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AFC playoff scenarios: How much does home field matter for Patriots?

The Patriots can clinch home field throughout the playoffs with a win in Week 17.Getty Images

The Dolphins are in, the Broncos are out.

The defending Super Bowl champs saw their playoff hopes busted Sunday night in the wake of a 33-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, cementing the field of six that will head to the postseason next month in the AFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers stole the AFC North thanks to a rousing comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Houston Texans won the AFC South with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals Saturday night, and the Kansas City Chiefs clinched at least a wild card thanks to Baltimore’s loss in Pittsburgh.

They can still take the AFC West from the Oakland Raiders, who play at Denver in the final weekend of the 2016 NFL season.

Of course, the Raiders also still have the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in their sights, something they can only secure if they beat the Broncos while the Patriots lose to the Dolphins, who earned a wild card thanks to the Broncos’ loss Sunday night, in Miami.

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That berth is something that should mean everything to the New England Patriots, especially after the road they took last season in missing out on home field, leading to a loss at Mile High in the AFC Championship game.

Then again …

The Raiders were dealt a significant blow during their win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, losing quarterback and MVP candidate Derek Carr with a broken leg. That seemingly turns the Raiders into a potential also-ran once January begins, whether they have to face the Steelers in the wild-card round, or they end up securing the first-round bye.

If for some reason the Patriots have to travel there for the AFC title game, does a Carr-less Raiders team really scare anybody?

So, how much does the game in Miami really mean? Is it worth — especially after watching what happened with Carr — risking injury to Tom Brady by having him anywhere near the field in Miami? Or, with the Dolphins already happy in their wild-card position, are they more likely to play the game safe anyway in order to stay healthy themselves? The game literally means nothing more than deciding No. 1 positioning and whether the Dolphins face the Steelers or Texans.

Let Jimmy Garoppolo take the duty of beating the Dolphins. And if he doesn’t? Meh.

Big deal. Sans Carr, the Raiders are no sure bet against any opponent now. That makes the No. 1 seed a nice thing to have, but certainly not as imperative as it was a year ago.

After the Patriots’ 41-3 win over the New York Jets on Sunday, Brady said he still had every intention of playing in the regular season finale.

“It was just a quick six games before these last two games and the schedule has been pretty tough,” he said. “We have eight days before we play Miami, but I expect to go out there and try to be at my best.”

He might have expected it Saturday, but he probably shouldn’t any longer as the week progresses.

No. 1, No. 2, whatever.

It just doesn’t matter as much as it might have only days ago.

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