- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
Those of us in the word business are running out of ways to say that the AFC playoff picture is complete chaos. There are teams near the top that have a decent chance to fall out of the race entirely, and there are teams outside the top seven that could still wind up winning their respective divisions. Overall, according to ESPN Stats and Information research, the 2021 NFL playoff race is the first time in 19 years that every team in a conference has at least four losses through Week 13.
Sunday, the Ravens dropped their fourth game of the season, a 20-19 loss to the Steelers that left a logjam of 8-4 teams atop the AFC. For one day, at least, the Patriots own the top seed. But they could tumble all the way to No. 5 if they lose Monday night to the Bills. Week 13 did deliver the first playoff elimination of 2021. The Texans are officially looking toward 2022 after a 31-0 loss to the Colts. (The Lions managed to avoid a similar fate after upsetting the Vikings for their first win of the season.)
Let’s run through the entire playoff picture as it stands Sunday night, with an update to come after Monday night’s game. As always, we’ll combine ESPN’s Football Power Index with a little bit of human instinct to sketch out where the league is headed. Until the chaos returns, of course.
1. New England Patriots (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 92%
FPI chances to win division: 33%
Look what we have here. In the spring of 2020, the Patriots ushered in a new era after parting ways with Tom Brady. A year and a half later, they’re back on top of the AFC, thanks to a superior conference record to the Titans and Ravens. The Patriots are the NFL’s hottest team, with six consecutive victories, but their seeding here could be quite temporary. A loss Monday night to the Bills would not only drop them from atop the AFC, but also into second place in the AFC East. In that scenario, the Patriots would finish Week 13 seeded fifth in the AFC. So, yeah, Monday night is a big game on several levels.
Next up: at Bills (Monday)
2. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 98%
FPI chances to win division: 96%
The Titans were another beneficiary of the Ravens’ loss Sunday. As they sat home on their bye, they moved right back into contention for home-field advantage. In fact, if the Bills beat the Patriots on Monday night, the Titans will close out Week 13 as the AFC’s top seed. They’ll remain No. 2 if the Patriots win, and in either event, they’ll turn their attention toward a final stretch that includes only one game against an opponent that currently has a winning record (Week 15 against the Steelers).
Next up: vs. Jaguars
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 84%
FPI chances to win division: 61%
It’s nail-biting time in Baltimore. Sunday’s loss to the Steelers knocked the Ravens out of the AFC’s top spot, tightened the AFC North race a bit and left them staring at an extraordinarily tough remaining schedule. Over their final five games, the Ravens are scheduled to play four teams that currently have winning records and one that is .500. Suffice it to say, the Ravens are within range of both the AFC’s top seed and missing the playoffs altogether. FPI still considers them the favorites in the AFC North, as it should, but the variance of possibilities is real.
Next up: at Browns
4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 88%
FPI chances to win division: 58%
The Chiefs were in a wild position Sunday night. Even after winning four consecutive games, and five of their past six, they would have been knocked out of the AFC’s top seven entirely had they lost to the Broncos. Instead, they rode their defense to a double-digit victory.
The win kept them one game ahead of the Chargers in the AFC West, and two head of the Broncos and Raiders. More importantly, they are statistically even with the Patriots, Titans and Ravens in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC. FPI is not giving them a great chance to do it at 9.9%, but it’s notable that they are even in the conversation given where they were six weeks ago.
Next up: vs. Raiders
5. Buffalo Bills (7-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 94%
FPI chances to win division: 67%
The Bills have a wonderful chance to take back the AFC narrative in Monday night’s game. A win would allow them to draw their record even with the Patriots, and the interim head-to-head tiebreaker would elevate them to the top of the AFC East and the No. 1 spot in the conference. That would hardly be the final word on the division race, given a Week 17 re-match with the Patriots, but it would be a big step. FPI is giving the Bills strong odds to pull it off.
Next up: vs. Patriots (Monday)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 75%
FPI chances to win division: 36%
The Chargers are one of the most difficult teams in the NFL to figure out. In the past month, they’ve lost to the Vikings and Broncos while defeating the Steelers and Bengals. Add it all up, and they’re squarely in the AFC wild-card race. Sunday’s win in Cincinnati was crucial in that regard. It pushed their conference record to 5-3, an important tiebreaker, and obviously gave them the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over another wild-card competitor.
They have two very favorable games remaining on their schedule, against the Giants in Week 14 and at the Texans in Week 16. Would 9-8 be a good enough record to qualify for the AFC playoffs?
Next up: vs. Giants
7. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 42%
FPI chances to win division: 23%
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The Bengals missed a big opportunity Sunday. Had they managed to beat the Chargers at home Sunday, they would have pulled even with the Ravens in the AFC North and set up a final-month race to the division title. If nothing else, they would have passed over one of their many wild-card competitors. Instead, they’re clinging to the No. 7 spot now, and with all five of their remaining opponents at .500 or better, FPI is giving them less than a 50-50 chance to make the playoffs.
Next up: vs. 49ers
In the AFC hunt
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1)
The Steelers stayed alive in the AFC race with Sunday’s big win against the Ravens, but now they have a quick turn to play Thursday night at the Vikings, and FPI is putting their chance of actually getting to the playoffs at just 19%.
Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
The Colts got back over .500 with a dominant win over the hapless Texans. While they’ll face a run of playing the Patriots, Cardinals and Raiders when they return from their bye, the Colts are in decent shape based on FPI. They currently have a 53% chance of making the playoffs.
Las Vegas Raiders (6-6)
Sunday’s loss to Washington might have been all she wrote for the Raiders, who have now lost three of their past four games. Of their five remaining opponents, four have a winning record, beginning with their Week 14 game at the Chiefs. FPI gives them a 10% chance of making the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns (6-6)
The Browns spent Week 13 in their bye, and in a weird twist, they’ll return to play the same opponent (Ravens) they most recently faced. FPI gives them a 22% chance of making the playoffs.
Denver Broncos (6-6)
The Broncos could have overtaken the Chiefs and Chargers for AFC West supremacy with a win Monday night. Instead, they could barely muster an offense and fell back in the AFC pack. As they prepare for a Week 14 game against the Lions, the Broncos now have just a 19% chance of making the playoffs, per FPI.
Miami Dolphins (6-7)
We include the Dolphins here because they have won five consecutive games heading into their bye and have a favorable matchup in Week 15 at home against the Jets when they return. But they’ll finish the regular season with games against the Titans and Patriots, and that’s largely why FPI gives them only a 6% chance to make the playoffs.
1. Arizona Cardinals (10-2)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 97%
The Cardinals picked up after their bye week in better shape than when they went into it, and now they can clinch a playoff spot with a win in Week 14. Their win Sunday in Chicago came with Kyler Murray back at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins back at receiver, putting them near full strength for the final push to secure the top seed in the NFC. But the Cardinals have a more difficult remaining schedule than either the Packers or Buccaneers, as they still have to face three teams that currently have winning records (Rams, Colts and Cowboys).
Here’s one semi-oddity to consider as the Cardinals pursue home-field advantage in the NFC: They are the NFL’s only undefeated team on the road (7-0), while both losses have come at home. As they look to hold their advantage in the NFC West, three of their final five games are at State Farm Stadium.
Next up: vs. Rams
2. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 99%
The Packers’ already sizable advantage in the NFC North grew Sunday as they sat back on their bye week. Losses by the Vikings and Bears left the Packers four games ahead with five remaining. It has been a while, of course, since we gave serious thought to anyone other than the Packers winning this division. But the clinching moment could come as early as next weekend with a win and a Vikings loss at Pittsburgh.
Regardless, it’s just a matter of time; the Packers have one game remaining (Week 15 at Baltimore) against a team with a winning record. The more pertinent question is whether they can overtake the Cardinals for the top seed in the NFC. FPI gives them a 30% chance to do it.
Next up: vs. Bears
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 99%
That’s now three consecutive wins for the Buccaneers following a two-game losing streak at midseason. Sunday’s victory over the Falcons got them to six games over .500, allowing them to match the Packers’ record. But they remain in the third seed because of a one-game deficit in the conference record tiebreaker.
Of more immediate relevance is the Buccaneers’ four-game lead in the NFC South. With three teams behind them at 5-7, a Week 14 clinching moment is a little more complicated than the Packers’ scenario. It will happen for the Bucs if they win and both the Falcons and Saints lose. Regardless, it’s a matter of time. Tampa Bay has one game remaining against a team with a winning record (Week 14 against the Bills), making it a near-lock to win the division based on FPI projections.
Next up: vs. Bills
4. Dallas Cowboys (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 90%
It wasn’t pretty, but the Cowboys snapped a two-game losing streak Thursday night in New Orleans and took another step toward locking down the NFC East title. There were a lot of takes about the way the Cowboys played, but we should probably refrain from judging anything but the final result, given the absence of five coaches — including head coach Mike McCarthy — and two players because of COVID-19 protocols. With that said, they have two games remaining against the surging Washington Football Team.
Next up: at Washington
5. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 95%
FPI chances to win division: 3%
The Rams did Sunday what should be expected of any legitimate playoff contender: They dominated the Jaguars at home. Let’s not assume, however, that the Rams have cured all the issues that prompted their now-snapped three-game losing streak. We should get a much better idea when they travel to play at Arizona in Week 14. Can they really put together a late run to overtake the Cardinals in the NFC West? That seems highly unlikely on multiple fronts.
The good news is that the Rams, after dismantling the Jaguars, are a near lock to be a wild-card team based on FPI.
Next up: at Cardinals
6. Washington Football Team (6-6)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 41%
FPI chances to win division: 7%
Sunday’s victory over the Raiders was Washington’s fourth consecutive win, completing a journey to .500 after a 2-6 start. And now things really start to get interesting. Washington has two games in the next three weeks against the NFC East-leading Cowboys. That means it can ensure a division title by winning out, though some other combinations of wins and losses could also do it as well.
But let’s not go overboard. Beating the Cowboys twice, or somehow otherwise making up two games on them over the final five games, will be a challenge. FPI gives it a 7% chance. And with two games remaining against the Eagles as well, Washington’s spot in the wild-card race is hardly ensured, either.
Next up: vs. Cowboys
7. San Francisco 49ers (6-6)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 69%
FPI chances to win division: <1%
The 49ers missed on a chance to add some heft to their wild-card status Sunday in Seattle, losing a mistake-filled game that left them more vulnerable to a challenge from the Eagles or one of the three other teams that are within one game of this spot. Now, they have one of the most difficult schedules remaining for a wild-card contender. Games at the Bengals, Titans and Rams are sandwiched around home games against the Falcons and Texans. The 49ers are 4-2 on the road already this season, but the quality of opponents in their remaining away games are formidable.
Next up: at Bengals
In the NFC hunt
Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
The Eagles’ remaining schedule isn’t as friendly as it once looked, considering it includes two games against surging Washington, but Sunday’s route against the Jets kept them in position to capitalize if either of the NFC wild-card teams falter. The Eagles have a bye in Week 14 before facing the first of those two games against Washington in Week 15. FPI says Philadelphia has a 38% chance of finishing the season in a playoff spot.
Minnesota Vikings (5-7)
The NFL should probably create a rule barring the Vikings from the playoffs after they played soft zone defense in giving up a last-play touchdown Sunday to the winless Lions. It’s the only fair thing to do. Seriously, though, the Vikings are not as far out of it as they seem and will host the Steelers on a quick turn Thursday night. FPI still has them at 26% to make the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers (5-7)
The Panthers fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady over their bye weekend. Some will interpret that as a sign that their season is over, while others will believe it gives them a chance to get back into playoff hunt. We’ll lean toward the former, even as the Panthers get set to host the Falcons in Week 14. FPI agrees, as it has Carolina at just 3% to make the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (5-7)
In the big picture, the Falcons have lost four of their past six games. Their only victories since October have come against the hapless Jaguars and the undermanned Saints. The Panthers are a beatable opponent in Week 14, but there isn’t much reason to feel optimistic about a Falcons surge in the coming weeks. Atlanta has a 3% playoff chance with FPI.
New Orleans Saints (5-7)
Thursday night was a high-leverage game for the Saints, who would have moved into the No. 7 spot. Instead, they lost a winnable game, and FPI now puts their playoff chances at 22% heading into a Week 14 game at the Jets.
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