We're down to about the last quarter of the season, and the race for the playoffs is starting to get tighter as each game begins to matter more and more. It's going to be exciting to see who is able to get the big wins they need and who will be on the wrong side of the line drawn after the seventh-ranked team in each conference.
Prior to the start of the season, I predicted the final standings for each division, highlighting the teams that would make it into the playoffs when the season is all said and done. I still stand by some of my original predictions, but there are certainly teams that have surprised me, both positively and negatively, through the first quarter of the NFL season. After every four weeks I will update my previous division standings and playoff outlook to reflect what I think will occur for the remainder of the season and how the final standings will shake out. Keep reading if you want to know where your team will finish in the playoff picture this year.
x - clinch division
y - clinch wild card
1. Buffalo Bills (8-3 currently) - x
2. Miami Dolphins (7-4) - y
3. New England Patriots (5-6)
4. New York Jets (0-11)
Buffalo remains the clear favorite to win the division and host a first round playoff game. New England, while still holding an outside chance, is all but eliminated from contention in my opinion, and the Jets became the first team mathematically eliminated from the postseason last week. The Dolphins are competing for a wild card spot with basically four other teams, and that's where the parity in the AFC comes from. They'll win on Sunday against the Bengals, and then likely lose the next one versus the Chiefs. From there, they're left with a three game stretch of New England, Las Vegas, and Buffalo to close out the season. I think they need to win two of those final three games to get in, and their game with Raiders could decide which team makes it into the postseason. With how the collective wild card teams are playing recently, I still like Miami to sneak into the playoffs for the first time in a while.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-1) - x
2. Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)
3. Denver Broncos (4-7)
4. Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)
This is, and will for some time, be Kansas City's division. But this year, the Raiders, who gave the Chiefs their lone loss, have a chance to make it in as a wild card team. Las Vegas has a relatively favorable schedule to close, going up against the Jets, Colts, Chargers, Dolphins, and Broncos in their last five affairs. I think they beat the Jets, Chargers, and Broncos, but the games against Indy and Miami are toss-ups for me. Both games will carry significant playoff implications, but I'm not exactly confident about the Raiders right now after they got murdered by the Falcons last week. I'll say they lose both of those important games and ultimately finish with nine wins and be on the outside looking in.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0) - x
2. Baltimore Ravens (6-5) - y
3. Cleveland Browns (8-3)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1)
Pittsburgh is the only undefeated team in the league and looks like it will earn the top seed and first round bye in the playoffs, and Cincinnati is looking forward to next season when Joe Burrow will hopefully return. The Browns and Ravens have been trending in opposite directions this season, and Baltimore's playoff hopes are starting to fade with each passing week. However, they possess one of the easiest final stretches I've seen this season, and for that reason, I think they actually run the table and leap over the Browns en route to a wild card clinch. The Ravens have the Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars, Giants, and Bengals remaining. That game against Cleveland could be the deciding factor, but I have no reason to think the Browns will be able to win that game even if Baltimore is still missing some guys with COVID positives. The Browns finish with the Titans, Ravens, Giants, Jets, and Steelers. Cleveland could potentially win that final game if Pittsburgh decides to rest their starters, but I don't think that will actually happen. Therefore, Baltimore finishes at 11-5 and makes the playoffs, while Cleveland finished at 10-6 and just misses out.
1. Tennessee Titans (8-3) - x
2. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) - y
3. Houston Texans (4-7)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10)
The Jaguars and Texans are out of the mix, and the Colts and Titans are still slugging it out for the division crown. Tennessee knocked Indy last week to split the season series and take control of the division, and I think they'll win every game remaining except for at Green Bay to end at 12-4. I think the Colts do the same and beat all their remaining opponents but for the Steelers, and will finish at 11-5. Thus, both squads make it into the postseason, but the Titans get the benefit of a first round home playoff game. They could end up meeting in that game, which would be a really fun game to watch to see who can prevail in the rubber match.
1. Washington Football Team (4-7) - x
2. New York Giants (4-7) - y
3. Dallas Cowboys (3-8)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (3-7-1)
This division is just an absolute mess. I couldn't tell you who's going to come out on top. And neither could anyone else. Each team plays differently week in and week out, with bad performances greatly outweighing good ones. Based on recent outings and remaining schedules, I would pick Washington to outlast their competitors in the race for the least bad team in the NFC East, but that's a total shot in the dark at this point to be completely honest. I won't spend much time on this division because no one really cares about it.
1. Seattle Seahawks (8-3) - x
2. Los Angeles Rams (7-4) - y
3. Arizona Cardinals (6-5) - y
4. San Francisco 49ers (5-6)
It's just a matter of what order these top three teams will finish in at this point, because I think all of them find a way into the playoffs. They're all too good to be left out in favor of another team in the NFC North, and there's no way the NFC East gets a wild card team in (they don't even deserve to get their division winner in). But I expect Russell Wilson to lead his team to the division title, followed the L.A. and Arizona. I have no idea which one of them will find the most success in the postseason, but the NFC is much more open than the AFC, which feels like an inevitable matchup between the Chiefs and Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
1. Green Bay Packers (8-3) - x
2. Minnesota Vikings (5-6)
3. Chicago Bears (5-6)
4. Detroit Lions (4-7)
The Packers are in total control of the NFC North and will almost certainly claim the top spot at the season's end. The Vikings are playing much better now than they were at the beginning of the year, but I think it's going to be too little too late. The Bears became the only team ever to lose six in a row after starting 5-0, and their inconsistent, or barely there, quarterback play has finally caught up to them. Poor Detroit just fired their head coach and will likely find themselves where they typically finish in relation to their division rivals: at the bottom.
1. New Orleans Saints (9-2) - x
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) - y
3. Carolina Panthers (4-8)
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-7)
Much like last season, even without Drew Brees, the Saints continue to roll. Taysom Hill has proven to be a viable replacement against mediocre teams, which is all New Orleans has left on the schedule outside of the Chiefs. However, it's their defense who has come alive to make their recent blowout victories possible. The Saints haven't allowed over 13 points in any of their last four, and have held two of those opponents to only 3 points. They should easily finish atop the division and could very well secure the first round bye awarded to the conference's best finisher. The Buccaneers have really fallen off in recent weeks as their offense has struggled mightily in four of their last five. Still, they finish with the Vikings, Lions, and Falcons twice, so their postseason hopes aren't really in any jeopardy. Carolina and Atlanta are both out of contention, but I have higher expectations for the Panthers to finish in third place over the Falcons.
Written by Nick Swatson
Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.