The Bills (10-6) will reach the AFC playoffs for the 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 results.
Going into Week 18, the Bills are the current division leaders and No. 4 seeds. Here’s what needs to happen for the Bills to at least maintain their current position and repeat in the East:
How can the Bills win the AFC East?
Buffalo has three ways to avoid returning the title to the Patriots, also 10-6 and the current No. 5 seed in the AFC:
The Bills are big favorites at home against the Jets in Week 18. Buffalo won New York 45-17 in Week 10. The Bills wouldn’t even have to worry about No. 2 if they do what is expected.
In the unlikely development of the Jets producing a Jaguars-like surprise against the Bills, Bills fans will also become Dolphins fans for a day. New England is a close touchdown favorite in Miami, but it also lost to that team 17-16 in Week 1. So there is still considerable hope of winning the division without a win.
Simplifying this, if the Bills match or beat the Patriots’ result, they would win the AFC East. Buffalo’s current advantage is having a 4-1 division record against New England at 3-2.
Can the Bills get the No. 1 seed in the AFC?
This answer is no. Let’s say the No. 1 Titans (11-5), No. 2 Chiefs (11-5) and No. 3 Bengals (10-6) lose ahead of the Bills while the Bills win. That would see the Titans, Chiefs and Bills tie 11-6, but the tiebreaker is for the Titans, who beat both teams. Let’s say it’s a four-way tie with the Bengals winning. The Bengals would win the tiebreaker over all three teams with a 9-3 top conference record.
The Bills have a shot at No. 2 if they can tie the Chiefs alone at 11-6 while the Titans improve to 12-5 and the Bengals drop to 10-7. The Bills have the tiebreaker over the Chiefs thanks to their defeat in Week 5. The Bills will not have a one-on-one tiebreaker over the Titans (outright loss) or Bengals (minor conference record).
Going up to No. 3 is more reasonable. The Bills can do that with a win over the Jets plus a loss to Joe Burrow, laying the Bengals to rest against the Browns. There isn’t much of a difference between No. 4 and No. 3, however, as if the seeding held up during the wild card game, it would still mean just one home game before heading out on the road for the divisional round.
On the other hand, the Bills can drop to No. 7 if they can’t win the division over the Patriots. If they lose to the Jets, then victories for the Patriots, Colts (on the Jaguars) and the Chargers or Raiders (in the same game) would leave the Bills three spots, making them the last wild card in the AFC. Buffalo would be 6-6 in conference games with a loss, while Indianapolis and Las Vegas already have seven wins in the AFC before Week 18. Los Angeles would have seven with a win over Las Vegas.
There is a lot of disparity from at least one playoff game at home as the division winner to the possibility of zero as the last AFC playoff team.