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Well, we've reached the finish line of the 2021 regular season and, unlike the 2020 campaign, New England's season will stretch beyond the final week of the year and into the postseason. While we know that the Patriots have playoff football ahead of them, that's essentially all that is certain as they are set to square off against Miami in Week 18. The AFC East is 
still up for grabs for New England but, dreams of ascending to the No. 1 seed were dashed after Kansas City's win over the Broncos on Saturday. 

As it relates to the division, it's pretty straightforward: The Patriots need to beat the Dolphins in Miami and the Buffalo Bills need to lose to the New York Jets at home. That would give New England the one-game advantage over Buffalo and possibly put them in position to ascend to the No. 2 seed in the AFC. With the Jets entering Week 18 with a 4-12 record, however, that may be easier said than done. 

On top of those clinching scenarios, who the Patriots could possibly face in the opening round of the playoffs is another pressing question in New England. While there are still a number of circumstances that could unfold, the most likely opponents remain the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. As it relates to those more probable scenarios, here's how New England's playoff outlook has taken shape heading into Sunday's matchup:

With a win vs. Dolphins

  • TEN win + BUF win + IND win + CLE win = Patriots at Bengals
  • TEN win + BUF win + IND win + CIN win = Patriots at Bills

With a loss vs. Dolphins:

  • TEN win + BUF win + IND win + LV win = Patriots at Chiefs
  • TEN win + BUF win + IND win + CIN win + LAC win = Patriots at Bengals
  • TEN win + BUF win + IND win + CLE win + LAC win = Patriots at Bills

Again, there are some situations that could unfold beyond this collection above, but these are the more straightforward outcomes that may unfold during this pivotal Week 18 slate.  

Hightower ruled out for Patriots-Dolphins

The Patriots downgraded veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower to out for the regular-season finale against Miami due to a knee injury. Given that Hightower was a limited participant in practice throughout the week and a playoff spot already secured, this could be a situation where New England is opting to give one of its core players some extra time to rest up before the postseason. Hightower -- who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns -- finishes his first season back with the club starting in all 15 of his games played where he totaled 64 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Jerod Mayo a candidate for Bears job

Last week, we made a note to keep an eye on Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo as we step closer to the head coaching hiring cycle this year. Well, this week, Albert Breer of the MMQB reported that Mayo will "be in the mix" for the head coaching search for the Chicago Bears, if/when they fire current coach Matt Nagy. Mayo has said as recently as this season that his goal is to one day lead an organization and -- after he reportedly has an impressive interview with the Philadelphia Eagles last offseason -- it appears his stock is continuing to rise with other clubs taking notice. 

Belichick's favorite trait of the 2021 Patriots

It seems pretty obvious that the 2021 New England Patriots have been a team that Bill Belichick has enjoyed coaching quite a bit. A recent example that reveals the head coach's fondness for this iteration of the Patriots came this week when he was asked what his favorite trait of this squad has been this season. 

"The team has a good work ethic and they've been competitive," he said. "We've, unfortunately, started a lot of games slowly. Some, we've started well. Others, we've started slowly. We've fallen behind. For the most part, we've put ourselves to be competitive and have a chance to win at the end of the game. That's a good thing. The bad thing is to start as slowly as we have at times, but I'd say, from a competitive standpoint, we've answered the bell in every round. It hasn't always been good, but it's always been competitive. 

"It's the same with coaching. We've had our moments where we've felt good about the coaching. There've been moments where it's hard to feel good about it, but through it, all, keep persevering, keep grinding, and keep getting better. We have improved a lot. We're a much better team than we were at other points in the season. Even though I thought we had a good training camp, we didn't perform very well in the early part of the season in any area. A lot of that's improved. I think we're in a competitive position. We'll see what happens here going forward. Hopefully, we can play our best football in the coming weeks."

Looming free agents 

With the regular season coming to a close this weekend, now does seem to be an ideal time to take a quick peek at the offseason, particularly in which members of this 2021 team are scheduled to hit the open market. Here's a brief rundown at the 14 Patriots that are currently slated to hit free agency this offseason. 

There are several heavy-hitter names on this list, but cornerback J.C. Jackson may be the most polarizing once the Patriots season ultimately ends and the full attention is moved towards 2022 roster construction. Jackson has played like an elite cornerback in the league, which will warrant a sizable contract. The Patriots could always place the franchise tag on Jackson, but that will be a situation to watch develop regardless. 

March 8 is the deadline for teams to place the franchise or transition tag on a player, while the legal tampering window begins on March 14 and runs through March 16. The start of the new league year and the official start of free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 16.