As they step into the bye week, the Patriots find themselves atop the AFC as the No. 1 seed. While that's the best position you can be in at this time of the year, the standings within the conference are razor-thin. The top four seeds in the AFC -- including New England -- all have four losses on the season entering Week 14 and there are eight teams below that with six or fewer losses, creating the potential for some serious movement. 

There's no better recent example than the Patriots just a week ago. They were vaulted up to the No. 1 seed prior to Monday's matchup in Buffalo (thanks to the Ravens' loss to Pittsburgh), which set up the potential for them to either stay at the top of the conference with a win or fall all the way to the No. 5 seed with a loss to the Bills

Being able to earn that win on Monday not only helped maintain their standing, but it also continued to boost one of the team's more pivotal -- and underrated -- advantages: their conference record. The Patriots are now 7-1 on the season against the AFC, which cannot be overlooked as we forecast a path for them to keep the top speed in the conference and force the road to Super Bowl LVI to go through Foxborough. 

Conference record is the second tiebreaker in the NFL after head-to-head matchups. New England's record is by far the best mark throughout the AFC with the rest of the teams in the conference currently having three or more losses, so this could prove to be quite the advantage going forward, especially against playoff hopefuls that they have not seen this year. 

Already, the Patriots own the head-to-head tiebreakers against the Titans (No. 2 seed), Chargers (No. 5 seed) and Browns (in the hunt) in the AFC. They also have a head-to-head win over the Bills, but do have another home matchup scheduled for Week 16. New England also has the ability to earn a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Colts (No. 8 seed) when it faces them in Week 15 following the bye. 

As for the rest of the bunch, here are the current playoff teams the Patriots will not face this season, thus not having the ability to earn the head-to-head tiebreaker along with their conference record and what's ahead on the schedule: 

  • Baltimore Ravens (No. 3 seed): 5-4 conference record with three AFC opponents remaining
  • Kansas City Chiefs (No. 4 seed): 3-4 conference record with five AFC opponents remaining
  • Cincinnati Bengals (No. 6 seed): 5-3 conference record with four AFC opponents remaining 

It should be noted that these teams do cannibalize each other a bit as they play one another over the final five weeks: Ravens at Bengals (Week 16), Chiefs at Bengals (Week 17). However, with the Patriots having four AFC opponents left on their schedule to wrap up the year, it'll be important to keep these teams -- particularly Baltimore and Cincinnati -- at an arms length. 

The two toughest games left on the docket for New England will be going on the road to face Indy and hosting the Bills over the next two weeks before wrapping up the year hosting the Jaguars and visiting the Dolphins. Even if they split the final month, that'd put the Patriots at a commanding 9-3 against the AFC. That would edge them over both Baltimore and Kansas City in that tiebreaker and force Cincinnati to win out within the conference for this to even factor in.

Naturally, the Patriots maintaining the best overall record in the conference is the simplest way to earn the No. 1 seed. However, with the margins so tight, this tiebreaker could come into play and it currently points favorably to New England.