphins.

(9-7) Baltimore def. Cincinnati; Ravens are 7th in FPI, Bengals are 28th.

Denver def. Raiders (9-7); the Pats’ playoff lives come down to the 4:25 p.m. window in week 17, where they need the Broncos to play spoilers and earn this upset.

AFC Playoffs:

1. KC (15-1), 2. PIT (13-3), 2. BUF (12-4), 4. TEN (11-5), 5. CLE (12-4), 6. IND (11-5), 7. NE (9-7)

The Patriots’ tiebreakers vs. Miami, Baltimore and Las Vegas all come into effect and slingshot the Pats into the playoffs.

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If you’ve made it this far, 1) props to you for your incredible patience of reading through 2000+ words about the AFC playoff race. And 2) if I had to bet, when we’re all said and done, I’d say the AFC playoff field looks like this –

  1. KC (15-1), 2. PIT (13-3), 3. BUF (12-4), 4. TEN (11-5), 5. CLE (12-4), 6. IND (11-5), 7. BAL (10-6).

Missing out: 8. New England (9-7), 9. Miami (9-7), 10. Las Vegas (9-7)

But, hey, we have a month to dream so we might as well do it while we still can.