The Bills (10-6) will be making the AFC playoffs for a third consecutive season and for the fourth time in five years when the 2021 NFL season ends. Whether Buffalo goes there as the AFC East winner again or returns to wild-card status depends on Sunday’s outcomes.
Going into Week 18, the Bills are the current No. 4 seed and division leaders. Here’s look at what needs to happen for the Bills to at least keep their current position and repeat in the East:
How can the Bills win the AFC East?
Buffalo has three paths to keeping from giving the title back to the Patriots, also 10-6 and the AFC’s current No. 5 seed:
1. Bills win
The Bills are massive home favorites against the Jets in Week 18. Buffalo won at New York 45-17 in Week 10. The Bills wouldn’t even need to worry about No. 2 if they do what’s expected.
2. Patriots lose
In the unlikely development of the Jets producing a Jaguars-like shocker against the Bills, Bills fans will become Dolphins fans, too, for a day. New England is a near-touchdown favorite in Miami, but it also lost to that team 17-16 in Week 1. So there’s still some considerable hope to win the division without a win.
3. Bills tie and Patriots tie
Making this simple, should the Bills either match or better the Patriots result, they would win the AFC East. Buffalo’s current edge comes in having a 4-1 division record vs. New England being 3-2.
Can the Bills still get the No. 1 seed in the AFC?
This answer is no. Say the No. 1 Titans (11-5), No. 2 Chiefs (11-5) and No. 3 Bengals (10-6) all lose ahead of the Bills while the Bills win. That would make the Titans, Chiefs and Bills all tied at 11-6, but the tiebreaker goes to the Titans, who beat both teams. Say it’s a four-way tie with the Bengals winning. The Bengals would win the tiebreaker over all three teams with a superior 9-3 conference record.
The Bills do have a shot at No. 2 if they can be tied alone with the Chiefs at 11-6 while the Titans improve to 12-5 and the Bengals fall to 10-7. The Bills have the tiebreaker over the Chiefs thanks to beating them in Week 5. The Bills won’t have one-on-one tiebreakers over either the Titans (head-to-head loss) or Bengals (lesser conference record).
Getting up to No. 3 is more reasonable. The Bills can get that with a win over the Jets plus a loss by Joe Burrow-resting Bengals at the Browns. There’s not much difference between No. 4 and No. 3, however, as if the seeding holds during wild-card play, it would still mean oly one home game before going on the road for the divisional round.
On the flip side, the Bills can tumble all the way to No. 7 if they can’t win the division over the Patriots. If they lose to the Jets, then wins by the Patriots, Colts (at the Jaguars) and Chargers or Raiders (in the same game) would drop the Bills three spots, making them the final AFC wild-card entry. Buffalo would be 6-6 in conference play with a loss while Indianapolis and Las Vegas already have seven wins in AFC play going into Week 18. Los Angeles would have seven with a win over Las Vegas.
There’s a lot of disparity from at least one home playoff game as a division winner to the chance for zero as the AFC’s last playoff team.