Those of us in the word business have been running out of ways to say that the AFC playoff picture is complete chaos. But on Monday night, we started to get some clarity. A wind-influenced game in Buffalo finally gave us an idea of where the AFC is going. The Patriots, just as we all predicted, won a 14-10 road game over the Bills by running on all but three of their offensive plays. The win lifted the Patriots to the top of the conference and pushed the Bills back into an eight-team competition for the AFC's three wild-card spots.
The AFC still has plenty of questions. 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 & Information research, the 2021 NFL playoff race marks the first time in 19 years that every team in a conference has at least four losses through Week 13.
Week 13 also delivered 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 by upsetting the Vikings for their first win of the season.)
Let's run through the entire playoff picture as it stands Sunday night. As always, we'll combine ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) 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 (9-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 98.5%
FPI chances to win division: 66.3%
The Patriots' throwback season continued Monday night with their seventh consecutive victory. The win put them in the driver's seat in the AFC East and gives them by far the best chance to clinch home-field advantage as the AFC's top seed, per FPI. This was a huge leverage game for the Patriots. Had they lost, their FPI chances to win the division would have been just 15.5%, with an 8.5% chance to clinch home-field advantage.
The Patriots now have a Week 14 bye -- the latest in NFL history thanks to the expanded 17-game season -- to rest up for the stretch run.
Next up: at Colts (Week 15)
2. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 97.8%
FPI chances to win division: 96.3%
The Titans benefitted from the Ravens' loss Sunday, but the Patriots' victory Monday night prevented them from returning to the top spot in the AFC. Regardless, as they sat at home on their bye, they moved right back into contention for everything their season once seemed headed for, including home-field advantage in the postseason. For now, 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: 83.3%
FPI chances to win division: 61.5%
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, Baltimore is 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: 88.5%
FPI chances to win division: 56.9%
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 ahead of the Broncos and Raiders. More importantly, they are statistically even with the Titans and Ravens, and just a half-game behind the Patriots, in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC. FPI is not giving them a great chance to do it at 10.8%, but it's notable that they are even in the conversation given where they were six weeks ago.
Next up: vs. Raiders
5. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 76.6%
FPI chances to win division: 36.7%
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 Los Angeles' conference record to 5-3, an important tiebreaker, and obviously gave the Chargers 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
6. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 42.2%
FPI chances to win division: 21.9%
There's no way to sugarcoat it. The Bengals missed a big opportunity Sunday. Had they managed to beat the Chargers at home, 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, Cincinnati is clinging to the No. 7 spot now, and with all five of its remaining opponents at .500 or better, FPI is giving the team less than a 50-50 chance to make the playoffs.
Next up: vs. 49ers
7. Buffalo Bills (7-5)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 84.4%
FPI chances to win division: 33.7%
The Bills missed a massive opportunity Monday night to put themselves in position to win the AFC East and challenge for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Ultimately, though, the Patriots looked more comfortable on a classic night in western New York. Had the Bills managed to pull out a win, they would have had a 62.6% chance to win the division and a 42.3% chance to clinch home-field advantage. Now, they're more likely to be fighting for an AFC wild-card spot, with a tough schedule that includes games against the Buccaneers and at the Patriots.
Next up: at Buccaneers
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Josh Allen darts a 14-yard pass to Gabriel Davis for the touchdown to put the Bills on the board.
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 18.6%.
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. Indianapolis currently has a 53.7% 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 Las Vegas a 10.1% 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 Cleveland a 20.9% 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 Sunday night. Instead, they could barely muster an offense and fell back in the AFC pack. As Denver prepares for a Week 14 game against the Lions, it now has just a 20.8% 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 4.6% chance to make the playoffs.
1. Arizona Cardinals (10-2)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99.9%
FPI chances to win division: 96.4%
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 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 Arizona pursues home-field advantage in the NFC: It is the NFL's only undefeated team on the road (7-0), and both losses have come at home. As the Cardinals 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: 99.9%
FPI chances to win division: 99.7%
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 Green Bay winning this division. But the clinching moment could come as early as next weekend with a win and a Minnesota 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 25.8% chance to do it.
Next up: vs. Bears
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3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99.9%
FPI chances to win division: 99.8%
That's now three consecutive wins for the Buccaneers after 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 Tampa Bay's four-game lead in the NFC South. With three teams behind it 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: 98.6%
FPI chances to win division: 89.2%
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. That said, Dallas has two games remaining against the surging Washington Football Team.
Next up: at Washington
5. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 95.2%
FPI chances to win division: 3.6%
The Rams did Sunday what should be expected of any legitimate playoff contenders: They dominated the Jaguars at home. Let's not assume, however, that Los Angeles has cured all the issues that prompted its now-snapped three-game losing streak. We should get a much better idea when the Rams 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: 40.2%
FPI chances to win division: 8.0%
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 Washington a 8.0% chance. And with two games remaining against the Eagles as well, its 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: 68.6%
FPI chances to win division: 0.1%
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. San Francisco is 4-2 on the road already this season, but the quality of opponents in its remaining away games is 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 rout against the Jets kept them in position to capitalize if either of the NFC wild-card teams falters. 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 37.9% 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, Minnesota is not as far out of it as it seems and will host the Steelers on a quick turn Thursday night. FPI still has the Vikings at 25.4% 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 3.5% 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 3.3% 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 21.6% heading into a Week 14 game at the Jets.