- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
We’re kicking off our weekly NFL playoff picture amid chaos, confusion and pandemonium. With most of 11 weeks in the books, it feels accurate to say the following about the NFL: There are no great teams. There are a handful of good teams. There are many teams of questionable repute. There are some really, really awful teams. But there are no great teams.
For the next seven weeks, it will be our job to synthesize that structure into a playoff bracket that makes sense. We’ll combine ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), standings tiebreakers and a bit of what our eyeballs tell us to stack the teams on a weekly basis. Week 11 showed how a massive jumble of teams in the middle can lead to weekly volatility. The Patriots leapfrogged the Bills in the AFC East, in the process prompting a few of us to wonder if they aren’t the current favorite to win the AFC. The NFC, meanwhile, will finish the weekend with only five winning teams, followed by another five that are either 5-5 or 5-6.
In summary, we know nothing. Or to put it more precisely, everything we know now could change by the time the NFL plays its final regular-season game on Jan. 9. (Remember, this season is an extra week long, thanks to the new 17-game schedule.) On with it.
1. Tennessee Titans (8-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 98.6%
FPI chances to win division: 96.1%
No team has exemplified this unpredictable season better than the Titans, who won seven of their first nine games despite facing the NFL’s most difficult schedule over that stretch. They then embarked on a much easier schedule, only to suffer a stunning home loss on Sunday to the Texans.
The defeat allowed the Colts to continue closing the gap in the AFC South, shrinking the Titans’ lead to two games with six to play. (Tennessee won both head-to-head matchups with Indianapolis.) Regardless of whether the Colts can catch them, it’s difficult to view the Titans as the clear-cut AFC favorite when two of their losses have come to the Texans and Jets — who have a combined record of 4-16. And now the Patriots, arguably the hottest team in the league, await them in Week 12.
Next up: at Patriots
2. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 82.6%
FPI chances to win division: 57.7%
The Ravens woke up to news Sunday morning that quarterback Lamar Jackson would be unavailable for their Week 11 game due to an illness, prompting the first career start of backup Tyler Huntley at Chicago. And somehow, at the end of the day, they had managed to maintain their hold on first place in the AFC North. Sure, the Bears might have helped them accomplish the task. But here at Playoff Picture headquarters, we’re more concerned about what happened than why.
The Ravens haven’t been pretty for a while, having lost to the Bengals and Dolphins and eking out an overtime win over the Vikings over the past month. But maybe that’s just how it’s going be for them.
Next up: vs. Browns
3. New England Patriots (7-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 87.3%
FPI chances to win division: 37.9%
It took the Patriots less than two months to recover from their 1-3 start and supplant the Bills atop the AFC East. Five consecutive wins — and six in their past seven games — have not only given them a division advantage but also put them within reasonable range of the top seed in the AFC. It’s all in front of them now.
The Patriots have a fortuitous home game against the AFC-leading Titans this week then play the Bills twice in a three-game stretch next month. If you’re judging postseason seedings by how teams are playing at the moment, it’s difficult to look past the Patriots as the best-situated team in the AFC (right now, of course).
Next up: vs. Titans
4. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 81.9%
FPI chances to win division: 49.3%
It’s hard to know exactly which way to overreact to the Chiefs’ victory Sunday over the Cowboys. In the big picture, it was their fourth consecutive victory, a streak that has brought them from below .500 to atop the AFC West. But it wasn’t as good as their takedown last week of the Raiders, a point at which many NFL observers declared the Chiefs “back.”
Regardless of who they really are, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the Chiefs will be among the seven teams representing the AFC in the playoffs, and more likely than not, they will be the AFC West champion.
Next up: vs. Broncos (Week 13)
5. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 44.9%
FPI chances to win division: 18.9%
There was a time when lots of people were worried about Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow’s health in returning from last season’s knee injury. Through 10 games, we can say that the concern was mostly unfounded. Just making it through 10 games didn’t seem a certainty when the season began, but he has the Bengals’ offense humming, most recently with a 32-point outburst in Sunday’s victory over the Raiders.
FPI is giving the Bengals roughly a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs, but in a wide-open AFC, they have absolutely put themselves in position to be in the December conversation.
Next up: vs. Steelers
6. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 71.7%
FPI chances to win division: 41.2%
The Chargers did everything they could to fall out of the AFC’s top seven on Sunday night, losing a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Steelers at home. But in the biggest sign yet that they are turning a corner under coach Brandon Staley and quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers stopped doing Chargers things long enough to retake the lead. Then their defense went out and closed out the game.
There is still a lot to question about the Chargers, most notably their special teams, but in Week 11, they showed they are to be taken seriously in the AFC playoff race.
Next up: at Broncos
7. Buffalo Bills (6-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 87.1%
FPI chances to win division: 62.0%
Among a small group of preseason Super Bowl favorites and winners in five of their first seven games, the Bills have crashed hard at midseason. Their Week 9 defeat at the Jaguars was one of the worst losses for a playoff contender this season and the first significant sign that all was not well with the Bills.
Sunday’s 26-point home loss to the Colts, in which Buffalo allowed five touchdowns to running back Jonathan Taylor, was gutting for a team that has prided itself on playing physical run defense. After allowing an average of 83 rushing yards per game, the Bills gave up 264 to the Colts — the most by an NFL defense this season. FPI still likes the Bills’ chances of making the playoffs, but we all have a right to be a bit shaken by what has happened in the past few weeks.
Next up: at Saints
In the AFC hunt
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1)
The Steelers are winless in their past two games, with a tie against the Lions followed by a loss Sunday night in Los Angeles to the Chargers. The Steelers are now out of the AFC’s top seven and have a 23.6% chance to make the playoffs (via FPI), and it won’t get any easier in Week 12 when they travel to Cincinnati.
Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
The Colts have won three consecutive games and five of their past six, but prior to Sunday, the quality of the teams they beat wasn’t too impressive. That changed with Sunday’s blowout victory at Buffalo. The Colts are trending in all the right directions and have a 55.9% chance to make the playoffs, per FPI. The Buccaneers are their next test.
Cleveland Browns (6-5)
It’s incredible that the Browns have won six games given the obvious impact quarterback Baker Mayfield’s left shoulder injury is having on his performance. Oh, and don’t forget the messy presence and departure of wideout Odell Beckham Jr. If you’re picking one team to fall out of the wild-card race due to exhaustion, it’s the Browns. FPI is giving them a 1-in-3 chance of making the postseason. They have a road trip to Baltimore on deck.
Las Vegas Raiders (5-5)
The Raiders’ slide following the departure of coach Jon Gruden appears to be in full swing. They have lost three in a row and are back to .500 after a 5-2 start, with a quick turnaround to play on the road Thursday against Dallas. FPI indicates Las Vegas has a 10% chance of making the playoffs.
Denver Broncos (5-5)
The Broncos will return from a bye with a .500 record, but consecutive games against the Chargers and Chiefs will likely knock them further from the AFC wild-card race. They already have just a 21.7% chance of emerging in the AFC playoff hunt, according to FPI projections.
1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99.9%
FPI chances to win division: 91.3%
Let’s tip our cap to the Cardinals, who have traveled quite a journey since their last-minute loss in Week 8 to the Packers. Playing without quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, they have gone 2-1 with wins at division rivals San Francisco and Seattle. And the Packers’ loss Sunday in Minnesota allowed the Cardinals to ascend atop the NFC.
The Cardinals have become the fourth team in NFL history to start a season 6-0 in road games and will get their MVP-caliber quarterback back sooner than later. FPI is calling them a virtual lock to make the playoffs and giving them a better than 90% chance to win the NFC West.
Next up: at Bears (Week 13)
2. Green Bay Packers (8-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99.2%
FPI chances to win division: 91.3%
In most scenarios, the Packers with Aaron Rodgers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But what should we say about a Packers team that is losing key players to injury on a weekly basis? A unquestionably depleted team lost Sunday in Minnesota, and Rodgers himself is admittedly hobbled by a toe injury he suffered while in isolation following his COVID-19 diagnosis.
The Packers are still in really good shape in the NFC North, leading the Vikings by 2½ games, with a Week 17 matchup against Minnesota at Lambeau Field looming. But at the very least, the Packers’ depth is going to be tested during December football.
Next up: vs. Rams
3. Dallas Cowboys (7-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 97.2%
FPI chances to win division: 90.4%
The Cowboys have lost two of their past three games after a 6-1 start, including a 14-point home loss to the Broncos and a 10-point road loss to the Chiefs. To be honest, those defeats are about the least harmful to the Cowboys’ playoff hopes as two losses could be. They won’t affect any of the most oft-used tiebreakers in NFC playoff seeding, including records in the division and the conference.
And thanks to the annually weak NFC East, there really isn’t a challenger surging in their direction quite yet. As a result, FPI is still giving them a 90.4% chance to win the division.
Next up: vs. Raiders
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 97.4%
FPI chances to win division: 90.1%
The Super Bowl champions are hoping to break a mildly alarming two-game losing streak on Monday night. They’re fortunate enough to be hosting a Giants team that ranks No. 23 in the NFL with an average of 18.9 offensive points per game. If they win on Monday, the Buccaneers will move up to No. 3 in the NFC standings, thanks to their Week 1 victory over the Cowboys.
Next up: vs. Giants (Monday night)
5. Los Angeles Rams (7-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 92.2%
FPI chances to win division: 8.5%
It has been a quick tumble for the “all-in” Rams, who have fallen from the top spot in the NFC to the wild-card picture with two consecutive losses. Regardless, the Rams’ Week 11 bye came at a good time. They have two weeks to get newcomers Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. more acclimated to their program, in addition to figuring out why quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown four interceptions during the two-game skid.
They better hope they get it figured out, because their upcoming schedule includes not only the Packers but the Cardinals, Vikings, Ravens and 49ers. That will be a tough run.
Next up: at Packers
6. Minnesota Vikings (5-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 55.4%
FPI chances to win division: 8.7%
When you seem to play close games every week, the math says you should at least win some of them. The Vikings chose an important matchup to come out on the positive side; their victory over the Packers boosted their division and conference records. Both are key categories for tiebreakers, and their 4-2 NFC record is the reason they are ahead of the Saints and 49ers (whom they play next week) in the NFC playoff standings.
Overall, the Vikings have played in seven consecutive games that have been decided by seven or fewer points, a stretch that either has hardened them for a playoff run or will ultimately cost them entrance into the postseason altogether.
Next up: at 49ers
7. New Orleans Saints (5-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 42.3%
FPI chances to win division: 8.0%
At the moment, at least, the Saints sure don’t look like a playoff team. They’ve lost three consecutive games following quarterback Jameis Winston’s season-ending knee injury, and Sunday’s 40-29 loss to the Eagles was the worst yet.
There is some hope for stabilization, if tailback Alvin Kamara (knee) can get back on the field soon. He has missed two of these three most recent losses. But the Saints are holding on by a thread in the middle-heavy NFC. Their advantage over the 5-5 49ers is strength of victory. For better or worse, the Saints will be right back on the field Thursday.
Next up: vs. Bills
In the NFC hunt
San Francisco 49ers (5-5)
The 49ers have won three of their past four, prompting FPI to actually like their chances of overtaking the Saints for a better spot in the wild-card race. At the moment, it is giving the 49ers a 53.1% chance to advance to the postseason, better than the Saints, Eagles or Panthers. Minnesota is on deck for San Francisco.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)
The Eagles also have won three of their past four, all of which by more than 10 points. FPI is only giving them a 38.5% chance to make the playoffs, but when you see two games apiece against Washington and the Giants remaining, as well as a matchup against the Jets, you see a pretty favorable schedule for staying in the wild-card race. Philly has a road game against the Giants next week.
Carolina Panthers (5-6)
Can the Panthers really be a playoff contender with a quarterback they signed out of free agency and inserted into the starting lineup within two weeks? Cam Newton might be Superman, but he isn’t a magician. Carolina has an 7.7% chance of making the playoffs, per FPI, and it will travel to play the Dolphins next.
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