Biggest Takeaways for NFL Playoff Picture in Week 13 as NFC, AFC Races Tighten
December football just feels...important. You know when you're watching the action on a Sunday afternoon/evening with company from the Christmas tree or menorah (or anything else that signifies the holiday season), it's going to be a little more special and a lot more intense.
The home stretch is officially here, and playoff positions, first-round byes and home-field opportunities are up for grabs across the board.
With one game still remaining Monday night, let's break down the state of the race following the 13th Sunday of the 2021 regular season.
Playoff Picture Through 13 Weeks
1. New England Patriots (8-4)
2. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-4)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
5. Buffalo Bills (7-4)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)
7. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1)
9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
10. Las Vegas Raiders (6-6)
11. Cleveland Browns (6-6)
12. Denver Broncos (6-6)
13. Miami Dolphins (6-7)
1. Arizona Cardinals (10-2)
2. Green Bay Packers (9-3)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3)
4. Dallas Cowboys (8-4)
5. Los Angeles Rams (8-4)
6. Washington Football Team (6-6)
7. San Francisco 49ers (6-6)
8. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
9. Minnesota Vikings (5-7)
10. Carolina Panthers (5-7)
11. Atlanta Falcons (5-7)
12. New Orleans Saints (5-7)
13. New York Giants (4-8)
14. Chicago Bears (4-8)
15. Seattle Seahawks (4-8)
The AFC North Is Once Again a Circus
When the Ravens held a 10-3 fourth-quarter lead over the Steelers Sunday, it looked like we'd finally have some significant separation in the AFC North. The Bengals had already lost to the Chargers, and the Browns were off, so the Ravens had a chance to stomp on Pittsburgh while opening up a nice two-game lead on second-place Cincy.
Instead, Pittsburgh came back to win a thriller by a single point when the Ravens failed on a two-point conversion in the dying seconds. And now, just two games separate the entire division, with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh sandwiched between 8-4 Baltimore and 6-6 Cleveland.
What's more, the Ravens are now just 1-2 in divisional games, while the seemingly immortal Steelers are once again haunting the rest of the division.
Can the Ravens get past their offensive issues? The schedule is daunting, as they finish up with Cleveland, Green Bay, Cincinnati, the Rams and Pittsburgh.
Are the Bengals too inexperienced for this fight? That was a major letdown against the Chargers, and their remaining schedule is also challenging. However, they're at least already 3-0 against the Ravens and Steelers.
Are the Steelers going to somehow overcome a watered-down roster compared to years past and avoid a losing record for the 18th year in a row? They have life but still have to travel to Minnesota, Kansas City and Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the embattled Browns at least have had some time off before closing out with Baltimore, Las Vegas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cincy, but that ain't easy, and they've got a mountain to climb.
Monday's Buffalo-New England Matchup Could Have Super Bowl Implications
Each of the last eight teams to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl got there after enjoying a first-round bye. Nowadays, only the top seed gets a bye, and at the moment, that spot in the AFC belongs to Bill Belichick's Patriots.
But that could change if the Bills leapfrog the Pats with a win Monday night, in which case we'd have a four-way tie among the leaders of each AFC division at 8-4. That would be completely bananas entering the final five weeks of the season, but even a Patriots victory would make things mighty spicy.
The Pats would be forced to sit and watch on their Week 14 bye as Baltimore, Tennessee and Kansas City attempt to match them at 9-4, and the Bills wouldn't be dead yet either, as those two meet again in Week 16.
Still, there's a pretty decent chance whoever wins this game will wind up with that sole first-round bye in the conference. So yeah, again, the stakes are high on Monday Night Football.
The Path Becomes Even Clearer for Kansas City atop the 8-4-Happy AFC
Yup, just a few weeks after many of us wrote them off, the Chiefs are tied for first place in the conference after a Sunday night victory over the division-rival Broncos.
Sure, it's a massive tie, and they currently rank fourth among those four after the tiebreakers are applied. But the Chiefs are now riding a five-game winning streak, the Ravens are not playing well, the Derrick Henry-less Titans have come back to earth with back-to-back losses, and the Bills and Pats might spend so much time beating up on each other that they both fall off.
They don't have any particularly easy games remaining on their schedule, but they've been here and done this. Right now, it'd be hard to bet against them landing the top seed in that conference for the third time in the last four years.
Could the NFC East Send Three Teams to the Postseason?
It's become commonly known as the "NFC Least," but one of the most popular/derided divisions in the NFL might actually send as many as three teams to the 2021 playoffs.
Dallas remains relatively comfortable in first place with an 8-4 record after beating New Orleans in New Orleans Thursday night, while Washington and Philadelphia are tied in the win column with San Francisco in the chase for two of the three NFC wild-card spots (the Eagles have played an extra game and are a loss back) after beating the Las Vegas Raiders and New York Jets, respectively, on Sunday.
Both have plenty of momentum, with Washington riding a four-game winning streak and Philly on a 4-2 run. And neither has a juggernaut remaining on their respective schedules, with both teams only playing divisional games from here on out.
This is a division that has sent two teams to the playoffs just twice in the last 11 years, but now they could have three for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
Is this Bizarro World?
The NFC Wild-Card Race Remains a Gong Show
If the NFC East sends three representatives, that would have a lot to do with the fact the NFC is real weak beyond Arizona, Green Bay and Tampa Bay, and, to an extent, Dallas and the Rams. Nobody else has a winning record, and five teams that are either 6-7 or 5-7 are within one game of multiple playoff positions.
Plus, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are back in the picture despite a 4-8 record after beating the 49ers to move two games back of wild-card positioning, alongside the Giants and Bears. Three of their next four games are against teams with four or fewer wins, so they could certainly still make a run at an 8-9 record, and that very easily could be enough in that conference this year.
One current NFC wild-card team in potentially big trouble? The Vikings, who just lost to the previously winless Detroit Lions and still have to face the Steelers, Rams and Packers.
It's still too early to start counting potential wins and losses for every team involved, but the next five weeks are going to be wild.
It's Still a Three-Team Race atop the NFC
At the top of the NFC, the Cardinals held serve and moved to 7-0 on the road with a victory over the Bears Sunday, and they should be viewed as the fave now that quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins are back from injury.
Still, the Bucs remain just a game back following their Week 13 road win over Atlanta, which moved them into a tie with the idle Packers. So while the Cowboys and Rams remain in contention for that No. 1 seed following wins over the Saints and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, it's extremely likely this will come down to Arizona, Tampa and Green Bay.
The Cards don't have another easy out on their schedule, and that includes a Week 15 trip to Detroit because the Lions are feisty. Beyond a tough Week 14 home matchup with Buffalo, the Bucs could easily finish their second consecutive season on a long winning streak when they close out with the Saints, Panthers, New York Jets and Panthers again.
Meanwhile, the Packers still have to travel to Baltimore (and Detroit), and Cleveland could give them a hard time at Lambeau. They also trail the other two teams in this race by a significant margin in point differential. Therefore, a slight edge might belong to Arizona and Tampa Bay right now.