If the Ravens take down the Bengals Sunday, then the New England Patriots will have the luxury of playing for either the No. 3 or 4 seed and dictate all AFC wild-card matchups.
A victorious Ravens team would move up to the No. 3 spot if the Patriots lose to Miami, setting up Ravens-Bengals matchup in Baltimore in the wild-card round. A Patriots win would keep the Ravens in the No. 4 spot and bring the Indianapolis Colts to M&T Bank Stadium in the opening round. Conventional wisdom says that the Patriots would go for the highest-possible seed, giving them the best chance to host the AFC championship. But since the NFL went to its current playoff format in 1990, a No. 3 or No. 4 see has hosted the conference championship only twice (2006 and 2008).
So the other consideration is that a Ravens' victory would give the Patriots an opportunity to choose their wild-card round opponent and path in the playoffs.
The Patriots play at 4:25 p.m. Sunday, while Ravens-Bengals play at 1 p.m. The Patriots will have the luxury of knowing the result of the Ravens' game when they take the field, and they could conceivably lose on purpose to drop to the No. 4 seed if they would rather play the Colts than the Bengals.
History suggests they've tried a similar approach previously. In 2005, the Patriots lost the final game of the regular season – also to the Dolphins – dropping them to the No. 4 seed instead of the No. 3 spot. In the loss, the Patriots played their backups. Quarterback Tom Brady came out of the game after the first quarter, they had first-year wide receiver Bam Childress playing cornerback and the most notorious play of the game was when they had 43-year-old backup quarterback Doug Flutie dropkick an extra point, a play that hadn't been run successfully in the NFL in more than 60 years.
Taking the No. 4 seed gave the Patriots a wild-card matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, which they won 28-3. Had they been the No. 3 seed, they would have faced the Steelers in the opening round. Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl that year. So it turned out to be a prudent move.
The Patriots could once again find themselves in a familiar spot this weekend, where they could go for the win to secure the No. 3 seed, or lose to get the No. 4 seed. If New England prefers a matchup with the Colts over the Bengals, then it wouldn't be surprising to see them go for the lower seed.
Also, if the standings stay as they are right now, a wild-card win over the Colts would set up a divisional-round game with the Texans, who have lost two of their last three games. But getting the No. 3 seed would set up a first-round matchup with the Bengals and then a potential divisional-round game with the Broncos, who have won 10 straight games.
Part of the argument against losing the final game of the regular season to set up a favorable playoff matchup is that winning in Week 17 builds momentum heading into the playoffs. But the Patriots don't appear to buy into that logic.
"I don't think it really matters," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said about momentum earlier this week.
Brady had a similar sentiment.
"Whatever we do this weekend isn't going to have any bearing on what happens in the playoff [game] the following week," Brady said.
The other caveat is that the Patriots could possibly have a chance to move into one of the top two seeds and get a first-round bye, if Houston lost to the Colts or if Denver lost to the Chiefs. Like the Ravens, the Texans also play at 1 p.m., so the Patriots will know the result of that game before they start.
The Broncos take on the Chiefs (2-13) at the same time as the Patriots-Dolphins game, but the New England coaches could monitor the score of that game and decide whether to sit players based on the Denver game.
Finally, the Ravens do have control over who they draw in the wild-card round. The Ravens could guarantee they play the Colts in the wild-card round by losing to Cincinnati Sunday.
Head Coach John Harbaugh said that the focus for the Ravens is to win Sunday, and then let everything else fall into place. "It's hard to predict all that," Harbaugh said. "There is just no way to be sure. Certainly, there are percentages. We've looked at all that. We understand what has to happen all across the board, as far as the way that could shake out on Sunday, but there is no way to say for sure what's going to happen, so we'll just have to see how it plays out."