logoAs this improbable Patriots season moves towards its conclusion, few games will hold as much significance as today’s 4:15 p.m. showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It’s true – of the seventy-seven regular season games remaining on the 2008 NFL schedule, just five will feature a head-to-head matchup between two of the six AFC playoff contenders currently ahead of, or tied with, the Patriots.

Needless to say, in order to make the playoffs the Patriots will need to continue their winning ways (if you want to call two of their last four winning ways) while hoping that a few dominoes (a tile quite familiar to several of their players) fall their way in the process.

Of particular interest is the AFC North, where 8-3 Pittsburgh and 7-4 Baltimore both maintain a playoff pace. One team will win the division and the other will undoubtedly be a leading contender for one of the two available wild card spots. Hence the interest by the 7-4 Patriots, who still trail the Eastern division by a game thanks to their 34-31 home loss to the leading Jets.

The good news for the Patriots is that the Steelers will be involved in three of those five AFC direct matchups, counting today’s game. After hosting the Dallas Cowboys next weekend, Pittsburgh hits the road for Baltimore (currently 6th seed) and Tennessee (1st) before finishing at home with Cleveland. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Steelers and the Patriots (7th seed, presently) will end up vying for the last empty chair when the regular season music comes to a stop.

New England would do well to have a head-to-head victory chip (the first tiebreaker in nearly every eventuality) in their pocket for just such an occasion. They’ve been unable to secure the same from the Colts or the Jets in recent weeks, which only heightens the anxiety over today’s outcome. A loss to conference rival Pittsburgh would assuredly tie another anchor to their already weighted playoff ship (another lost head-to-head advantage, and a crippling fifth conference loss).

A win, though, could vault them back into a playoff seeding as early as tonight, provided lightning strikes in Cleveland or Cincinnati this afternoon. If the Patriots beat the Steelers and the Browns surprise the Colts, the Pats would take possession of the sixth seed after thirteen weeks; the same would be true with a New England win and a Cincinnati upset of the Ravens.

The Trifecta (Patriots win and the Colts and Ravens lose) would result in New England’s ascension to the fifth spot at the conclusion of today’s action. If they get no help, however, the picture will remain static even if New England wins. Though Pittsburgh and Baltimore would be tied with four losses, the Steelers would maintain the division lead by virtue of their 23-30 win over the Ravens in Week Four. The Ravens would then bump the Pats from the sixth spot with their superior conference record (6-3 to 5-4 as we speak).

It’s not like that current advantage is set in stone, though; the Ravens have the second-toughest remaining schedule of all the teams currently seeded ahead of the Pats, trailing only the Steelers (.500 to .636). They will entertain the 7-4 Redskins next week with the back half of the season doubleheader with Pittsburgh looming, followed by a trip to Dallas and a finale with the Jaguars at home.

Seemingly, the aforementioned dominoes will be there, teetering in the AFC North, as the regular season draws to a close next month. The Patriots can give them a much needed nudge by turning the Steelers away today.

Oh, by the way – the Pats can also draw back to a ‘tie’ with the Jets today, if Denver beats New York while New England disposes of Pittsburgh, but the tie is quickly broken by the Jets’ superior division record (3-1 to 3-2).

One thing to keep in mind, though; the third division tiebreaker (after H2H and division record) is W/L percentage in common games. Beyond their AFCE divisional games, the Patriots and Jets will play eight common opponents this season; Denver, San Diego, Oakland and Kansas City from the AFCW, and Arizona, Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis from the NFCW.

To date, the Jets are 3-2 against that slate (beating Arizona, Kansas City and St. Louis while losing to San Diego and Oakland). The Patriots? 4-1 (beating Denver, Kansas City, the Niners and the Rams while losing to San Diego).

A rare (and perhaps temporary) tiebreaker advantage for the Pats that could grow even greater with a Broncos upset in the Meadowlands today, and it could very well enliven the AFCE race should the Jets (winners of their last five) suddenly hit turbulence as they attempt to land their first division title in six years.

Even if the Pats lose today, they could vault back to the top of their division by Week Fifteen with New England wins in Oakland and Seattle and Jets losses to Denver and division rival Buffalo (sandwiched around a win in San Francisco). That would draw both teams even in head to head and division tiebreakers, and bring the common game tiebreaker into play.

The possibility, however remote, places yet another intriguing domino on the table for the Patriots.

Scott Benson is the Editor and Co-Founder of Patriots Daily. He can be reached at scott@patriotsdaily.com.