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NFL playoff picture 2021 – Standings, bracket, scenarios after Cowboys-Saints, plus Week 13 outlook

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Your Thursday night NFL playoff picture update for Week 13, following the Cowboys-Saints game, goes a little like this:

  • The Cowboys are almost certainly going to win the NFC East, whether you think they are good or bad, in disarray or coming together, balanced or with glaring holes. They took care of business Thursday night against a depleted Saints team, winning 27-10 and snapping a two-game losing streak.

  • The Saints missed a major opportunity to get back into the playoff picture and now face steep odds of returning to the postseason.

This weekend’s games won’t really change the current trajectory of either team. When Week 13 is completed, the Cowboys will still be in a commanding spot in their division, and the Saints will be looking up at too many teams in the NFC wild-card race. What follows is a look at where the NFL stands with six weeks remaining until the playoffs begin. As always, we lay out the possibilities and likelihoods. Our next update will post after Sunday night’s game between the Broncos and Chiefs, and then again after an important Patriots-Bills game on Monday night.

Jump to: AFC | NFC

AFC

The quarterback of the AFC’s top seed threw four interceptions Sunday night — and his team still won. You can view that as a sign of strength for Lamar Jackson‘s Ravens. Their presence at the top of the rankings reflects a conference that is truly up for grabs among a half-dozen teams. Can the Ravens truly hold off the Patriots, Titans, Chiefs and Bills? We don’t often say this, given the competitiveness of the rivalry, but the Ravens have a strong chance of advancing their quest when they play the reeling Steelers on Sunday.

Next up: at Steelers


The Patriots keep giving us reasons to think they’re one of the best teams in the NFL. They’ve won six in a row and by at least 18 points in five of those. And overall, they lead the NFL with a point differential of plus-144. It’s additionally wild that this has all come with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who is playing well but isn’t among the league’s top 10 in Total QBR. Amazingly, at least to some, the Patriots can begin the process of locking down the AFC East in Week 13 when they travel to Buffalo. FPI doesn’t like their chances of winning the division, much less earning home-field advantage, but they’re all legitimate possibilities for the Patriots.

Next up: at Bills


The good news for the Titans is that a two-game losing streak hasn’t really damaged their standing in the AFC South, where they have a two-game lead with five games left to play. They’ll have a bye in Week 13 and then return to play the Jaguars and Steelers, two teams who are going in the wrong direction. The question with the Titans is not whether they’ll make the playoffs, but rather — given their health and the results of their past two games — whether they can be considered likely to make a deep run. At the moment, the answer is very much in doubt.

Next up: vs. Jaguars (Week 14)


The Chiefs will return from their bye week with their playoff positioning unchanged. But they now have a full game lead in the AFC West, where the other three teams are all 6-5. With that said, the division remains very much in play. Four of the Chiefs’ final six games will be against AFC West foes, including two against the Broncos and one each against the Raiders and Chargers.

Next up: vs. Broncos


The Bengals look like a different team than the one that lost consecutive games heading into its Week 10 bye. Since then, they’ve defeated the Raiders and Steelers by a combined 57 points. They’ve gotten themselves to the point where FPI likes their chances of at least making the playoffs, and they have a roughly one-in-four chance of winning the AFC North.

Next up: vs. Chargers


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.

Next up: vs. Patriots

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Dianna Russini and Bart Scott preview the AFC East showdown between the Patriots and Bills on Monday Night Football.


The Week 12 loss to the Broncos was the Chargers’ fourth defeat in their past six games. They’ve clearly turned in the wrong direction after a 4-1 start, but for now, they’re still among the AFC’s top seven thanks to their head-to-head victory over the Raiders in Week 4. As to whether they can stay here is another story. All told, the Chargers haven’t been playing consistent playoff-level football since mid-October. They’re teetering on the edge.

Next up: at Bengals


In the AFC hunt

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 streak entering Thanksgiving’s game at the Cowboys. But they went into AT&T Stadium and won a war of attrition and now have a winnable home game against Washington.

Denver Broncos (6-5)

The Broncos came out of their bye with a dominant performance against the Chargers, their third win in their past four games. It drew them even with the rest of AFC West and set them up to at least have a chance down the stretch. Four of the Broncos’ remaining six games are against divisional rivals, starting Sunday at the Chiefs.

Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

The Colts’ three-game winning streak ended with an odd home loss that featured 27 consecutive pass plays from their offense, presumably in part to beat a Buccaneers defense that was geared to stop tailback Jonathan Taylor. We found out, to no surprise, that quarterback Carson Wentz can’t carry this team. They’ll have a chance to get back on track, however, against the Texans.

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1)

Yeesh. The Steelers don’t look like anything close to a playoff team. The path won’t get any easier Sunday against the Ravens.

Cleveland Browns (6-6)

The Browns head into their bye with losses in two of their past three games, and they will face the Ravens when they return in Week 14.

NFC

The Cardinals presumably return quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins back in the lineup. They’ll need to be at full strength. Their strength of their remaining schedule ranks No. 18 in the NFL, based on FPI, but the eyeball test suggests it’s more difficult than that. Three of the five games are on the road, and two are against teams that currently have winning records (Rams and Cowboys). Plus, their Week 16 opponent (Colts) will be a tough out, as well. Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have the league’s best record on the road (6-0) through Week 12.

Next up: at Bears


The Packers are right on the heels of the Cardinals, with whom they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. And of their five remaining games, three will be at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are 5-0 this season. One of the two road games will be at Ford Field, where they’ll play the winless Lions. The Packers are very much in the running to be the NFC’s top team, both on the field and in the playoff standings.

Next up: vs. Bears (Week 14)

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Domonique Foxworth and Tim Hasselbeck argue that they trust Aaron Rodgers to lead the Packers to the Super Bowl more than Tom Brady with the Buccaneers.


The Buccaneers have now won consecutive games, scoring 68 points in the process, since a two-game losing streak had everyone around the NFL panicking. It’s hard to argue that the Buccaneers aren’t back on track. Their remaining strength of schedule ranks No. 22, and at the moment, it includes only one opponent with a winning record (Bills, Week 14).

Next up: at Falcons


It wasn’t pretty, but the Cowboys snapped a two-game losing streak on Thursday night in New Orleans and took another step toward locking down the NFC East title. Even if the Eagles, the Giants and Washington all win this weekend, FPI would still put the Cowboys’ chances to win the division at 92.4%. There will be a lot of takes about the way the Cowboys played, including a botched two-minute drill at the end of the first half to a failure to close the game out when taking over possession midway through the fourth quarter. 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.

Next up: at Washington


At this point, it’s fair to ask if the Rams are going to make the playoffs at all. They have now lost three games in a row, with quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing a pick-six in each of them, and appear in significant disarray. The Rams will get the best chance they could to regroup on Sunday, with a home game against Jacksonville, but overall, their remaining schedule is the fourth-most difficult in the league.

Next up: vs. Jaguars


The 49ers are figuring things out at just the right time. They have won three consecutive games and four of their past five, and Week 12’s victory over the Vikings will supply them with an important head-to-head tiebreaker should it be needed at the end of the regular season. The strength of their remaining schedule ranks No. 24, and an argument could be made that they’re playing better right now than all but one of their final six opponents (Bengals in Week 14). At this rate, they’ll overtake the Rams in the NFC West and the playoff standings in a matter of weeks.

Next up: at Seahawks


Yep, you read that correctly. Washington’s victory Monday night over the Seahawks allowed it to supplant the Vikings for the final wild-card spot, thanks to the best conference record (5-2) of the NFC’s three 5-6 teams. The win was Washington’s third in a row, and its remaining schedule is pretty interesting. After playing the Raiders on Sunday, it will finish the season on a five-game run against NFC East opponents: two games against the Cowboys, two versus the Eagles and one with the Giants.

Next up: at Raiders


In the NFC hunt

Minnesota Vikings (5-6)

The Vikings are fortunate to be facing the Lions on Sunday, a game they’re playing without tailback Dalvin Cook.

Atlanta Falcons (5-6)

The Falcons started 1-3 and then went on another 1-3 bender before holding on for a seven-point victory in Week 12 over the Jaguars. As improbable as it might seem, the Falcons are barely out of the sloppy NFC wild-card situation, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Saints. Stranger things have happened, but they have a pretty significant obstacle on Sunday when they host the Buccaneers.

Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The Eagles flunked a pretty basic test of playoff worthiness in Week 12, scoring just seven points in a loss to the equally anemic Giants. It’s fair to ask if they’ll squander one of the NFL’s easiest remaining schedules, which continues on Sunday at the Jets.

Carolina Panthers (5-7)

The Panthers have now lost seven of nine games since a 3-0 start. Their fade from the playoff picture is nearly complete, but they’ll have a bye week followed by a winnable game in Week 14 against the Falcons to delay the inevitable for a little longer.

New Orleans Saints (5-7)

Thursday night was a high-leverage game for the Saints, who would have moved into the No. 7 spot and raised their chances for a playoff spot to 54.2%, according to FPI. Instead, they lost a winnable game, and FPI now puts their playoff chances at 20% heading into a Week 14 game at the Jets.

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Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow prepared for loud crowd in AFC title game against Kansas City Chiefs

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CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow knows that his ears will probably be ringing on Sunday.

One of the loudest stadiums in the NFL has been a main topic of conversation as Cincinnati prepares for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Burrow said it’s par for the course this deep in the postseason.

“It’s always going to be a topic when you’re playing on the road in the playoffs,” Burrow said. “It was loud last week. We handled it OK. We had a couple of mistakes.

“But I think we’ve had a good week of practice within that noise. I think we’re going to be more well prepared for it.”

All week, the Bengals have prepared for the expected decibel levels at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Cincinnati piped in artificial crowd noise for practices inside Paul Brown Stadium that could be heard from blocks away.

During a Monday Night Football game in 2014, the crowd for Kansas City’s win over the New England Patriots set a mark recognized by the Guinness World Records for the largest crowd roar at a stadium at 142.2 decibels.

However, the stadium capacity is smaller than several college football stadiums, including those in the SEC.

“I think a lot of the guys, and specifically Joe, is ready for that because guys like him and (Ja’Marr) Chase and guys who played in the SEC played against opponents where it was hundreds of thousands of fans in the stadium,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said.

Still, the Bengals should be well prepared for the potential pre-snap disruption in Kansas City. Cincinnati has spent the week working on its nonverbal communication in anticipation of all the noise.

Cincinnati committed two false start penalties in the team’s road win over Tennessee in last week’s divisional playoff game. Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams, who played college ball at Alabama, said both stadiums can be plenty loud.

“It’s a big deal,” Williams said. “I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive. I think the SEC [stadiums] can be loud and Arrowhead can also be loud. I don’t think anyone means to slight them by saying that.”

The fourth-seeded Bengals are looking to block out the noise, upset Kansas City and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989. Williams added that at a certain point, all noise eventually falls on deaf ears, no matter the volume.

“It could be 140 decibels,” Williams said. “It could be 300 decibels. It doesn’t matter. You can have no ear drums. But as long as you’re communicating nonverbally and have a good understanding of the scheme and how to work together, that’s our plan.”

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Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert stepping down after April draft, could stay with team in new role

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PITTSBURGH — Longtime Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert will step down after the 2022 NFL draft in April, team owner Art Rooney II said Friday.

“We have left the door open, Kevin and I, to possibly have him fill an ongoing role after the draft,” Rooney said. “We will be conducting a search for a new GM starting immediately. Probably won’t make a hire until after the draft. We will be interviewing people. We’ve already interviewed two of our in-house candidates: Omar Khan and Brandon Hunt.”

Colbert’s imminent departure will leave coach Mike Tomlin as the lone standing member of the longtime nucleus of the Steelers. Tomlin signed a three-year extension with the team last year, and Rooney said Friday that Tomlin’s role will not change under a new general manager.

Colbert has worked on year-to-year deals since the end of the 2019 season and often maintained he would be around as long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger announced his retirement after 18 seasons on Thursday.

The Steelers often prefer to keep hires in-house, making Khan, the team’s vice president of football operations and business administration, and Hunt, the pro scouting coordinator, top candidates for the job. Khan has been with the Steelers for 21 years, while Hunt has been with the team for 14.

Colbert, who has been with the Steelers for 22 seasons, took over as general manager in 2010 after a decade as the director of football operations. He has been with the team for two Super Bowl titles and three AFC championships.

He served as the pro scouting director for the Detroit Lions from 1990 to 1999.

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Jerry Jones says Dan Quinn turned down head coaching job to stay with Dallas Cowboys

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FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones on Friday said Mike McCarthy’s future as head coach was never in question and that he and McCarthy worked together to make sure defensive coordinator Dan Quinn would remain with the team.

“The idea of Mike twisting in the wind wasn’t the case at all,” Jones told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. “We were trying to keep Dan Quinn and maintain continuity on the coaching staff.”

Jones said he believes Quinn turned down a head coaching opportunity to sign an extension with the Cowboys “for years to come.”

Quinn was initially signed through 2023. He is still getting paid by the Atlanta Falcons, where he was the head coach from 2015 to 2020.

Jones said Quinn is the third coordinator that the owner has gotten to turn down a head coaching opportunity to remain with the Cowboys. Jones said Sean Payton walked away from a chance to coach the Oakland Raiders in 2004, and that Jason Garrett had opportunities from the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons in 2007.

“I experienced seeing coaches turn down a head coaching job for our situation, so I really was trying hard, meeting with Dan and Mike,” Jones said.

Jones called it a “competitive situation” as to why he deferred on answering questions last week regarding McCarthy’s future.

“To give us every chance to keep Dan Quinn,” Jones said. “I couldn’t get out and speak to it publicly because I didn’t want to push a team toward [Quinn].”

Quinn interviewed with the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins. He turned down a chance to interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore remains in the mix for current head coaching vacancies, but Jones expects him to return in 2022 as well.

McCarthy signed a five-year deal as head coach in 2020. He has an 18-15 record through two seasons and finished 12-5 in 2021, winning the NFC East.

Payton’s decision to walk away from the New Orleans Saints this week opened up more questions about McCarthy’s future, considering Jones’ affinity for Payton.

“He’s well aware of our relationship and long-term friendship with Payton,” Jones said. “I haven’t talked to Sean. I’m not part of any dialogue or any decision making relative to him leaving New Orleans. My point is, we had our heads down, getting this staff in shape, particularly at the top, the coordinator level.”

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