AFC teams seeking a Super Bowl berth must go through Foxborough, a place where Tom Brady hasn’t lost in the regular season since 2006.
Here’s some hope for the challengers, though: The New England Patriots lost their only playoff game last season, routed at home by Baltimore.
Among the teams chasing the Patriots are the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by routing the Buffalo Bills 34-3 Sunday. Brady hasn’t lost a home game in the last 27 regular-season outings, and the Patriots (13-2) are unbeaten in 16 consecutive regular-season games at Gillette Stadium since losing to Pittsburgh on Nov. 30, 2008 with Matt Cassel replacing the injured Brady.
"We got a W, and that’s our biggest present, being able to come into the locker room and being able to see that hat and T-shirt," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "That’s something to be proud of."
Baltimore (11-4) still could win the AFC North — it’s tied with Pittsburgh, which already has a playoff berth, but does not own the tiebreaker with the Steelers in the division. The Ravens won at Cleveland 20-10, and must beat Cincinnati at home while Pittsburgh loses at Cleveland next Sunday.
"It doesn’t matter (what Cleveland does)," Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The only thing you can ask for in this business is to get in the dance. We’re in and we have to take care of business against Cincinnati."
Failing to win the division means Baltimore gets a wild card, something the New York Jets already own. Although the Jets (10-5) were beaten 38-34 at Chicago, they qualified when Jacksonville lost to Washington 20-17 in overtime. Just like last season, when the Jets went to the AFC title game, they will finish second to the Patriots in the AFC East.
"This was a bit odd," said Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who saw the Redskins win on TV. "We went from being down, a blown opportunity to ‘we’re in.’
"I ran in (the locker room) and I was like, ‘We’re in.’ Everybody was looking at me ... then all of a sudden everybody starts to smile and talk, the mood just kind of lightens up."
Kansas City earned its first AFC West championship since 2003 when it beat Tennessee 34-17 and San Diego lost at Cincinnati. The Chargers had won the last four division crowns.
The Chiefs improved from 4-10 last year to 10-5 with a home game against Oakland remaining.
Jacksonville’s loss did not finish it off in the AFC South. Indianapolis is 9-6 after a 31-26 win at Oakland, one game in front of the Jags. That division will be decided by next weekend’s games: Tennessee at Indy, Jacksonville at Houston.
Atlanta and Chicago already have qualified for the postseason in the NFC. The Bears have won the North and are in position for a first-round bye. If the Falcons (12-2) win at home against New Orleans on Monday night, they will have NFC home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as well as the South title. The defending champion Saints (10-4) also get a playoff spot with a victory.
Seattle was routed 38-15 at Tampa Bay, yet will win the weak NFC West by defeating St. Louis at Qwest Field next Sunday. Should that happen, the Seahawks, currently 6-9, would be the first division winner in NFL history with a losing record. The Rams are 7-8 after a 25-17 win over San Francisco that eliminated the 49ers from contention.
The Buccaneers (9-6) are alive for a wild card, but need to win next Sunday at New Orleans and get lots of help.
Philadelphia (10-4) clinched the NFC East with the New York Giants’ 45-17 loss at Green Bay. The Eagles’ night game against Minnesota was moved to Tuesday night because of blizzard conditions in Philadelphia.
Green Bay and the Giants both are 9-6, but the Packers hold the tiebreaker for a wild card thanks to their win over New York. The Bucs need to have a better overall record than those teams to get in.