Live NFL Playoff Picture Coming into Focus as Top Seeds Are Nearly Established

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 27, 2021

Live NFL Playoff Picture Coming into Focus as Top Seeds Are Nearly Established

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    The picture is becoming (slightly) clearer.

    However, with two weeks plus a Monday nighter remaining in this lengthened 2021 NFL regular season, 23 of the league's 32 teams remain within one game of a playoff spot.

    Let's break down the state of the race following the 16th Sunday of the 2021 NFL campaign.

Playoff Picture Through 16 Weeks

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press


    1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
    2. Tennessee Titans (10-5)

    3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
    4. Buffalo Bills (9-6)

    5. Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
    6. New England Patriots (9-6)
    7. Baltimore Ravens (8-7)

    8. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)
    9. Las Vegas Raiders (8-7)

    10. Miami Dolphins (7-7)
    11. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)

    12. Cleveland Browns (7-8)
    13. Denver Broncos (7-8)



    1. Green Bay Packers (12-3)
    2. Dallas Cowboys (11-4)
    3. Los Angeles Rams (11-4)
    4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4)

    5. Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
    6. San Francisco 49ers (8-7)
    7. Philadelphia Eagles (8-7)
    8. New Orleans Saints (7-7)
    9. Minnesota Vikings (7-8)
    10. Atlanta Falcons (7-8)

    11. Washington Football Team (6-9)

A Quarter of the League's Teams Have Lost Exactly 7 Games

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    In the AFC, the Ravens, Chargers and Steelers lost their seventh game of the season on Sunday, while the Raiders won to move to 8-7. Now, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are tied for the last wild-card spot in that conference, while the Steelers sit half a game back thanks to what must be a vexing tie with the Detroit Lions. The Dolphins, though, can steal the seventh seed from Baltimore with a win to move to 8-7 on Monday night.

    In the NFC, the 49ers and Eagles are 8-7 after the former lost Thursday, and the latter won Sunday. They currently own the last two playoff spots in that conference, but the Saints can make that a three-way tie with a win Monday night against Miami.

    Among the uphill battles, Pittsburgh's is the steepest for now. The Steelers have several teams to leapfrog, and that number could still grow this week. That ugly Week 16 loss to the Chiefs severely damaged their odds, and they have a tough finish with the Browns (at home) and Ravens (on the road).

    The edge in the AFC has to belong to the Raiders, who have won back-to-back games to save their season. Closing out in Indy and at home against the Chargers isn't easy, but the Ravens have lost four straight and still have to play the Rams and Steelers, while the Bolts have lost two in a row.

    That Week 18 tilt between the Raiders and Chargers in Vegas could decide who claims the last playoff seed in the AFC. And if the Raiders pull it off, it'll be a hell of a story, considering the tumultuous season they've endured thus far.

    Meanwhile, with a 6-4 conference record and a three-game winning streak going, the Eagles are in particularly sweet shape in the NFC. The Saints have an extra game to win to keep up, and Philly closes out against slumping Washington and a Dallas team that might not have much of anything to play for. The 49ers do own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Philadelphia, but they have to play the Rams on the road in Week 18.

The AFC Still Has 3 Intriguing Divisional Battles

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Patriots could have won their 17th AFC East crown in a 19-season span Sunday, but now, they no longer control their own destiny following a tough home loss to the Bills. Buffalo has reclaimed the top spot in that division thanks to a 4-1 divisional record (compared to 3-2 for New England).

    The Pats look like they are fading with back-to-back losses coming off their Week 14 bye. They still have a good chance at finishing 2-0 with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dolphins on the closing slate, but Buffalo finishes with home games against the Falcons and Jets.

    Neither team can afford to make a mistake.

    The same applies in the AFC South, particularly in the case of the Colts. They beat the Cardinals Saturday to remain one game back of Tennessee, but the Titans own the head-to-head tiebreaker and now need just one win against either Miami or the Houston Texans to wrap up the division.

    Meanwhile, the Bengals expanded their lead in the AFC North by crushing the Ravens, while Pittsburgh and Cleveland also lost this weekend. Cincinnati is one win away from capturing first place for the first time since 2015. However, they have to deal with the Chiefs in Week 17 before traveling to Cleveland in what could be a de facto division title game in Week 18.

    Of course, the Ravens or Steelers could still act as wrenches there. They play each other in Week 18, but that might not mean much if Cincy wins out or if either falls to the Rams or Browns, respectively, in Week 17.

The Cardinals Are Collapsing Again

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    There's also one divisional crown up for grabs still in the NFC, but all of the momentum belongs to that division's new leader. The Rams have won four in a row following a road victory over the Vikings on Sunday, while the Cardinals lost their third consecutive game Saturday night against the Colts.

    The Cards were cruising before dropping five of their last seven games in 2020, and it looks as though that wasn't an aberration. The offense has gone completely flat, and now they have to travel to Dallas before closing with an always-tough Seahawks team.

    L.A.'s closing schedule (at Baltimore, home for San Francisco) isn't much easier, but the Rams have a one-game edge, and it's getting late.

    The one thing the Cardinals have going for them? If they can rebound and finish 2-0, it'll only take one Rams loss for Arizona to steal the division title back from Sean McVay's squad.
    Do they have it in them? This will be a big test for Kliff Kingsbury and Co.

Chiefs, Packers Closing In on 1st-Round Byes for 2nd Consecutive Year

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    The NFL hasn't had the same two No. 1 seeds in back-to-back seasons since 1982-83, but it's increasingly likely that will change in about two weeks' time, as the Chiefs and Packers continue to roll atop their respective conferences.

    Kansas City destroyed Pittsburgh Sunday to extend its winning streak to eight games, while the Packers became the first 12-game winner this season with a victory Saturday over the Browns. They're not winning as crisply as the Chiefs right now, but they've got a one-game edge on the Rams, Bucs and Cowboys.

    That said, the Cowboys will have the tiebreaker over Green Bay if they win out, and the sheer quantity of teams just one game back means the Packers have a very small margin for error against Minnesota and Detroit in Weeks 17 and 18.

    It's harder to envision anyone leapfrogging the Chiefs, who do finish with tough road matchups with the Bengals and Broncos but are on a roll. Only the Titans are within a game of K.C., though Tennessee does own the head-to-head tiebreaker, as well as an easier finish to the year (Miami at home, Houston on the road).

    In other words, both Super Bowl I participants have some work to do to secure those top seeds yet again.

Monday Night's Dolphins-Saints Matchup Is Huge

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    Barring a tie between the Dolphins and Saints on Monday night at the Caesars Superdome, we'll lose one member of that eight-team, seven-loss club, leaving one of those squads in big trouble.

    A Miami win would be particularly critical because it would extend the Dolphins' winning streak to seven games. What's more, it would be a statement road victory for a team that hasn't been taken too seriously because of its soft schedule, and it would officially move the Dolphins into a playoff spot entering Week 17.

    The Saints would still need more to happen with a win on Monday, but the good news is they finish up against the Carolina Panthers and Falcons, while the 49ers still have to play the Rams and the Eagles still have to face the Cowboys.

    New Orleans still has a shot here, but Sean Payton's team can't afford to fall to 2-5 at the Superdome this season on Monday evening.