NFL Week 11 Puts Updated Playoff Picture in Complete Chaos

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 22, 2021

NFL Week 11 Puts Updated Playoff Picture in Complete Chaos

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The holiday season arrives this week, which means the NFL season is no longer young. Traditionally, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the home stretch in this league, which often comes with a morsel of clarity regarding races for first-round byes, divisional crowns and wild-card spots.

    This year, however, has been a cluster-something.

    Nobody seems to be elite, and in a season that features 14 playoff berths (for the second time ever) and 17 games (for the first time ever), we can only count out about half a dozen teams.

    Let's run down the chaos following the 11th Sunday of this chaotic campaign.

Bill Belichick's Patriots Are Once Again on the AFC East Throne

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    Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

    The Buffalo Bills looked like a juggernaut at 4-1, while the New England Patriots lost three of their first four games and started 0-4 at home. Since then, both AFC East contenders have gone in opposite directions. And on Sunday, New England took possession of the top spot in that division thanks to Buffalo's second dud in a three-game stretch (and fourth of the season).

    That puts all the pressure on the defending division champions ahead of a Week 13 matchup between the two in Western New York, which doesn't bode well considering the death grip Bill Belichick has had on that division throughout the 21st century. This game has a critical mental aspect, and it doesn't appear to favor Buffalo.

    The Bills don't have a happy medium. They either win big (all their victories have come by at least 15 points) or lay eggs (they've had at least two inexplicable no-show performances this season).

    Meanwhile, the Pats—who by no means lack talent after an offseason shopping spree—haven't lost a game in regulation since falling to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a two-point margin in Week 4. That's a stretch in which they took the Dallas Cowboys to overtime, beat the competitive Los Angeles Chargers on the road and crushed the contending Cleveland Browns. They also smashed the Atlanta Falcons on short rest in Atlanta in Week 11.

    If the Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans next Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Bills will be terrified entering that Week 13 tilt regardless of what happens to them against the New Orleans Saints on the road this Thursday.

    Regardless, that's become one of the most anticipated games of the year. Don't make plans for the evening of Monday, Dec. 6.

Does Anyone Want the First-Round Bye in Either Conference?

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Last year at the 11-week mark, the NFL had an undefeated team, a team with one loss and a team with two losses. This year, only the Arizona Cardinals have fewer than three losses. The races for the No. 1 seeds (and the only first-round byes) in each conference have become comically jumbled.

    With the Titans' loss to the lowly Houston Texans at home Sunday, the Titans, Baltimore Ravens, Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Bills, Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals are all within one loss of each other in the AFC. That's literally half the conference!

    Meanwhile, after the Green Bay Packers lost to the division-rival Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Chiefs on Sunday, those two join the Los Angeles Rams and Buccaneers in the three-loss club. All four remain a defeat back of the league-leading but flawed Cardinals, who beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday to move to 9-2.

    It's rare for about a dozen teams to have realistic shots at the No. 1 seed this deep into an NFL season. At this point in 2020, only four teams were within one game in the loss column of the team that held the top spot in their conference.

    The Titans and Cardinals remain in the driver's seats. But Tennessee is coming off an embarrassing showing at home, and star running back Derrick Henry isn't likely to recover from a foot injury in time to save the day. They also have to travel to Foxborough next week. Meanwhile, the banged-up Cards had lost two of three before getting past the spiraling Seahawks. They have to deal with the Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Cowboys and Seahawks again during the six-game season-ending stretch that follows their Week 12 bye.

    Everything's up for grabs.

The AFC North Remains a Four-Team Race

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    The AFC North was expected to be chaotic, and it has lived up to the hype. Three of the division's four teams won Sunday, putting all four participants above .500 entering Week 12.

    The division-leading Ravens (7-3) might have their sights set on the first-round bye after beating the Chicago Bears without star quarterback Lamar Jackson, but they remain just one game up on a Cincinnati Bengals team (6-4) that beat them handily last month. The Steelers are also within reaching distance and you can't count out the talented Cleveland Browns (6-5 after beating the Detroit Lions in Week 11).

    Just 1.5 games separate the pack, and five of Baltimore's final seven games come within the division.

    There's a good chance this thing comes down to Pittsburgh at Baltimore and/or Cincinnati at Cleveland in Week 18. Long before that, the Ravens will be praying to get Jackson back in Week 12 for a matchup with the Browns on Sunday night, and the always competitive Steelers travel to Cincinnati that same day.

    This is going to be a lot of fun.

Could the Eagles Come Back to Win the NFC East?

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    For a while, it looked as though the Dallas Cowboys would run away with the NFC East. But we should have known better. Nobody runs away with that circus of a division these days, and two losses in a three-game span to the Denver Broncos and Chiefs have left Dallas vulnerable atop the East with a 7-3 record.

    Nobody else in the division is at .500, but the Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) and Washington Football Team (4-6) have each won consecutive games, while the New York Giants can join Washington at 4-6 with a second consecutive win Monday night in Tampa.

    That's unlikely, but it does seem likely somebody will continue to make a run at the Cowboys in a division that has featured a champion with fewer than 10 wins in three of the last six seasons.

    The Eagles have to be the primary challenger. They're closer than both Washington and New York, they have the advantage of hosting the Cowboys in Week 18, and they have turned a corner after a 2-5 start. Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts has shown significant signs of progress as a passer in November (while continuing to crush it as a runner). Talented running back Miles Sanders made an immediate impact in his return from an ankle injury Sunday as the Eagles handled one of the most defensively stout teams in the NFL.

    Philadelphia 40, New Orleans 29 marked the first time in nearly two years that somebody has put up 40-plus points on the Saints. It's a big deal, especially with the schedule easing up as they play five of their last six games within their weak division (the Cowboys still have to face the Saints, Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders outside the NFC East).

    It wouldn't be shocking if Philly made that Week 18 game matter.

About Those Wild-Card Races...

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    Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

    We've focused much of this breakdown on battles for top spots, but the races for wild-card positioning are shaping up to be just as bananas.

    The Steelers, Bengals and Bills are wild-card teams in the AFC at the moment, leaving high-quality squads like the Colts, Browns, Chargers, Broncos and Raiders on the outside looking in even though all are .500 or better.

    It's almost criminal that the Colts haven't lost a game in regulation since Week 3 but remain out of a playoff spot, while the Vikings, Saints and San Francisco 49ers are tied for wild-card spots with identical 5-5 records. In that wide-open NFC, the Eagles, Washington, Carolina Panthers, Falcons and even Giants are alive.

    We can only safely eulogize the Seahawks, Bears and Lions in the conference.

    In the immortal words of Terrell Owens, get your popcorn ready.

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