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NFL playoff picture 2021 – Standings, bracket after Thanksgiving games, plus Week 12 outlook

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Welcome to a special Thanksgiving Day edition of our NFL playoff picture. If you kept only one eye on the games, or even if you watched them closely, we have a lot to discuss. The outcomes of two matchups shook up the playoff standings in both conferences. Among the takeaways:

  • The Buffalo Bills regained supremacy in the AFC East, at least temporarily. The Bills, of course, could be back among the wild-card contenders if the New England Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans this weekend.

  • The Bills’ win over the New Orleans Saints elevated the San Francisco 49ers into the NFC wild-card race. They’re currently No. 7 in the NFC standings, while the Saints’ fourth consecutive loss has them looking up at the NFC field.

  • The Las Vegas Raiders‘ win over the Dallas Cowboys stopped a mid-season slide and put them back in contention to move into the AFC wild-card race should a current contender falter.

  • The Cowboys’ lead in the NFC East isn’t yet threatened, but the surging Philadelphia Eagles can no longer be discounted in the division race.

We’ve updated those situations and more below. Look for another update after Sunday’s games as Week 12 continues.

Jump to: AFC | NFC

AFC

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 in Week 11 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 on Sunday.

Next up: at Patriots


Even without quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 11, the Ravens managed to maintain their hold on first place in the AFC North. They 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 to be for them.

Next up: vs. Browns


Will a convincing win Thursday in the Superdome be enough to pull the Bills out of a midseason spiral? They entered Week 12 having lost two of their past three games, including an inexplicable defeat to the Jaguars and a 26-point loss to the Colts. The Bills better hope they’ve figured things out, because they’re about to head into a brutal stretch of their schedule. They will play the red-hot Patriots twice in four weeks, with a game at the Buccaneers mixed in there, as well. But for a few days, at least, they’ve returned to the top of the AFC East.

Next up: vs Patriots (Week 13)

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Josh Allen finds Dawson Knox for his second touchdown of the game versus New Orleans.


The Chiefs are rolling off their fourth consecutive victory, a streak that has brought them from below .500 to atop the AFC West. 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)


It took the Patriots less than two months to recover from their 1-3 start and even briefly supplant the Bills atop the AFC East. The Bills reclaimed first place with a Thanksgiving win over the Saints, but the Patriots will retake the position if they beat the Titans in Week 12. 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


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 Week 11’s victory over the Raiders. ESPN’s Football Power Index (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


The Chargers did everything they could to fall out of the AFC’s top seven in Week 11, 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. There is still a lot to question about the Chargers, most notably their special teams, but they showed they are to be taken seriously in the AFC playoff race.

Next up: at Broncos


In the AFC hunt

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1)

The Steelers are winless in their past two games and are now out of the AFC’s top seven. It won’t get any easier when they travel to Cincinnati this weekend.

Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

The Colts have won three consecutive games and five of their past six, but prior to Week 11, the quality of the teams they beat wasn’t too impressive. That changed with a blowout victory at Buffalo. The Colts are trending in all the right directions, and the Buccaneers are their next test.

Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)

We can do nothing but tip our cap to the Raiders, whose post-Jon Gruden slide seemed well underway during a three-game losing steak entering Thursday’s game at the Cowboys. They went into AT&T Stadium and won a war of attrition, and now have 10 days to prepare for a winnable home game against Washington in Week 13.

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Anthony Brown is whistled for a pass interference penalty, which sets the Raiders up for Daniel Carlson’s winning field goal in overtime.

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. They have a road trip to Baltimore on deck.

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.

NFC

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. 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)


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? They 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


The defending Super Bowl champions broke a mildly alarming two-game losing streak on Monday night with a convincing win over the Giants, a team that entered the game ranked No. 23 in the NFL with an average of 18.9 offensive points per game. The lane is there for a high seed in the NFC bracket, as their remaining schedule includes only two teams with winning records (the Colts and Bills).

Next up: vs. Colts


Uh-oh. The Cowboys were expected to take off once they got quarterback Dak Prescott back from injury. Instead, they have lost three of their past four games. Their lead in the NFC East is not yet threatened; the Eagles would still be two games behind in the loss column even if they beat the Giants on Sunday. But it remains an open question whether the Cowboys will head into the playoffs as a genuine contender or will be in the postseason simply because they’re the least-flawed team in a weak division.

Next up: at Saints (Week 13)

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A referee takes a fall as Tony Pollard takes the kick return 100 yards to the house.


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 had 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


When you seem to play close games every week, the math says you should at least win some of them. The Vikings’ Week 11 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


The 49ers have won three of their past four, and they were able to leapfrog the Saints in the wild-card race following Thursday’s action. No one can say with certainty whether the 49ers are truly a playoff team, but sometimes these matters get decided in the postseason. Their remaining strength of schedule ranks No. 25 in the league. One caveat to keep in mind is that the Eagles, another NFC wild-card competitor, have the NFL’s easiest remaining schedule.

Next up: vs. Vikings


In the NFC hunt

Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)

The Eagles also have won three of their past four, all of which by more than 10 points. And 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 this 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 will travel to play the Dolphins on Sunday.

New Orleans Saints (5-6)

That’s now four consecutive losses for the Saints since starting quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending knee injury. Their offense had zero punch Thursday night against the Bills, and they’re now looking up at the NFC playoff field. They’ll play the Cowboys in Week 13, but the one bright spot is that four of their final six opponents have losing records.

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NFL moves to dismiss Jon Gruden lawsuit, calls ex-Las Vegas Raiders coach’s claims against league ‘baseless’

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The NFL filed a motion asking a Nevada court to dismiss former Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s lawsuit against the league, saying accusations that the NFL leaked Gruden’s old, offensive emails are “baseless” and “should be dismissed for failure to state a single viable cause of action.”

The league responded Wednesday to the suit Gruden filed in district court in Clark County, Nevada, in November. The NFL filed a motion to dismiss the case and also asked the court to stay that motion until it first rules on whether the case should be moved to arbitration.

Gruden resigned as coach of the Raiders in October with more than six seasons remaining on his 10-year, $100 million contract.

He claimed a “malicious and orchestrated campaign” was used by the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell to destroy his career by leaking the old emails that included racist, misogynistic and anti-gay language.

The emails were sent to former Washington Football Team executive Bruce Allen and others from 2011 to 2018 during Gruden’s time as the lead analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The emails came from a set of 650,000 obtained by the league in June during an investigation into WFT’s workplace culture.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on Oct. 8 that Gruden used a racist trope to describe NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith.

Gruden apologized, and then coached two days later as a listless Raiders team lost at home to the Bears.

Then on Oct. 11, the New York Times revealed Gruden sent additional emails using misogynistic and anti-gay language over a seven-year period. He resigned that evening, apologizing again and saying he never meant to hurt anyone.

“Gruden does not, and cannot, dispute that he wrote the published emails. He does not, and cannot, dispute that he sent those emails to multiple parties,” the league’s filing said. “Nor does he claim that they were somehow altered or edited and that the repugnant views espoused in them were not in fact expressed by him. Instead, Gruden filed the instant complaint against the NFL and the commissioner, painting himself as the victim in a fictional story and seeking money through baseless claims against the NFL.”

Gruden’s lawyer had said “there was no explanation or justification for why Gruden’s emails were the only ones made public out of the 650,000 emails collected in the NFL’s investigation of the Washington Football Team or for why the emails were held for months before being released in the middle of the Raiders’ season.”

The league denied leaking the emails, which had been sent to up to a half-dozen people and added that Gruden had no “expectation of privacy” for the emails.

The filing said even if the league had leaked the emails it still would not constitute “intentional interference with a contract” as claimed by Gruden because the NFL had no obligation to protect the confidentiality of the emails, had the right to disclose truthful information to the media and could have suspended or canceled Gruden’s contract because of the emails.

Raiders owner Mark Davis said in October he had reached a settlement with Gruden over the final six-plus years of his contract. Davis did not reveal the terms of the settlement.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford says toe feeling fine ahead of playoff game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford doesn’t expect his injured toe to be a factor in Sunday’s divisional-round game against the Buccaneers in Tampa, Florida.

Stafford suffered the injury in the Rams’ regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers, a 27-24 overtime loss.

“I’m feeling OK,” Stafford said Wednesday. “The toe kind of happened in that game and that was kind of a real thing, but I got a bunch of treatment on it. I’m feeling a lot better. So I don’t see anything limiting me in this game.”

Coach Sean McVay said one of the reasons he tried to put the 49ers away with their run game near the end of regulation was because Stafford was hobbled. He said Stafford had “no limitations” Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals as the Rams leaned on their run game for much of their 34-11 wild-card victory.

Stafford was 13-of-17 passing, both easily season lows, for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for a score in the first playoff victory of his 13-year NFL career.

“He felt good,” McVay said. “Everything was up and available to be called. He was feeling great.”

The Rams are uncertain about the statuses of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and safety Taylor Rapp for Sunday’s game.

Whitworth, 40, got his right knee rolled up on during the Rams’ opening play against Arizona. He played 30 of the team’s 60 offensive snaps before Joe Noteboom replaced him for the remainder of the game.

McVay said tests results haven’t indicated that the Rams need to rule Whitworth out yet. He’d be a nonparticipant if the Rams were practicing Wednesday, per McVay.

“He’s got some swelling in that knee and that ankle,” McVay said. “It’s a miracle. He’s like Gumby with the way that he got rolled up on. It was not a good looking play when you watch it on the replay. But he’s a resilient guy. He responds quickly. He’s been a quick healer. For him to be able to play and start at tackle at the age of 40 tells you everything you need to know about how blessed he is with his genetics and the way he takes care of himself.

“But we’ll see how quickly he can turn around. Not sure whether he’ll be able to go or not this week. We’ll take it a day at a time. Fortunately his scans gave us some information where we didn’t have to rule him out.”

Whitworth ranked third during the regular season in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate among offensive tackles.

Rapp, who missed the Cardinals game, remains in concussion protocol. His absence and Jordan Fuller‘s season-ending ankle injury prompted the Rams to bring 37-year-old Eric Weddle out of his two-year retirement last week to pad their safety depth. He played 19 of 56 defensive snaps while Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess started.

“With Rapp, we’re just taking that a day at a time,” McVay said. “The concussion protocol and kind of going through those strategic steps and making sure that when you are active, you’re not having any symptoms. Those are the things we’re working through right now and I know Taylor’s going to do everything in his power to be ready if he can.”

Cornerback David Long Jr. (knee) is “doing good,” per McVay. He returned one of the Rams’ two interceptions of Kyler Murray for a touchdown Monday night. McVay said backup running back Buddy Howell (hamstring) also would have been a nonparticipant Wednesday and that “everybody else would be in good shape” if the team was practicing.

McVay expects the Rams to designate linebacker Ernest Jones to return to practice from injured reserve on Thursday, thereby starting his 21-day window to be activated to the 53-man roster.

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Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield has shoulder surgery, eyes return to ‘my true self’

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield says he is on track to getting “back to my true self” after undergoing surgery Wednesday to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.

Dr. Orr Limpisvasti, the orthopedic surgeon for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, performed the surgery on Mayfield’s left shoulder in California.

“Surgery went great. Was a complete success,” Mayfield said in a video posted to social media. “Now it’s on to the road to recovery. It’s one of those steps to get back to my true self. … This is not the end of my story.”

The Browns said the likely time period for Mayfield’s recovery is four to six months. He will start physical therapy on his shoulder next week and is expected to be cleared by training camp, if not sooner, a source told ESPN.

Mayfield, who suffered the shoulder injury in Week 2 and played through it for the rest of the season, will begin light throwing in April and should be able to participate in the off-season program on a limited basis, the team said.

After the Browns’ Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mayfield admitted that he was “pretty damn beat up.”

With Cleveland already eliminated from playoff contention, Mayfield sat out the team’s season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 9.

Even though Mayfield finished 27th in the league in QBR (35.3) this season, Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry declared last week that the Browns “fully expect” the 2018 No. 1 draft pick to be their starting quarterback in 2022 and “bounce back” from his injury-plagued season.

Mayfield will be entering the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him close to $19 million in 2022 after the Browns exercised his fifth-year option last offseason.



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